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East Harlem Deserves Historic District, Columbia Report Says

By Jeff Mays | May 19, 2011 6:58am | Updated on May 19, 2011 6:45am

By Jeff Mays

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

HARLEM — East Harlem, with its historic architecture and continuing status as an immigrant hub, has enough assets to support at least two historic districts, according to a study.

The 14-week project, conducted by students from Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, found the neighborhood has 19 buildings that should be individually landmarked.

They include La Marqueta, the old Benjamin Franklin High School and Rao's Restaurant.

A historic district—or two—would help protect the potential landmarks and an area that until recently has not seen the same type of development as other parts of Harlem and Manhattan.

"East Harlem has maintained the identity of a working man's neighborhood with row houses and tenements and public housing projects that are hugely influential," said Kate Wood, an adjunct assistant professor who led the students in the study.

The study area encompassed in the report — "East Harlem: Preserving the Working Man's Manhattan"— ranges from Park Avenue to the FDR Drive and from  112th Street to 120th Street.

The proposed East Harlem Historic District, which encompasses most of the study area, contains two distinct styles of housing. In the southern area are the NYCHA superblock developments. The northern end contains more row houses and tenements.

The so-called Early East Harlem Historic District encompasses the area between 119th and 120th streets between First and Second Avenues. The area contains brownstone row houses on 120th Street "built in a gilded age, Italianate style," and tenements on 2nd Avenue in "simple colonial revival style," according to the report.

"You see all these layers that are basically thinking about affordable housing," said Wood. "The area has provided affordable housing and places for small business to thrive for hundreds of years."

And that fits with the area's role as a landing pad for immigrants. The various churches recommended for landmark status reflect the waves of immigrants that have traveled through East Harlem.

"Part of the history of East Harlem in the 20th century and the present is a neighborhood that is often settled by first generation immigrants," said Hunter Armstrong, executive director of Civitas, a group that promotes urban planning on the Upper East Side and in East Harlem.

"It's been a neighborhood where many people can thrive and develop themselves, and in the case of immigrants, learn what its like to live in New York City."

That legacy could come under threat as East Harlem sees new development such as the East River Plaza mall and the Second Avenue Subway. The New York City Housing Authority is also embarking on development on its super block complexes.

There are opportunities for development without destroying historical structures. For example, some tenement buildings in the neighborhood have fallen on hard times and have been left vacant above the street retail level.

The report recommends certifying the area as a city historic district and proceeding with designation as a full National Register Historic District.

"The architectural fabric and history is there," said Wood.

But this isn't the first time that area residents have tried to gather the momentum for a historic district in East Harlem.

Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, said gaining a historic district can take anywhere from three to five years once the process gets going, but starting the process is the difficult part.

There are currently 102 historic districts in the city and 1,276 individual landmarks.

A push for a Murray Hill historic district began in the 1970s and was finally accomplished in 2002. Getting a historic district along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx started in the 1980s and is just now being considered by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

"You need both a meritorious area that is cohesive and has basic integrity of historic fabric, you need a strong community drive and political support. And then you just need the Landmarks Preservation Commission to agree with you and put it on the calendar," Bankoff said. "It's not complicated, just difficult."

Armstrong said many of the pieces are already in place. Community Board 11 chair Matthew Washington and the executive committee have indicated their support for the exploration of a historic district.

"The report will be really useful in giving to the community and educating everyone and doing outreach about the history and significance of that corridor," added Armstrong.

Recent events also add an urgency to the process. The city's Economic Development Corporation is seeking a developer for the Corn Exchange Building on Park Avenue and East 125th Street after years of neglect.

A failure to develop the landmarked property led to four stories being sheered off of the building because of safety hazards.

The effort to save the Washburn Wire Factory, which was demolished in 2002 to make way for East River Plaza, is another example, said Armstrong. The building could have been reconfigured— as older factories and department stores in Chelsea have been— to accommodate big-box retailers.

"That was a real lost opportunity," said Armstrong. "That's why we need to start thinking now about the future of the neighborhood and what of the past people of the neighborhood want to hang on to."