Harlem—America’s most famous neighborhood—transformed in the late twentieth century from the epitome of urban crisis to the most vivid embodiment of urban revival. Yet while observers point to Harlem as a dramatic exemplar of gentrification, historian Brian Goldstein locates the genesis of Harlem’s remarkable change in an unexpected place—the radical social movements of the 1960s, which sought to give Harlemites control over a built environment that officials had long shaped from the top down. In movements for community control, Harlemites demanded the right to plan their own redevelopment, founding an array of new community-based organizations to pursue that goal. In the following decades, those grassroots organizations became the crucibles in which residents debated competing conceptions of what Harlem should look like and who should live there. 1960s activists envisioned a Harlem built by and for its low-income, predominantly African-American residents. The new millennium saw, instead, a neighborhood with an increasingly expensive price of admission. In The Roots of Urban Renaissance, Goldstein charts the connection between these events and, in the process, offers an alternative to accounts that explain gentrification as something that happened to neighborhoods like Harlem. Indeed, the Harlem of the new century was not simply imposed on an unwitting community by affluent outsiders but grew from its grassroots, producing a legacy that both helped and harmed longtime residents.
In the excerpt below, Goldstein tells of the homesteading movement that took root in 1970s Harlem, where low-income residents came to see the rehabilitation of abandoned buildings as a means to learn construction skills and gain much-needed jobs in addition to housing.
Groups coalesced rapidly in the early 1970s, representing both the interests of single buildings and the collective interests of like-minded groups. The Renigades were one of many small grassroots organizations to promote self-help rehabilitation. Though a self-described “street gang,” its members had turned the group toward neighborhood improvement, with involvement in activities like voter registration and exposure of drug dealers. Indeed, despite claiming criminal records, the Renigades were in many ways typical of homesteaders in general. Homesteaders were mostly young—a majority were under thirty years old—with income below the poverty line. The former squatters of Operation Move-In were among the Renigades’ contemporaries. Operation Move-In had taken ownership of an abandoned building just south of Harlem at 948 Columbus Avenue in October 1973, a transaction arranged by sympathetic city employees. In 1974, members of the Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood began a rehab project in two long-abandoned adjacent Central Harlem tenements, at 55 St. Nicholas Avenue and 132 West 113th Street. The next year, in the spring of 1975, seven low-income Harlem families formed an organization called United Harlem Growth. The families all lived in abandoned housing, public housing, or apartments soon to come out of rent control, and saw in homesteading a chance to own stable, affordable homes. By 1976, United Harlem Growth—led by David Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s son, and with an expanded membership of fifteen families—had purchased five city-owned abandoned brownstones on 136th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues with plans to renovate them into low-income cooperative housing. In a parallel effort, tenants in single buildings across Harlem pursued conversion to cooperative status, to gain control of apartments that negligent landlords had effectively abandoned and to pool rents toward needed repairs.
Organizations with close ties in and near Harlem formed to unite these disparate but likeminded efforts. In 1974, the leaders of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, located just across Morningside Park from Harlem, formed the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), in response to nearby squatters who questioned the church’s commitment to its neighbors. The new organization assisted participants in the incipient movement; for instance, UHAB helped the Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood locate the buildings that members would rehabilitate. Similarly, a collection of community-based organizations came together in 1974 to form the Association of Neighborhood Housing Developers (ANHD), a resource intended to amass collective experience and technical expertise. Members included groups from the Bronx, the Lower East Side, and Brooklyn, as well as West Harlem Group Assistance, UHAB, and the West Harlem Community Organization (WHCO), the long-standing force that had played a central role in opposing disruptive urban renewal.
Such efforts emerged as part of a broader citywide network, whose proponents believed that through their own sweat they could provide decent housing for low-income residents. Philip St. Georges, a homesteading advocate who claimed partial responsibility for inventing the term “sweat equity,” became the Zelig of self-help housing, working at times with Msgr. Fox, the city, the Renigades, and UHAB. He explained the potential of abandoned buildings, which for many appeared as only a problem to be excised. “While many abandoned buildings may be structurally sound, and capable of being rehabilitated, they represent an overwhelming public nuisance in the eyes of City policy makers. They are a liability. And increasingly, they are simply demolished,” St. Georges wrote in 1973. However, for many groups of low-income tenants who suddenly see an opportunity to own their own homes, take control over their own lives, and improve the condition of their neighborhood, these vacant and abandoned structures are anything but a liability. They are a true resource. And indeed, they may be the last resource.”
Projects that aspired toward St. Georges’s ideal were by necessity highly pragmatic affairs. Like squatters, homesteaders who had negotiated the legal acquisition of city-owned buildings were concerned with making them fit for habitation at minimal cost. Expediency and resourcefulness marked such efforts, especially the reuse of structures and materials that could be rejuvenated through minimal transformation. Frequently this meant replacing boilers, repainting, or—in gut-rehabilitation projects—refitting aging buildings as inexpensively as possible. Though sympathetic architects helped prepare the plans needed to obtain permits, homesteaders completed as much construction as was feasible on their own. UHAB encouraged rehabbers to pursue demolition, for instance, by providing guidebooks for this and other construction tasks. UHAB clearly recognized the hazards of such endeavors. “The possible dangers in demolition are almost too numerous to list,” one guidebook warned. But nonetheless, structural beam replacement, roof removal, and wall demolition all existed in the realm of the possible for intrepid homesteaders. If dangerous, such work paid well in the currency of sweat equity. UHAB estimated that tenant-led demolition could save $500 of the $800 residents would pay a general contractor for the same labor. Likewise, residents proved clever in procuring building materials. When possible, they reused materials from their own buildings. Studs, for instance, could be cleaned up and employed in reconfigured walls. Others repurposed materials and fixtures from buildings elsewhere in the city. One homesteading group “purchased all necessary tubs, sinks, toilets, louver doors, lighting fixtures, wall-size mirrors, carpets, and furnishings . . . from a contractor remodeling New York’s Hotel Croydon,” UHAB noted. A homesteader physically unable to participate in the labor-intensive construction instead reconditioned appliances purchased on the cheap as his sweat equity contribution. The unnamed apartment building surely boasted one of the best-appointed interiors in its neighborhood. As UHAB recounted, “Closets were dimensioned and painstakingly built around louvered doors, and bathroom layouts were modified to accommodate the oversized, old-fashioned, but elegant . . . tubs and sinks.”
Tenant-laborers were not occupied with the restoration of crown moldings and mantelpieces, yet stabilizing, reconstructing, and reinhabiting an abandoned building nonetheless constituted the most essential form of preservation. In embarking on the rehabilitation of existing buildings with minimal resources, low-income homesteaders formed part of a broader “neighborhood movement” underway in New York and other American cities at this time. While this movement encompassed interests as diverse as those of middle-class brownstoners and low-income tenants, each shared enthusiasm for the promise of self-help as a means of restoring the fabric of their communities. Yet their motivation drew from fundamentally different sources and aspired toward dramatically different ends. Brownstoners celebrated “authenticity,” a quality they found in the architectural details of their nineteenth-century homes. They removed finishes and additions that obscured the original appearance of their townhouses, or rebuilt missing decoration. They investigated the histories of their homes and hoped by restoration to grasp a lost past embedded in a building’s walls. Low-income homesteaders, on the other hand, feared the loss of affordable housing to abandonment and pursued rehabilitation with the intention of saving a diminishing resource before it was too late. If brownstoners rescued Victorian-era architectural details in order to achieve a nostalgic ideal, low-income homesteaders rescued discarded materials and dilapidated apartment buildings in order to conserve much-needed shelter.
The groups taking on self-help in Harlem voiced hope that renovating a single building might reverberate throughout the entire community. The Renigades stated the case most enthusiastically, promising, “we can rebuild our community ourselves!!!!!” By early 1977, the gang had received the certificate of occupancy for the twenty-three-unit cooperative they rehabbed at 251 East 119th Street and, under the more ambitious name of the Renigades Housing Movement, had begun three subsequent projects, at 312 and 316 East 119th Street and 425 East 118th Street. Leaders envisioned their effort extending to the entire block, including “a senior citizens center, several mini parks, vegetable gardens, and renovated brownstones, trees, bushes and flowers on the sidewalks as part of the beautification.” The Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood, too, imagined their initial project to build apartments, a day care center, a health food store, and a mosque expanding into the surrounding blocks of lower Harlem. “These buildings represent the first phase of a redevelopment plan created by the Mosque for this area of Harlem,” wrote Imam K. Ahmad Tawfiq, leader of the congregation. “It envisions rehabilitating over 150 units of abandoned housing,” more than ten times the impact of the initial fourteen-unit rehabilitation. The families of United Harlem Growth selected their block of 136th Street with the hope that rehabbing five brownstones would start a chain reaction. “It is a neighborhood block, one in which our plans for rehabilitation would have a maximum impact,” they wrote.
Such efforts promised the possibility of not only a sheltering roof but also much-needed jobs, both through the individual homesteading effort and the hope that skills learned on-site would transfer to employment in the construction industry. In 1974, with ANHD and two other neighborhood groups, the Renigades proposed a program that combined urban homesteading with job training. In one year, they envisioned, ninety people could learn construction skills while rehabilitating abandoned buildings in East Harlem, the Lower East Side, and Brownsville, Brooklyn. United Harlem Growth, too, envisioned such potential in their homesteading effort. Estimating that half of area residents held job skills that had become obsolete in the deindustrializing economy, they planned for thirty-seven community members to apprentice with construction workers, accountants, and construction managers as they rebuilt the 136th Street brownstones. Though idealistic, homesteading as a route to employment seemed like a genuine possibility. For example, five Renigades worked as paid trainees alongside construction professionals on their rehab effort, while also fulfilling their sweat equity contribution with additional labor outside working hours. Fifteen men learned electrical, plumbing, and construction skills while working on the mosque’s homesteading project, through training paid for under the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA).
Anecdotes offered compelling evidence that the seemingly utopian promises of self-help could come true. Carmelo Soria, known as Zorro, had been addicted to heroin for thirteen years when he crossed paths with the Renigades. “He didn’t have a job and couldn’t get one, didn’t go to school, and just hung out,” St. Georges recounted. “He had no hope; he had no direction.” Zorro frequently passed out on the corner of 119th Street and Second Avenue, where the Renigades rebuilt their tenement. “One day he looked up and saw the Renigades cleaning garbage out of a vacant building which he frequently used as a shooting gallery,” St. Georges said. Zorro joined the Renigades, learned plumbing, earned an income, and built a home. The historical record does not reveal if St. Georges was embellishing in support of his cause, but redemption narratives recurred frequently in self-help projects. Early squatting supporter Marie Runyon started the Harlem Restoration Project in 1977 to train the formerly incarcerated to renovate abandoned buildings. Her first effort employed fifty individuals in the rehabilitation of 150 apartments on Seventh Avenue. In East Harlem, Dorothy Stoneman began the Youth Action Program in 1979. Unemployed young people, often high school dropouts, renovated abandoned buildings to provide housing for the homeless while learning construction skills. At least on a small scale, these programs addressed hopes that sweat equity could alleviate pervasive joblessness and housing shortages, while also providing for the less tangible needs of residents who desired influence over the spaces they occupied.
Above all, low-income homesteaders emphasized the objective of control rather than profit in pursuing self-help rehabilitation, an ambition embodied in their focus on the use value of their homes rather than their exchange value. This was especially evident in the near ubiquity of cooperative housing arrangements as a goal, for low-income cooperative housing offered little or no potential for financial benefit but did provide tenants with decision-making authority. Low-income homesteaders pursued what self-building advocate John F. C. Turner at the time called “housing as a verb”—the notion of housing as “process or activity”—instead of “housing as a noun,” meaning as a “commodity or product.” Housing as a verb, Turner argued, constituted one of the activities that “can act as vehicles for personal fulfillment.” As a colleague writing in Turner’s classic Freedom to Build explained, “Owner-building . . . represents participation—the basic human desire to exercise control over the making of one’s environment.” Turner’s theoretical work on the link between self-building and control had real-world impact uptown. He helped organize the efforts that became UHAB, and his student Donald Terner served as the organization’s first director. Like his mentor, Terner celebrated the autonomy he discovered in such informal settlements as squatter communities, a quality he contrasted with the lack of control found in the typical landlord-tenant relationship of predominantly minority neighborhoods. “Filling the vacuum created by the absence of public controls is a vital and optimistic sense of direct, independent manipulation of the immediate living environment,” Terner wrote of informal settlements. With abandonment creating such an absence of oversight and Harlemites largely left to fend for themselves, homesteading seemed a chance to shape the built environment in previously unattainable ways.
Indeed, self-help enabled an extremely personal engagement with the act of building. Such engagement was evident in the unique opportunity homesteaders had to reflect themselves in the spaces they would occupy. At the Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood’s project, for example, participants incorporated their furniture into the design of apartments, added amenities they desired such as oak flooring and exposed brick, and expressed their cultural and religious identity in the rehabilitated buildings. Intricate tile work decorated several interior spaces in the completed project, and pointed arches surrounded doors. Such improvements were not merely superficial. Homesteading was difficult work, but residents identified with the process of rehabilitating buildings that were to become their homes. One homesteader recalled the trials of his project as well as the devotion that participants nonetheless maintained. “I remember working in a snowstorm . . . carrying cinder blocks from the street to the cellar, sliding along the sidewalk and down the cellar steps. I remember being upstairs with this little piece of paper, ‘How to Change a Beam’—somebody’s reading while we have the beam in midair, waiting for instructions,” he said. “But I can’t remember a time when everybody was down, when every one thought it was hopeless.”
In the modesty of learning a trade and making it physical in the collaborative reconstruction of one’s future home, homesteaders expressed feelings of control at the most intimate level. In describing the construction of a window, Charyl Edmonds, the former leader of Operation Move-In and a homesteader at 948 Columbus Avenue, revealed the connection between the building process and her own subjectivity. “You need an upper and lower sash, a pulley and chain, wood for the sides, top, and bottom, a sill, molding behind and in front of the frame,” she said. “I measured and sawed and hammered and screwed, and when I was done, I had six windows that actually opened and closed—crookedly, to be sure, but they opened and closed. I felt invincible.” Similarly, when St. Georges questioned the Renigades’ slow pace, Tom Foskolos, a leader of the rehab effort, retorted, “Don’t you understand that we are trying to accomplish something much greater than simply putting a building back together again?” Foskolos explained what he meant while showing the finished building to the New York Times in 1975. “It’s a dream come true, and it means people in the ghetto can control their own lives, build for the future.” Self-help offered the possibility, however idealistic, that Harlemites could gain much-sought-after community control through the collective labor of rehabilitation, the seemingly prosaic but ultimately transformative task of bringing an abandoned building back to life. If the opportunity to reclaim the neighborhood building by building came from desperate circumstances, it remained nonetheless empowering for those who chose to rebuild any way they could manage.
Source for images: instructions for homesteading published in 1977 by UHAB