Restoring Harlem to Former Glory

Long-troubled cultural capital of black America is attracting big plans, including marina. URBAN REVITALIZATION

WHEN the Democrats come to New York City next summer for their convention, Donald Cogsville hopes they will come to Harlem to see why revitalizing cities is so important.

At the moment he's thinking of a fast-moving slide show at the recently rescued Apollo Theater - where everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Sammy Davis Jr. has performed and where Wednesday amateur night is a steady sellout. Mr. Cogsville, head of a public development agency, is also thinking about church choir-sings and a floating restaurant along the Hudson.

The gap between dreams and reality in Harlem, indisputably the cultural capital of black America, has long been wide. Better known to many Americans for its high levels of poverty, unemployment, and drug activity than for its rich history and 19th-century brownstones, Harlem always has had a hard time drawing private investment.

But progress is becoming more visible. "For many years there was a good deal of physical disintegration in the Harlem community - with little new development and virtually no planning," notes Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, "but now there is a lot on the drawing boards ... and some plans are moving forward."

Cogsville, president of a 20-year-old state agency called the Harlem Urban Development Corporation (HUDC) launched by Nelson Rockefeller, keeps a wide mix of maps, drawings, and plans stacked along the walls of his office on 125th Street.

Some plans, such as Harlem-on-the-Hudson (which will have a large cultural center and marina) and an international trade center, still await developers. Others, like the Gateway to Harlem Project just north of Central Park, are almost complete. A few, such as the massive Bradhurst Project in north Harlem, are just beginning.

Cogsville says he is particularly encouraged that after more than two decades of sharp population decline, Harlem, once home to almost 1 million blacks, is at last stabilizing at about 450,000 residents and starting to grow again.

He also sees a growing appreciation of the need to preserve the best of the past.

"Harlem probably represents the greatest collection of 19th- century blocks anywhere in the city," says Roy Strickland, former head of Columbia University's Urban Design Program and the designer of HUDC's newest plan: the Frederick Douglass Boulevard Project in southwest Harlem. "You have the street grid in its purest form with a very consistent kind of architecture," he says.

Harlem has an unusually large supply of existing - often vacant - housing. Most development focuses on renovating rather than replacing it. HUDC alone has rehabilitated more than 5,000 units and spruced up another 3,000 brownstones.

Many other groups have also been active. "There's a real need for housing - we can't complete it fast enough," says Valerie Jo Bradley, an assistant commissioner in the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Gentrification has not been a problem. Few Harlem residents have had to be displaced while the work goes on. Mr. Strickland's new plan, for instance, which includes 2,500 new housing units as well as centers for adult education and job training and a community theater, calls for building new structures around existing occupied housing. Almost no demolition is involved. "I consider myself an urban environmentalist in trying to repair abandoned pieces of the city," he says.

Harlem is also unique in having so much city-owned housing, the result of both population loss and tax defaults by owners. Noting that more than two-thirds of Harlem's land is now city owned, Cogsville says the city is key to Harlem's redevelopment.

The issue of local control is particularly important to Harlem residents. They want to help shape the decisions that affect them and take home the paychecks for any jobs created. That concern is one reason for the long delay in launching the comprehensive Bradhurst project. The plan, which New York City Mayor David Dinkins hopes will be a model for other inner cities, now will be managed by a special Harlem consortium of ministers, lawyers, architects, and businessmen. Though some housing renovation is a lready under way, most new construction is slated to begin next summer.

Cogsville concedes that groups within Harlem have had their differences over how development should proceed. But much of it amounts to no more than "big egos in the same room," he says, and the job to be done is so large that it requires as many participants as possible. All HUDC is trying to do is provide some direction and an overall strategy, he says.

Many independent development efforts are under way, he says. Two Harlem groups, for instance, hope to reopen - with a new name and management - Freedom National Bank, a gray store-front just a few doors from Cogsville's office. The black-owned bank was closed by the federal government in November 1990 for "bad loans."

Another Harlem businessman has persuaded Vermont's Ben and Jerry's ice cream company to waive its usual franchise fee so he can open Harlem's first such store, employing homeless men.

Noting that housing has preceded most commercial development in Harlem, Cogsville says that only housing geared to a broad mix of income levels can bring the retail and job spinoffs that really revitalize neighborhoods.

"There's no way under the sun you can have a viable community with all low-income families," he says. "Can't. Impossible. I'd fight all day on that one." Though he drew some flak on that point a few years ago, he says he thinks the majority of Harlem residents now agree with him.

And, overall, he's optimistic: "We in the public sector are just trying to get it [development] started and give it some direction."

"It's not going to be en masse quickly - it's going to be in pockets slowly," adds HUDC staff member Cathy Phillips, who says she has lived in Harlem or on the fringes since 1979. "I see an overall strategy in place that I didn't see before."

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