By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — The massive plaza in front of the Harlem State office building at 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard is known as African Square. But with its drab concrete benches and open, windswept spaces, and smattering of giant planters, it resembled no such thing.
"The state had a generic plaza rehabilitation in mind but I thought people in Harlem deserved something that focused more on the heritage of the people in Harlem," said Willie Walker, general manager for the 23-story Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building.
In 2006, the State Office of General Services partnered with the Harlem Community Development Corporation to come up with the African village concept. With $50,000 from the development corporation, designers and scholars looked at 15 villages throughout Africa and adopted elements from each.
"We knew the plaza design was not meeting the needs of the community. And as the neighborhood evolved, we really wanted to to recognize the importance of the African-American and Caribbean footprint," said Thomas Lunke, director of planning and development for the Harlem Community Development Corporation.
When it's finished, the village will have a black granite representation of the Nile River running through it. A black granite wall running along the "river" will feature etchings that tell the story of Harlem.
There will also be a water feature, a stage, digital kiosks and a stepped area with trees. The current underutilized breezeways will be enclosed to create a screen wall that can be used to broadcast images and two large cultural rooms for community programming space.
The first part of the project is a two-year, $11 million plan to waterproof the plaza and shore up the space so that the garage below can support the new plaza. It's ahead of schedule by five months and about $1.5 million below budget, according to Walker.
The Harlem Community Development Corporation aims to continue its long-term goal of raising another $10 million to complete the village. The plan is to spread the word about the potential long-term benefits of the project.
"We see this as a way for the community to invest in itself and express its individual culture to the world and in turn the the world would come invest their time and energy with tourism and other projects," Lunke said.
The idea is to take the concept of the African village square as the center of cultural and civic life and import it to Harlem. The African village square is a place where the sacred and the secular intersect. There is the acknowledgement of the past but also a permanent space for discussion and activities beneficial to the village's future.
"The whole concept is that this is the open square, the gathering place," said Walker.
Tthe usable space of the plaza and the lobby will increase dramatically once it's finished. Lunke said the project is being viewed as a cultural and economic one. Since 125th street is Harlem's main thoroughfare for commerce, the hope is that the project will spur others along the street. It will also attract continued visitors looking to experience Harlem's culture and history.
Walker beams like a proud father when he talks about the plaza, which is visible from his second floor office. He makes no secret of his love of all things Afrocentric. Walker is known for wearing his collection of 100 different Kente cloth outfits and the walls of his office are filled with African and African-American art. But his focus, he says, remains on the people of the "village" of Harlem.
"My goal is to continue to open this building up to the public. This is their home," Walker said. "I want them to understand that it belongs to the people of this community."