There’s never been a musical named after it, but 125th Street could give 42nd Street a run for its money in the name-recognition department. The buses arrive, drop tourists at the Apollo Theater, maybe swing by Sylvia’s or Amy Ruth’s for lunch. On Sundays, the local churches fill with non-locals absorbing the Gospel. But often that is it. There’s nothing else distinctly “Harlem” to see, since the out-of-towners have Old Navy and H&M at home. “There’s something as precious here as the atmosphere of Paris,” says Harlem historian and booster Michael Henry Adams.
“They will sweep it all away and turn it into Paramus, New Jersey.” “They” are the forces of economic development. And “they” are well aware 125th could and should be different from 34th Street, from Sixth Avenue, from Atlantic Terminal. “You can easily envision 125th Street as a worldwide capital of African-American and Latino media, culture, and entertainment,” says Doctoroff.
The community wants more Harlem-centricity: more theaters, more clubs, more indigenous culture packaged for the 21st century. The city has some other ideas, which are not necessarily incompatible with this vision. In January, Los Angeles entertainment architect Jon Jerde led a one-day charette for the city-owned site on 125th between Second and Third Avenues—locals and executives from the world of Latin media met to discuss how the area might be transformed into a center for businesses and performance spaces. That’s also the site for Uptown New York, a public-private mixed-use development site for which the city just went back to the drawing board, after protests over the MTA bus garage included in the first request for proposals.
In central Harlem, the Apollo Theater has a neglected sister in the Victoria Theater. A winner for the redevelopment rights has yet to be named. Earlier this month, the Empire State Development Corporation asked the board to explain why it didn’t pick the highest bidder—though preservation, entertainment, and local job creation had been the goals. The two finalists offered a new Savoy ballroom and theaters (plus an Ian Schrager hotel), or a B.B. King entertainment center and black and Latino music clubs.
A river-to-river study by City Planning might upzone the corners of Lenox, Malcolm X Boulevard, St. Nicholas, and Lexington, creating mixed-use hubs over subway stations, while downzoning and protecting rows of rowhouses on 124th and 126th. A condo building boom is currently under way in the neighborhood, the emblem of which is the Kalahari on 116th Street, which has a Kente-cloth-patterned façade.
Hotels designed to keep tourist dollars in the neighborhood are part of the next wave of building. All the Victoria proposals include hotels, and a Marriott is to be part of the large tower planned for the corner of Park and 125th Street. This has been envisioned as Harlem Park, a 30-story multi-use, multicolored tower designed by Enrique Norten of ten Arquitectos. But there is currently no construction on the site, and it’s been reported that the project is troubled. This is too bad from an aesthetic point of view. “What I wish for is some architecturally significant buildings on 125th,” says Studio Museum director Thelma Golden. “Enrique Norten’s building is an amazing sign of the possibilities of this street to distinguish itself and change the way people experience it coming across the Triboro from La Guardia.”
West Harlem, a.k.a. Manhattanville, could combine the street’s entertainment focus with an academic hub—including a theater—drawing Columbia students and professors up Broadway to a new campus and the entire neighborhood west to the new Harlem Piers, set to open in 2007.
Uptown and Gown
A look north from 125th Street.
(1.) Harlem Piers
W Architecture and Landscape Architecture, spring 2007.
(2.) Columbia Manhattanville
Renzo Piano Building Workshop and Marilyn Taylor/SOM, 2016.
Columbia has bought or leased over 60 percent of the real estate between 125th and 133rd Streets from Broadway to Twelfth Avenue. Via this concentrated move, the university hopes to solve its persistent space shortages by building a second campus over the next 25 to 30 years. Phase one would include the renovation and development of 125th Street—currently home to auto shops, a McDonald’s, and a storage facility—with a theater, an art-school building, and a center for the study of the mind and human behavior (that’s where Columbia is hoping to cure Alzheimer’s). Standing in their way is the community board, which had other ideas for the area articulated in its own plan—light manufacturing, preservation of historic buildings, affordable housing, access to the soon-to-reopen Harlem Piers—and no use of eminent domain. This summer, both sides will sit down with a professional mediator to negotiate—potentially leading to a major rezoning of the area in 2007.
(3.) Apollo Theater
Beyer Blinder Belle with Davis Brody Bond, under renovation.
(4.) Loews-Victoria Theater
RFP issued, no completion date.
(5.) Harlem Park
TEN Arquitectos, no completion date.
(6.) Kalahari Apartments
Frederick Schwartz and GF55 and Studio JTA, September 2007.
(7.) Uptown New York
Reissuing RFP, 2006.
(8.) Latino Entertainment Corridor
Architect TBA, no completion date.
(9.) East River Plaza
Greenberg Farrow Architects, spring 2008.