Track 4: Diversity, Population Change, and Gentrification in the Preservation Dialogue
The 2011-2015 renovation of thirty-six late nineteenth-century tenement buildings in Harlem represented an unprecedented achievement in the history of the New York City Housing Authority. It was a private-public partnership aimed at rejuvenating a long-neglected public housing project, now surrounded by a quickly gentrifying neighborhood. The project required a balance between the improvement of conditions for residents, the restoration of historic built fabric, and prevailing budgetary concerns. The defining design challenge of the renovation was the combination of individual tenement buildings into three separate apartment buildings. Though ostensibly the renovation of 36 tenement buildings, the project was an attempt to rehabilitate the street as a whole, regenerate the image of public housing, underline the environmental impact of architectural intervention, and confirm the real value of maintaining historic fabric in gentrifying neighborhoods.
These concerns coalesced in the treatment of the front stoop. As part of the street frontage, the stoops had to be approached within the context of the historic preservation guidelines imposed by the State Historic Preservation Office and the National Park Service, from whom the project received critical tax credits. Functionally, the relationship between the stoops and the buildings behind changed dramatically with the renovation. The stoop doors were no longer entrances to anything, a public entry for a privileged group. Their role was polarized – either they were fire stair exits (egress for the entire building) or not doors at all but disguised windows into living rooms, studio spaces or offices. The doors transformed from being universally semi-public access to being split between wholly public exits and wholly private viewports. The stoops themselves continue to occupy a legal and spatial gray area, spanning the property line into the public sidewalk. This ambiguity is further expressed in cultural interpretations of the stoop, which is both heralded as the urban forum and derided as a den of crime.
In the end, perhaps historic fabric was prioritized too heavily over historic character (understood here to involve performance and tradition). Battles were picked, and efforts were concentrated on providing the best possible private space at the cost, perhaps, of public and public/private spaces. The overall impact remains to be seen – better, worse or simply different. Doubtless much was gained in private, in space, quality and privacy, but something was likely lost in public. At best one can see the banishment of social activity from the stoop as the overeager internalization of community space, a mistaken association of stoop culture with criminality and an overactive paternalistic impulse in public housing. At worst, it represents the sanitization of a street for the benefit of gentrifiers, and the suppression of elements, activities and scenes associated with old Harlem, poor Harlem, black Harlem.