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Once Overlooked, East Harlem Wins Nomination To National Register Of Historic Places

El Mac and Sero at Lexington and 111th Street.
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El Mac and Sero at Lexington and 111th Street. Scott Lynch / Gothamist

East Harlem, historically one of the city's vibrant immigrant gateways, is headed for a coveted spot on the National Registry of Historic Places after years of preservation efforts by local community groups.

In addition to East Harlem, the state Board for Historic Preservation also named three other sites in New York City: St. Luke’s Hospital in Morningside Heights, the George Washington Hotel in Gramercy Park, and Alku and Alku Toinen, a pair of buildings in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park that were the state’s first cooperative housing complex.

All told, preservationists nominated 17 sites across the state for national status. As part of the process, the sites will be placed on the state Registry of Historic Places. Barring any unforeseen objections, they will then be added to the National Register following a second review by the National Park Service.

A spot on the National Register does not prevent property owners from renovating or demolishing individual buildings, but it does make owners who meet preservation guidelines eligible for tax incentives and grants.

“It’s a high honor for them,” said Peg Breen, the president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

Two of the buildings at St. Luke’s Hospital, which has a total of 11 pavilions, were designated as city landmarks in 2002. Four of the buildings are currently being converted into apartments.

“It’s nice when they overlap,” Breen said. “Maybe this gives the city Landmarks Preservation Commission reason to look at the other properties to see if they deserve merit at the city level.”

In the case of East Harlem, the project to get the neighborhood recognized at any level was three years in the making, according to Alexander Adams, the executive director of Civitas, a local community organization. Civitas was part of a larger group called Landmark East Harlem that spearheaded the application to the state.

“It brings to light how important East Harlem is for the city,” Adams said. “Telling the story of immigrants is telling the story of New York City.”

Beginning in the 1920s, the neighborhood was at various times associated with different ethnic groups and hence, different nicknames: Jews (“Jewish Harlem”), Italians (“Little Italy"), and eventually, Puerto Ricans who dubbed the area El Barrio. The neighborhood grew to become a cultural hub for Latino working-class art and culture; it is widely recognized as the birthplace of salsa music, home to bodegas, Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Mexican eateries, and perhaps the most extensive array of street murals in New York City. In 2016, the New York Times named East Harlem one of the city's hottest neighborhoods, a mostly developer-led distinction, as Gothamist noted at the time.

In recent years, the neighborhood has also seen an influx of Chinese residents, largely drawn by low rents relative to Chinatown.

It was amid these gentrification pressures that East Harlem preservationists began organizing. With the help of a $5,000 grant from the Historic Districts Council, Landmark East Harlem hired a consultant who researched the neighborhood and came up with rough boundaries for the East Harlem Historic District, encompassing the area between Park and Pleasant avenues running from East 111th to East 120th streets.

In terms of architecture, the report to the state prepared by Landmark East Harlem notes that the tenements in the East Harlem Historic District rival in quality those on the Lower East Side, which was added to the National Register in 2001.

Adams said the group originally pushed the city to consider landmarking the district. But at the time, East Harlem’s ongoing rezoning, which was approved in 2017, complicated that effort, he said. As a compromise, the City Council agreed to approve the landmarking of three individual buildings: a former 19th-century meatpacking house and two former public schools.

In recent years, some locals have accused the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission of ignoring Harlem, leaving the area's rich cultural and architectural history more vulnerable to development.

Going forward, if local groups seek neighborhood landmark status, it would impose more development restrictions in the district. Adams noted that the city could elect to landmark a smaller section of the district.

“It’s not immediate,” he said. But he added, “If this is well received and if the next wave moving into this area want to preserve the history and culture, there’s a lot of options.”

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