Columbia University IRCPL.org IRAAS
Mar 24 11

Housing vs. History: Abyssinian Development Corporation and the Renaissance Ballroom

Harlem finds itself riddled with tensions between old and new. How can Harlem preserve the richest elements of its heritage while simultaneously capitalizing on the opportunities of the present? How can the neighborhood combine an appreciation for its history with preparation for the future?

Abyssinian Development Corporation (ADC) is one organization that seeks to create change in Harlem. ADC is the economic development entity affiliated with Abyssinian Baptist Church. Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts III is both head pastor of the church and chair of the board of directors of the corporation. His 1982 Doctor of Ministry dissertation, titled “The Construction of a Plan for the Effective Influence of an Urban Church on Public Policy,” provides some insight into his vision for Abyssinian Baptist’s role in the Harlem community. He wrote that the church’s mission was “to take the raw material of African Americans who have been segregated, discriminated against, oppressed economically and socially, and who suffer from the same moral and spiritual diseases that afflict all human beings and transform ourselves into human instruments of God’s will and purpose.” ADC became the corporate entity to address these concerns.

ADC’s property holdings include the Renaissance Ballroom, located on the same block as the church. The ballroom, often called the Rennie, was one of the most storied places in Harlem history. A hotspot for lindy-hopping, some of the greatest figures in American music performed there. Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie all graced the stage. For a time, the dance hall and casino also drew crowds as a basketball stadium, serving as the home for the New York Rens, an all-black team banned by white professional leagues. A 1926 article in the Amsterdam News called the ballroom “a veritable fairyland.”

In 2010, ADC tore down the Renaissance Ballroom, leaving only the facade. Nathan Kensinger Photography provides images of the ballroom’s interior before being demolished.

Elsewhere in Harlem, ADC has turned the historic Small’s Paradise nightclub into a combination IHOP and school and has attracted a number of large chain stores, such as Staples and CVS, to 125th Street. An August 17, 2008 New York Times article, titled “Powerful Harlem Church Is Also a Powerful Harlem Developer,” provides a good summary of some of ADC’s recent projects and controversies. In this article, Butts is quoted as saying, “The claims that we have been responsible for gentrification, or whatever you want to call it, are usually made by people absolutely ignorant of our work, or jealous of our work. [...] The other market forces coming into Harlem are things which most of us have no control over. We don’t own the real estate.”

In the case of the Renaissance Ballroom, however, ADC does own the real estate. Tearing down the building was not always ADC’s plan, as a February 2007 New York Times article reported. After buying the ballroom’s mortgage for $300,000 in 1991, the corporation proposed to restore the building to its former glory. In June 1995, the Times quoted Butts as saying, “A community is more than housing, it’s more than business. It’s culture. People have got to have a place to laugh, sing and dance.” By 2006, however, ADC had changed its mind, deciding instead to construct an apartment building on the site. There was one potential barrier: in the intervening time, landmark status had been proposed for the ballroom. If the building were to be given this distinction, ADC’s housing project would be nearly impossible. Therefore, the corporation began to fight landmark designation for the ballroom. It won in 2007 and tore down the ballroom thereafter.

In light of claims about gentrification in Harlem, it should be noted that ADC’s housing programs do not serve exclusively low-income people. In addition to Section 8 apartments for rent, the corporation’s website advertises condos, apartments and townhouses for sale. To buy a unit in the Harlem Village Homes II Project, with prices from $830,409 to $1,042,551, applicants must reside in New York City and have an annual income of $130,000 or less.  According to the 2009 American Community Survey estimates, the median household income for the previous 12 months was $50,033 in New York City. For households headed by a black person, the median household income was $39,866. The per capita income was $30,885 for the city overall and $20,878 for blacks. In light of these figures, an annual income of $130,000 hardly seems like a low or even moderate income. In fact, it was more than 2.5 times the median household income for the region of eligible applicants. The website specifically references “buyers looking to make a home in this vibrant Central Harlem neighborhood,” implying that buyers do not already consider Central Harlem their home.

Although people need “a place to laugh, sing and dance,” they also need a place to live. Providing for this basic and immediate need is part of ADC’s core mission; even before ADC was formally created, Abyssinian Baptist had built several housing projects. ADC’s position is that the need for housing in Harlem supersedes the value of preserving or restoring a culturally important building. In this vision, creating a financially stable future necessitates destroying the past.

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Mar 2 11

M. Moran Weston and St. Philip’s Episcopal Church

St. Philip’s Episcopal Church is a historically black congregation with a riveting history in New York City. Founded in 1818, the church had various homes downtown before moving to Harlem in 1910. The current building, pictured above, was designed by the architectural firm of Tandy and Foster. (Tandy was the first black architect licensed to work in New York State.) The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission has designated the neo-Gothic structure a New York City Landmark.

Although St. Philip’s history is long, I would like to return to one (extended) moment in the church’s story, the time during which M. Moran Weston served as rector (1957-1982). In the 1950s, St. Philip’s had the single largest Episcopal congregation in the country, with about 4000 members, including Thurgood Marshall. Weston, who held the Ph.D. and the B.A. from Columbia University, had already made a name for himself in Harlem by founding Carver Federal Savings and Loan Association, a black-owned bank. Declaring that “civil rights without an economic base was half-a-loaf of the bread of freedom,” Weston sought to use St. Philip’s resources to improve the economic situation of black residents of Harlem.[1]

Beginning in 1960, St. Philip’s started building housing and community centers to promote economic development in Harlem. The church had already become a prominent property owner shortly after moving to Harlem, when it bought several apartment buildings, then the biggest real estate transaction ever conducted by blacks in New York City. Under Weston’s leadership, however, the church undertook construction projects, employing several black architects, sub-contractors, and laborers in the process.

By 1978, St. Philip’s had used both public money and private donations to fund multi-million dollar investments in Harlem. The different projects included The New Community Apartments on W. 135th St. ($7.9 million), the St. Philip’s Senior House on W. 133rd St. ($6.4 million), and St. Philip’s On-the-Park on St. Nicholas Ave ($10.4 million). The community center and Parish House complex at 204 W. 134th St. cost an additional $2.5 million. Weston himself also founded a nursing home at 138th St., at the time the only nursing home in Harlem.[2] The various institutions housed 2,000 people and provided various services to 1,500 more.[3] In 1981, St. Philip’s carried out a “Procession of Witness for a Better City,” in which 400 members marched around Harlem to the different buildings that St. Philip’s had built. This physical demonstration promoted the idea that creating a “better city” was not only a possibility, but also a responsibility of Christian witness.

On St. Philip’s 170th Anniversary in May 1980, Weston presented six key words for the church: Worship, Service, Independence, Achievement, Excellence, and Pioneering. Asserting that worship and service go “hand in hand,” Weston pointed to the construction of the Parish House Community Center and housing for 2,000 people as “current visible evidence of achievement.”[4] However, he said that the buildings were “only tools for a wider patoral [sic] ministry,” with the real achievement being “our impact for good on the lives of people.”[5] The church was not building just to build, but to change the conditions of people’s lives.

Upon retirement, Weston said, “We made sure that blacks had a stake in the ownership of this place,” meaning Harlem. [6] Calling his church a “stable, unmoving part of the community,” he stated, “We believe that we are trustees of the resources we inherited from the past, and we cannot abandon that legacy when things get rough. ”[7] Weston saw economic development and more broadly, social justice, as his responsibility as a Christian leader. He used St. Philip’s as a base from which to promote various social justice programs.


[1]Stephan Patrick McKinney, “Secularization Theory and Black Protestantism: Patterns of Differentiation in a Contemporary Black Church” (Ph.D. diss., Drew University, 2010), 213.

[2]Orde Coombs, “The New Battle for Harlem,” New York, Jaunary 25, 1982, 28.

[3] Ibid., 27.

[4] “St. Philip’s Weston recipient of award,” New York Amsterdam News, May 6, 1978, B10.

[5] J. Zamgba Browne, “St. Philip’s housing program, a big success,” New York Amsterdam News, October 3, 1981, 3.

[6] “St. Philip’s Marking 170th Anniversary,” New York Amsterdam News, May 10, 1980, 16.

[7] Ibid.

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Feb 23 11

Ecumenical Community Development Organization

On my walks to Central Harlem, I have often passed by the Ecumenical Community Development Organization building and wondered exactly what it was. Prior to visiting, I did a little preliminary research and found out that the group, which helps people in the Harlem community to find affordable, low-income residential housing and also to manage commercial real estate for the benefit of the community as well as help people to find education for their children. The first word in the name, “Ecumenical” led me to believe that the organization would have some kind of direct link with churches in the neighborhood. However, although the group was founded by a group of people in St. John the Divine, with many religious leaders on the board of directors, the organization now claims to be secular.

ECDO owns a large amount of commercial real estate, and this is the source of income that allows them to organize low-cost housing and the other community services that they provide. They own almost all of the shops that go between their two offices on 125th street, only excluding a hardware store and the Fire Station, as well as renting other commercial locations from the City of New York. The way in which ECDO makes their money is by renting these properties out, sometimes subletting the rentals they have from the City at a profit, as they rent at below market rates because of the community building service they provide. Using this money, they are able to employ people to help others find affordable housing, schools and jobs.

Although the ECDO is no longer an explicitly religious organization, I feel that the charitable direction in which it was aimed is inextricably connected to a religiously motivated desire to help others, something that I have seen a lot amongst the Baptist Christians that I have talked with throughout my exploration of Harlem. Perhaps it is impossible for an institution that begins with a religious direction to escape its roots – in any case the retained name means that it will have difficulty shedding its religious image, should it ever want to.

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