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Harlem's Historic Fire Watchtower to Get $4 Million Makeover

By Jeff Mays | August 28, 2013 5:21pm
 A crumbling fire watchtower at the acropolis of Marcus Garvey Park has been in place since 1936. Now with a $4 million infusion of city money, the last remaining cast iron watch tower in the country will be fully restored and, if a plan from Councilwoman Inez Dickens comes to fruition, also be used as a giant wi-fi hot spot serving Harlem.
Harlem Fire Watchtower to be Restored
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HARLEM — Harlemites have been trying to save the crumbling fire watchtower at the acropolis of Marcus Garvey Park since 1936.

Now with a $4 million infusion of city money, the last remaining cast iron watch tower in the country will be fully restored and, if a plan from Councilwoman Inez Dickens comes to fruition, also be used as a giant wi-fi hot spot.

The new life for the watchtower comes as Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer became the latest politician to contribute city funds to restore the structure. The $1 million commitment from Stringer is being joined with $1.75 million from Dickens and $1.25 million from Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

"This watchtower has watched over the Harlem community since 1857 and now we will watch over the watchtower," said Stringer Wednesday atop the acropolis. "This is a great part of history in Harlem."

Constructed in 1857, the 47-foot watchtower was once one of eight in the city that volunteers  would climb to watch for fires, ringing the 10,000 pound bell if they spotted a blaze.

The system worked to limit the spread of fires in the city for decades until the professionalized firefighting force and fire alarm boxes in each building in 1878 made the system obsolete. But residents still wanted the structure to remain in place.

In 1955, residents fought a plan by Robert Moses to tunnel through the acropolis to widen Fifth Avenue. It was named a city landmark in 1967 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

"For people in Harlem it's a connection to the past. They have shared memories of coming together here," said Syderia Chresfield, president of the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association who recalled her aunt talking about how she fell in love at the watchtower 60 years ago.

Over time the structure begun to crumble, with the city taking emergency measures on a few occasions to keep it from collapsing.

These days, the structure is held in place by white, bolted pieces of steel. After Hurricane Sandy, members of the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association say they found chunks of the watchtower spread across the acropolis.

"This is a project that should have been tackled long ago because this is considered one of our crown jewels in Harlem," said Laurent Delly, vice president of the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association.

With a restored tower, Dickens says the site can become a tourist attraction.

"They will come here and then they will go to the surrounding vendors and stores," Dickens said. "I look at it as an investment to not only bring tourist dollars but as an investment in history."

Dickens is also talking with Bruce Lincoln, owner of Urban Cyberspace, a firm that develops next generation Internet technologies, about using the restored tower as an "omni directional super wi-fi hotspot."

Before that happens, the tower will be taken down piece by piece, said Angel Ayon, a consultant with Israel Berger & Associates who began studying the watchtower 13 years ago as a student at Columbia University and who created the website Firewatchtower.com.

The cast iron will have to be cleaned and the joints will have to be replaced with stainless steel. Missing parts will have to be fabricated from scratch.

But given the watchtower's history, Ayon, who called the watchtower a "spiritual icon" said the work is more than worth it.

"It has been standing over Harlem all these years through the good times and the bad times," he said. "It's truly a symbol of endurance."