Was 123rd Street The Protestant Block?

Back in the day when townhouses like ours were built (late 1800s) the ones in Harlem were built primarily for German Jews and Harlem was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood up until around 1910 or 1920.

What’s struck me as interesting is that our block has two churches – one at the corner of Lenox, and another mid-block – but neither were Jewish – they were both originally Protestant.

Closest to us, about halfway between Lenox Ave and Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd, is the Greater Metropolitan Baptist Church at 147 West 123rd St. It was originally built in 1897 as the German-American St. Paul Lutheran Church of Harlem and designed in the Gothic style by architects Ernest W. Schneider and Harry Herter. The German nature of the church fits the neighborhood, but instead of being Jewish it was Lutheran.

Further down the block at the corner of 123rd and Lenox Ave. is the Ephesus Seventh Day Adventist Church. The origins of its building are pretty interesting… It was originally built in 1887 (the architect was John Rochester Thomas) by a Dutch Reformed congregation that could trace it’s roots back to 1660 when they were the Harlem Reformed Low Dutch Church. The church changed it’s name over the years to the First Collegiate Church of Harlem. As the population of Harlem was exploding the congregation, which was then located in East Harlem, decided it needed to open another church in the area, so they built the Second Collegiate Dutch Church at 123 and Lenox and the pastor and 150 wealthy members moved to the new church leaving the poor members over in East Harlem at the old church. The old church, now Elmendorf Reformed Church, is still located over at 121 and 3rd Avenue and is the oldest functioning religious institution in Harlem.

While today we may not care whether someone is Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, etc. back then religion was a much bigger deal. In those days there were “nativists” who saw themselves as “original New Yorkers” – they were all Protestant and rather fiercely anti-Catholic. Today we don’t really understand why the Irish and Italians were so discriminated against, but a big part of it was religion – they were Catholics coming into a Protestant-controlled country. People organized themselves based on religion.

Religion was also important for Jews. There was a big split between the German Jews and the Eastern European Jews. Like their Christian countrymen, German Jews were reformed. German Jews had more money than their Eastern European counterparts and their social service agencies simultaneously took care of Jewish kids and pressured them to become more Americanized (i.e. less orthodox).

Religion was so incredibly important back then you sorta have to assume that with two Protestant churches on one block in a neighborhood dominated by Synagogues, our block was most likely a Protestant block. As I have more time I’ll see if I can’t map the original religious affiliations of other churches in Central Harlem…

Violent Crime In Harlem

The Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association’s meeting last week with the NYPD, the District Attorney’s Office, and representatives from local methadone clinics was enlightening… The main speaker was Deputy Inspector Rodney Harrison – who is in charge of the 28th Precinct.

As I mentioned in another blog post, there was a murder on our block the week before. Apparently there has also been a couple gun incidents at 120th and 7th Avenue (ACP) where there seems to be an on-going dispute between two drug dealers centered – though no one was actually shot. In addition, in East Harlem there have been 4 shootings in the past 4 weeks, one involving the death of a 15 year old. While that seems like a lot, apparently violent crime is actually down in the 28th Precinct year-to-date, but the 28th Precinct doesn’t cover East Harlem. This is the area covered by the 28th Precinct…

28th Precinct - Harlem

I learned a lot about the neighborhood at the meeting. One of the first items of discussion were the methadone clinics on 124th between Lenox and 7th Avenue (yes, clinics – plural). Two of the clinics were represented at the meeting, and apparently there is a third clinic (Harlem United) on that same block, but they declined to attend the meeting. That’s just that one block. There are other clinics throughout the neighborhood and an even greater concentration of clinics in East Harlem. The methadone clinics are a problem – not so much in terms of violent crime, but in terms of trash and loitering. However, the clinics that were at the meeting talked about how they do patrols from 123rd to 126th several times a day and any of their patients who are seen repeatedly loitering are thrown out of the treatment programs.

Still, where there are drug addicts there’s going to be drug dealing, and where there’s drug dealing there’s usually violent crime. Compounding the problem – once the addicts are thrown out of the program the clinics can’t do anything about them. At that point it becomes a police issue. Deputy Inspector Harrison was incredible in that respect – he gave out his personal cell phone number and e-mail address and told people to call/text/email him when they saw things. While 911 and 311 are great – going directly to the precinct is more effective. The police have zero tolerance for loitering – the exception being people hanging out in front of their own buildings.

One important point was made – do not get confrontational with loiterers (or anyone for that matter) – let the police take care of it. You never know who has a knife or a gun on them – it’s just not worth it.

When it comes to serious/violent crime the vast majority of it happens in the lower part of the precinct – around Lenox Ave – between the park and roughly 116. I know someone who lives on 113th between Lenox and St. Nick (a Russian guy who’s a friend of my nephew) and his experience with the neighborhood is completely different from mine – he talks about how rough and dangerous it is. Deputy Inspector Harrison mentioned that 114th Street was one of the most dangerous streets in the precinct. In fact he suggested that when people walk around the neighborhood they avoid problem spots like 114th Street, and the corner of 120th & 7th Ave.

When asked what the community could do there were a number of things…

First, be the eyes and ears of the police – when you see something, call the precinct.

Second, install cameras – they make a big difference – crimes are solved much faster when there’s a video available. It costs homeowners about $1,000 per camera. Given that most of us are investing over $1M in our places, it’s a very small price to pay to have a camera or two (or in our case 5 or 6). The cameras the police use are targeted to areas with lots of tourists and lots of violent crime. Inspector Harrison called the cameras “million dollar cameras” – I’m not sure that they actually cost $1M, but they aren’t cheap – so there aren’t many of them around. There are cameras on 125th Street and a few other areas, but getting more of them is difficult. However, the precinct actually has a crime prevention officer who will help you choose and position cameras you buy. His name is Vic Peña – call the precinct and ask for him.

Third, petition politicians for more police and more money for the precinct. Because crime has been going down the City has felt justified in cutting the number of police in Harlem, but when there are fewer police the crime rate goes back up (as is happening in East Harlem). The City does give support when a precinct is having a spike in crime. The 28th is getting help from the narcotics unit for 120th & 7th Ave, and the precinct in East Harlem is getting reinforcements. We live in Washington Heights at the moment and there’s increased police presence here as well because of all the rapes. But the precinct needs more than that. More funding means they can do more outreach programs to teens in an effort to prevent the crime from happening in the first place.

One other thing Inspector Harrison talked about was that iPhone and iPads are particularly popular with criminals right now. He’s finding that criminals aren’t mugging people for money – they just grab your iPhone and run. The simple way to avoid this problem is to try to not use your iPhone/Android much when you’re on the street. If you need to use it, be aware of your surroundings.

In the end there’s violent crime everywhere and violent crime is generally down in Harlem. It’s really not that unsafe. With a few basic precautions (like avoiding problem areas, not being confrontational, reducing the use of your iPhone on the street, and not being involved in drugs) you can feel pretty safe in Harlem.

IMHO, what Harlem needs most to prevent crime are residents who simply don’t put up with crime. If criminals know people will cooperate with the police and if they know there are cameras that will see what they do – they’ll move to another area.

Changes in Northwest Mount Morris Park 2000-2010

The data from the 2010 Census has been released and I’m going to start doing posts of how different neighborhoods have changed over the past 10 years – starting with my own neighborhood – Census tract 222 which you could loosely call Mount Morris Park Northwest – going from 122nd Street to 126th Street and from Lenox Ave to Frederick Douglass Boulevard.

Map of census tracts in lower Harlem

The quick take aways are as follows:

  • The number of blacks / African Americans declined 18% – from 2,029 to 1,667
  • The percentage of blacks / African Americans went from 84.1% to 63.4%
  • The number of white residents increased 310% – from 129 to 529
  • The percentage of white residents went from 5.3% to 20%
  • The number of Latinos rose 49.7% – from 330 to 494
  • The percentage of Latinos rose from 13.7% to 17.4%.
  • The number of Asians rose 157% – from 30 to 77
  • The percentage of Asians rose from 1.2% to 2.9%
  • Overall the population in tract 222 rose 9.6% – from 2,412 to 2,644
  • The number of housing units went up (net) by 33 – from 1,429 to 1,462
  • The number of vacant housing units went up by 27 – from 324 to 351

[Latinos can be of any race – white, black, etc.]

Before seeing the data I wondered whether non-blacks were displacing blacks or whether the percentage of blacks was going down due to new housing coming on the market and being occupied by non-blacks. Well, clearly blacks are getting displaced. I can’t say what the mechanism is for that displacement but one way or another it’s happening.

What this means is the black hegemony in Harlem is quickly becoming a thing of the past. If trends continue (and I see nothing stopping the trends), in 10 years it’s possible that there could be more white people in our immediate neighborhood than black people. That’s a bit shocking, actually…

Personally, I like racially diverse neighborhoods. Currently Dan and I live in a neighborhood (Hudson Heights) that’s 76% white and I find it a bit dull. But I have to wonder what this is going to do to the psyche of Black Harlem. For so many decades Harlem has been “theirs”. All indications are that they’ll lose their dominance in Harlem in the next 10 years – and they’ll lose it to whites more than any other group.

NYC Cars Buried In Snowbanks

After weeks of snow storm after snow storm, these days when you walk around New York you see a lot of cars that look like they’re swallowed up by the snow. The piles of snow just flow up and over them. On wider roads (like Broadway) the snow even goes up and over them on the street side – so they’re completely encapsulated in snow – they just look like a little hill…

Here are some pics of a few of the cars in my neighborhood (Hudson Heights)…

Car completely buried in the snow in NYC / Hudson Heights

Car buried in snowbank in New York

Snowbank covers car in New York City

Minivan covered by snowbank in NYC

Snow covers car in Upper Manhattan

“Body Block”, Near Feral Children, Drug Houses, etc.

In all honesty when we put the bid in on our place on 123rd Street we didn’t really know what we were getting into. When we bid on other places we would walk the blocks after dark on summer nights and could get a clear sense for what the block was really like. There would be people out on the street and we were able to differentiate “good” blocks from “not so good” blocks. In one case we walked away from a building we were considering after Dan walked past two women who nearly got into a fist fight (actually fists would have been fine – he was worried one of them would pull a knife or a gun).

We bid on the place we bought in mid-November. By that time it was cold and people were staying indoors, so we didn’t get the same sense of what the block was really like. That worried me a bit. We could tell the apartment building next door was a bit run down, and the apartment building across the street was only slightly better. We could tell parts of the block weren’t so great, but we didn’t know whether we should be worried or not.

As it turns out the people who live in the run down apartment building next door are really nice. Our worst problem seems to be the people who buy their “40s” at the corner bodega – they’re not threatening so much as messy. Our biggest concern is getting $100 ECB tickets for their trash.

That’s the block today – it has it’s rough edges, but we feel safe and people are nice to us. However, we’ve come to realize the block (and even our own building) had a very different past which still lingers a bit in the air…

The first warning bell was when we were told that many years ago the building two doors down had been taken over by a drug dealer who killed the landlord and two other people, chopped the bodies up, put them in the cellar, and kept covering them with lime to keep the smell down. It seemed like a pretty unusual story and we thought it was just “local color” – every neighborhood has something bad that’s happened.

Then we also started hearing references to the fact that a number of other people had died on the block over the years, but we figured that was probably true of most streets in Harlem… There was a time when Harlem wasn’t such a great place…

But then my friend and I went on the MMPCIA’s house tour… We stopped at Minton’s Playhouse and were served lemonade. As we were sipping our lemonade we started talking to the guy behind the bar who lived in the neighborhood. I said I bought a townhouse shell. He asked where, I told him, and he said “Oh, body block”. I naively asked what he meant and he explained that our block (123 between Lenox and ACP) had the nickname “body block” because so many people had died on the block over the years. Turns out our block wasn’t just average in terms of violence, but one of the roughest blocks anywhere in Harlem…

And it continues… Dan was showing the building to my nephew and his girlfriend one day when a guy stopped and started talking to them (a common occurrence on our block – one of the things I really like about it). He said he had “sorta lived” in the building in the late 90s. Then he mentioned that the building was raided in 1997 and the police had found a nearly feral child living in a closet. I believe he said the child was 6 or 7 years old when she was found. In other words, our building was a drug building. The people who say they “lived” there were largely drug addicts, and some unfortunate kid was born into that, and neglected so badly that she spent years living in the closet of a drug flophouse with little to no meaningful social interaction with other people. Truly sad…

I’m sure some of that history is the stuff of legends and a bit embellished, but the general gist is that our block, and even our building, have a rather sordid past.

windows on 123 condoBut things are changing. The biggest change has to be the new condo down the block – Windows On 123 – it’s really changed the nature of the street. With asking prices up to $1.465M for a floor through, 3 bedroom, 3 bath unit, the block is quickly losing it’s bad reputation.

There’s a lot we love about the block…

We don’t really like 124th street – you get the ugly backs of all the big buildings on 125, so 123rd is as close as you can realistically get to the subway stops at 125 – and we’re right between two of them – a 4 minute walk to the 2/3 and a 6 minute walk to the A/B/C/D. With one stop to 59th Street you can’t get better subway accessibility without paying downtown prices.

We also love that we’re between all the new development over on Frederick Douglass Boulevard and the established, stable core of Mount Morris Park. Being near them means we’re near a number of great restaurants, bars and grocery stores.

We also like the friendliness of the block. People talk to each other and in my mind people watching what’s going on and knowing each other makes the block a lot safer.

As odd as it may sound, we also like the music on the block. When we looked at some blocks in Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill salsa and merengue were blaring from the windows. We never listen to salsa and merengue and thought it would get pretty irritating pretty quickly. On our block there are guys hanging out on the stoops, some with carts of CDs, playing R&B, soul and the gentler side of hip-hop – that’s all music we listen to ourselves and makes the block sound like home to us. It also means we’re less likely to be irritated by our neighbors’ loud music.

But most importantly our new neighborhood reminds me of what New York used to be like when I first moved here 20 years ago. Back then New York was this wonderful mix of extremes. Today most of Manhattan seems to safe, “pedestrian” and rather bland. I like the edginess of Harlem. The chaotic, uncertain energy makes you feel alive – it’s why I fell in love with New York and chose to make it my home…

If our sale really was a bit of a low water mark, then I think the sordid history of our block may have factored into the low price in some way. Personally, I really like the idea of buying into a place that has seen hard times but is turning around. There’s a little risk to it, but you can see much bigger gains in situations like that than you can in neighborhoods that are well established.