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Historian Arrested While Protesting Renaissance Casino Demolition

By Gustavo Solis | November 17, 2014 4:29pm
 Michael Henry Adams launched a one man protest against the demolition of the Renaissance Casino.
The Renaissance Casino
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HARLEM — A local historian was arrested over the weekend for protesting the demolition of the historic Renaissance Casino — once the premiere venue for black society from 1920 to 1979.

On Sunday morning, Michael Henry Adams, a historian who has written two books on Harlem architecture, staged a one-man protest in front of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, which once promised to preserve the historic structure but sold it for $10 million earlier this year.

However the new owners, BRP Development Corporation, filed plans to demolish the building in order to make room for a condominium a couple of weeks ago, as first reported by New York YIMBY.

"I chanted for 45 minutes, 'Save Harlem Now,' the police came and told me that I was disturbing the peace," Adams said.

When an officer asked him to leave, Adams said, "You're gonna have to arrest me cause I'm not leaving," according to the summons for disorderly conduct.

The Renaissance Casino, on the corner of West 137th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, was built in the 1920s by followers of Marcus Garvey who wanted to have a catering facility that would be as fine as any comparable facility in the city, Adams said.

It instantly became the leading venue for parties and community events not just in Harlem but all over New York. It also hosted Joe Lewis fights and was the home of a local all-black professional basketball team, he added. Former Mayor David Dinkins had his wedding reception there, according to The New York Times.

New designs call for 134 mixed-income residential units, retail space, a community space for churches and a 67-car garage. Twenty percent of the units will be affordable, BRP spokeswoman Zoe Tobin said.

The plan contradicts what the Abyssinian Development Corporation — the church’s real estate organization — originally intended for the structure when they asked the Landmarks Protection Commission not to protect the building in 2007, according to Adams.

The reason they opposed landmark protection was because Abyssinian had plans to save the casino’s exterior and build a 13-story apartment building. Landmark protection, they claimed, would "basically kill the project," according to a 2007 article by the New York Times.

Former mayor David Dinkins and Comptroller Scott Stringer backed Abyssinian’s request. Neither Dinkins nor Stringer responded to inquiries.

Because the Abyssinian Development Corp. no longer owns the Renaissance Casino, they declined to comment.

"That was in 2007, you will have to speak with someone at the church about that," a spokeswoman, who refused to give her name, said when asked about their plan to protect the historic building’s facade.

The church spokeswoman said all retail questions need to be addressed to Abyssinian Development Corporation.

Adam’s fight to preserve the building goes beyond the Renaissance Casino. He has seen a number of historic buildings — including the Audubon Ballroom, Lenox Lounge, and several of the nightclubs made famous during the Harlem Renaissance — be threatened with demolition over the years.

When those buildings are destroyed, they are replaced by expensive condos that end up displacing the people of Harlem, Adams said.

"Our heritage in Harlem is under threat and the irony is that not only is the destruction of all these buildings erasing the history of African American achievement in Harlem but the buildings that replace these sites are being filled with people who displace the people of Harlem," the preservationist said.

In Central Harlem, only 3 percent of buildings are protected by the designation of historic district, compared to 26 in the Upper West Side and 10 for all of Manhattan, according to a 2013 Community Board 10 report.

"It is a place of importance that is equal in terms of black history as Paris and Rome is to white history," he said. "Yet people are trying to destroy everything that makes it special and that is immoral."