28 February 2008

Our Burden Grows

I haven't said anything to date about the City's stultifyingly stupid and misguided plan to rezone 125th Street. But a recent article in the New York Times, which featured a mind-blowingly narrow-minded comment by the Department of City Planning deeply inappropriate chairwoman, Amanda Burden, has compelled me to weigh in. So here goes: The plan is stultifyingly stupid and misguided.

Surprised I think it's a bad idea? Yeah, I didn't think so. But, call me naive—I am surprised that somebody, anybody could think this was a good idea. The African-American community of Harlem sticks it out through thick and (mostly) thin, remaining in place so as to hold on to its history and heritage in the once-glorious, but long-blighted neighborhood, and how does the City repay them? By opening the gate to blue-chip development. Bring in those office towers, where the locals won't be able to rent space! Bring in those condos, where the locals can't afford to live! Tear down the low-scale buildings, some part of the landscape for 100 years, and cast the open, airy street in darkness!

Why is glass, steel, office space and luxury housing this administration's answer to every city planning "problem." Is there no other way to revitalize a neighborhood? Must every neighborhood look like a place where Bloomberg could work and live? Are anonymous condo complexes more attractive than brownstones, however tumbledown? Is an anodyne doorman lobby better than a bumptious bodega?

To Burden's mind, probably so. Which brings us to that very telling comment of hers. She told the Times that "The idea that the street needed development hit her, she said, when she attended a recent Roberta Flack concert at the Apollo with a friend who works on the street. After the concert ended, Ms. Burden said, she asked her friend where they should eat. `Downtown,' the friend replied. "There should be a million different eateries around there, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to frame and control growth on 125th Street. The energy on the street is just remarkable, and it’s got to stay that way."


I'd be embarrassed for her if I weren't so furious. Dining choices? For upper-crust twits? That is a reason to overhaul a street, to irrevocably change its personality, erase the legacy of a people who have lived and died there for a century? You know what? If I had gone to that Roberta Flack concert and was hungry afterwards, I would have known where to eat. I would have known where to go. Anyone who knew the first thing about Harlem would have. The place may not have had white tablecloths or a snooty hostess or careful lighting, but it would have had good food, some of it of a kind you can't find the better of anywhere in the City. Sylvia's, Amy Ruth's, Rao's and Patsy's, just to begin with the legendary places. There is wonderful Senegalese food to be found. A Zagat's will tell you about plenty more.

Much Jean-Georges open something on old 125 for Harlem to past muster?

Wait a minute! It's all coming together now. Mayor Mike likes Subway sandwiches and Cheeze-Its. The Parks Department doesn't like the Red Hook Ballfields food vendors. Burden doesn't think there is anything to eat in Harlem. It's all so clear! The Bloombergians hate good food! No wonder they're so miserable.


Anonymous said...

What I don't understand about Bloomberg is his 66% approval rating. We've had some mayors who were mediocre, but none (at least in my lifetime) quite as hellbent on the destruction of the city.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

I don't get it either, baha. People naturally think rich people are smart about everything, I guess.

thegayrecluse said...

Umm, hate to disagree with you, Lost City, but 99 percent of the people I know who actually LIVE uptown crave investment/development. 125th is a complete mess and needs a lot of work. I invite you to walk it from end to end and tell me that you don't agree.

realistism said...

It does seem like a naive comment from Burden, but she hits on the fact that there are few healthy or even middle-of-the road quality restaurants on 125th street. You cannot assume to represent the black community. Maybe they want better choices for eateries also.

On top of that, your argument is flawed because Harlem was once a vibrant Jewish neighborhood. Shouldn't they, by your logic, be offered incentives to come back? Harlem is not static.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Yes, of course Harlem needs development. I'm just saying this is not the kind it needs. This is the kind of development that erases everything that's there down to the roots, as if it's all worthless. This kind of development doesn't help the people who are already there and striving to make the neighborhood better; it forces them out. I'm asking the City to try to be a little more creative (as opposed to not creative at ALL) in their intentions toward revitalizing the area. Work with the building blocks that are there. Respect the character and history of the place. Anyone can man a steamroller. And I've walked down 125th Street. It needs help. But it's not a complete mess. There's stuff worth saving.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Realistism: I would not presume to represent the black community in Harlem. My opinions on the proposed redevelopment scheme, as well as the eating choices in Harlem, are my own. Though on the former front, I believe my gripes have been echoed throughout the community, and in even more vociferous terms. As for Harlem's history, you're right. It used to be a Jewish nabe. It's been an African-American community a LOT longer. You know what it's never been? Uninteresting and corporate.

David Krulewitch said...

Sorry Lost City, but you don't live in that area and you happen to not know what you're talking about. First, lets take the restaurants you mentioned. If one were to see a show at the apollo the only one that is close to there is sylvia's which is a phoney baloney tourist trap. Their food is rubbish. Amy Ruth's is ok, but that is 10 blocks from the apollo. Patsy's is on 119th and 1st, a mile walk from the apollo and their food except for the pizza is basically inedible. Rao's is even farther away on 114th and pleasant, and you cant get a table there unless your connected. Don't just reel off names of places, the food options are legitimately limited in central harlem if you don't like fried food. You also don't give them credit for trying to rezone the area with entertainment and arts uses in mind, the rezone stipulates that no banks can occupy the first floor of buildings on 125, something you would probably be in favor of...

Brooks of Sheffield said...

You're right, David. 125th Street should be flattened because there are no decent places to eat. And Greenwich Village should be done over because there's no place to park! One question: Why are so many of the people who DO live in Harlem (unlike myself) so against the plan as well?

Anonymous said...

The lack of restaurants and many other amenities is accurate. And she didn't say that she wanted to change the neighborhood because there were no good restaurants. She said, as you quoted, that the idea hit her when... Since then City planning has conducted a thorough review of 125th street and has come up with the proposed development. Please don't just pick at people's words and take everything out of context.

If you have some serious specific issues with the plan please voice them. It sounds to me like you haven't read the plan at all.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

No, I haven't read the plan, Harlemite. I have read the many news accounts of the plan. This is often how information is disseminated in large urban areas. Governments papers and materials are made available to the press, which when analyzes and interprets them, and puts together a concise account for the consumption of the reading public. But perhaps you're right. If citizens don't take the trouble to go down to City Hall and individually read every proposal put forth by the government, they have absolutely no right to complain about what it done to their neighborhoods. I assume from your comment, that you have read the entire plan in detail. Please tell us all about it.

Unknown said...

Rezoning is EXACTLY what Harlem needs. People are intrinsically afraid of change, even if the status quo means dilapidated buildings, empty lots, methadone patients on the corner and nothing to eat but McDonald's and Dunkin Donuts. The people who oppose the rezoning are the same ones who wanted to keep the peep-shows and porn shops in Times Square before it was cleaned up. How many years has Harlem been ignored by city hall? How long has Harlem languished in utter neglect? Now finally someone is paying attention, trying to bring change and progress, attracting investment and what do you do? Complain? Give me a break. I welcome the rezoning. Why should the rest of Manhattan get all the development dollars? It's about time we develop Harlem, clean up the streets and restore it to its former glory.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

OK. I've gone to the City Planning website and read the entire proposal. Still don't like it. Particularly interesting is the Department's wish to make 125th Street "a premier arts, culture and entertainment destination." Why does it have be a premier destination? How about just making it a more economically healthy area? Why overdevelopment as first impulse? And weird is the emphasis on "regulations to promote distinctive signage" (Read: Really big signs.) And "new developments with 60,000 square feet of floor area or more would be required to have five percent of their total floor area reserved for and developed with qualifying arts and entertainment-related uses" such as "Eating or drinking establishments, with table service only." WITH TABLE SERVICE ONLY.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

I am SO glad so many of Amanda Burden's relative read this blog. Everyone, please pay attention: I'm not opposing development of Harlem. I'm opposing the current development plan put forth by the City. It is A development plan. Not the only possible plan.

Nesta said...

Reasons why people may approve of Bloomberg:

* His efforts to promote expansion/funding of mass transit and environmental awareness
* Not blindly supporting the PD and denigrating their victims after questionable incidents
* Managing to get the budget under control after Giuliani saddled him with multi-billion budget gaps
* Trying to end city-worker abuse of sirens and parking placards

Just a few things that occur to me. Now, parking placards, for example, may seem trivial and silly. But I appreciate shit like that. I'm infuriated by government officials who think they're above the law and can flaunt their immunity. Someone telling them that it's going to stop gets points from me.

The rapid development that has gone on in recent years, pricing out people and small businesses and stripping neighborhoods of character, does indeed bother me. But (a) it's obvious that a lot of people just don't care about such things when it doesn't affect them and they feel "safe," and (b) to the extent people are bothered by luxury condos replacing charming lowrises, or the proliferation of banks and drugstores in every commercial space, it's not necessarily something they think a Mayor has any responsibility for.

Anonymous said...

Harlem as a generalization, has tremendous character. 125th Street as a generalization, lacks character. As a Harlem resident, I would love to see 125th redeveloped. Yes, there are a few buildings with character but those few are not on the chopping block. Another blog had a terrific response to this blog- and I agree wholeheartedly with them.


I would love to see Lost City address these comments.

It's become clear that those fighting redevelopment fall into 2 categories- those that oppose any change whatsoever(which is the majority of disenters) and would rather leave all the vacant boarded up lots as is, or alternatively those that recognize that change is inevitable but want things a certain way.

Change is inevitable, and that is the one constant in NYC.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Semerun: Thanks for the note. I'd like to address a few things in it. I looked at the Gay Recluse's response. Quite impressive, if a bit snippy. (I would have left a comment but couldn't figure out how; I've met the Gay Recluse--nice guy.) Funny how when people disagree with me, they always assume I'm from Jersey or Topeka or moved here yesterday. And a lot of people keep telling me the places to eat that I mentioned are too far away. Jeez. Not for me. I thought New Yorkers were supposed to be great walkers, not lazy asses. Next: I'm not on either of the sides you mention. I'm for development, but the right kind of development, not faceless, shiny towers that denude the neighborhood of character and history. Finally, "Change is inevitable and the one constant in NYC" is the blanket response everyone gives when people object to development. The crushing logic of it all is supposed to shut us up. It's an easy answer. Just because change is inevitable doesn't mean you have to bow down to every change that comes knocking at the door.

westharlem said...


Your article was is not in touch with everything that is going on. People are very concerned with good reason but we also have to deal with improving services, products and conditions. How do we handle this responsibly is the answer. I strongly urge you to also get the official responses from all three Community Boards on the re-zoning of 125th Street. CB9 (West Harlem) and CB11 (East Harlem) voted yes with conditions. CB10 (Central Harlem) voted no with conditions.

Nonetheless, the conditions are pretty consistent. Some are "in scope" and some are not hoping City Planning will consider what's called follow up actions. One of conditions is a local business requirement that will allow existing but new businesses by minorities to get an opportunity. We don't guarantee change or success but the opportunity. Also, we are pushing for something very unique and the city is supporting our recommendation for a "cultural bonus" as an incentive for developers versus the "arts and entertainment" requirement where the definition is too vague. This way local cultural organizations would have an opportunity to get space and bring more vitality to the strip that would support more restaurants which everyone agreed is needed.

We also supported consistent streetscaping along all of 125th Street -- trees, lighting, trash receptacles, benches that would make 125th Street look more attractive. Good streetscape guidelines could help enforce open, see through gates so it wouldn't look so dark.

These are some of the additional requests local folks are asking for. Please ask more questions and learn everything that is going on. This re-zoning is a hard one and folks are pushing for compromise and some thoughtfulness AGAINST city regulations and greed.

Savona Bailey-McClain

Anonymous said...

Yes...with table service only. No Mcdonald's, no kfc, no takeout counters. Actual restaurants with tables. Take it from someone who lives in Harlem, this is desperately needed on 125th Street. You don't like the idea of big signs? That is what you don't like about the plan? Have you been to 125th Street? That is part of the character, which they are trying to keep. Along with the entertainment concept. Harlem used to be a mecca for entertainment with the Victoria, Alahmbra (sp) and the Apollo theaters along with others... City planning isn't trying to rebrand the street, they are trying to bring it back to its roots.

Yes we are New Yorker's we like to walk, but don't you find it a little strange that one of the largest landmarks in Harelm has virtually no decent restaurants nearby? Or that Harlem's main thoroughfare has more dollar stores than restaurants?