Tom Acitelli Feb. 2, 2010, 5:04 p.m.
Harlem is a place that provokes the kind of grand, sweeping proclamations usually reserved for dying social movements or God. Harlem is nowhere (Ralph Ellison); Harlem is heaven (Bill “Bojangles” Robinson); Harlem is the new black (T-shirts hawked on 125th Street). It is a physical place as much as an idea, roughly determined by the coordinates of wide, skyward boulevards and streets that, by some mnemonic trick of geography or architecture, reveal themselves in ways other Manhattan streets do not. Old buildings run low to the ground, uncrowded by skyscrapers. History, with all its cornices and side alleys, remembers itself from block to block. But Harlem exists no less insistently in the realm of myth, and it’s this juncture, real and mythic, over which the Hotel Theresa presides.
The Theresa, like Harlem itself, was not intended to be the locus of black culture it became. Overzealous speculation uptown, commercial construction downtown and the slippery currents of social ferment collided to produce the heyday of Harlem. All this happened in a time so condensed that less than a decade earlier, Harlem had been an exclusively white enclave. The result of these compressed and colliding forces was a spectacular spark of social progress—all the more stark for its grim backdrop—coinciding with near constant reminders of racial oppression.
At the Theresa, for instance, as at the Cotton Club, the Victoria and the Alhambra, whether Duke Ellington laid down the beat or Ella Fitzgerald sang scat, the one constant was the crowd, which was a uniform sea of white.
The Hotel Theresa was built by Gustavus Sidenberg, a German-born stockbroker who first made his money, by some accounts, as a manufacturer of lace, and by others, as a maker of cigars. Named for his late wife, the Theresa was Sidenberg’s first and only foray into large-scale development, but it was by no means an ambivalent effort. Hiring the elite architectural brother duo George and Edward Blum, Sidenberg seized on their most ambitious design, one replete with agile geometric patterns, regal archways and, at 160,000 square feet, formidable girth. The hotel’s graceful symmetries gazed east across yawning Seventh Avenue and all the way down the rush of 125th Street. When it was completed, in 1913, the 13-story Theresa stood taller than any structure in the vicinity. To the society crowd, it became “the hotel uptown,” fetching princely sums for each of its 300 rooms.
But by then, Harlem was already beginning to change. The exuberance of turn-of-the-century land speculation had led to overbuilding and diminished property rates, and Philip Payton, a black real estate entrepreneur, saw an opportunity. With increasing numbers of black, middle-class tenants being edged out by development downtown, Payton convinced Harlem landlords to accept slightly higher rents in exchange for dropping their whites-only policies. (Some of Payton’s early tactics, he recounted in Sondra Kathryn Wilson’s Meet Me at the Theresa, also included the skillful manipulation of feuds between property owners.)
Local newspapers warned of the coming “invasion,” and antagonistic residents mobilized to keep Harlem white, according to Gilbert Osofsky’s Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto. “We are approaching a crisis,” said John G. Taylor, the founder of the Harlem Property Owners Improvement Corporation, in 1913. “It is the question of whether the white man will rule Harlem or the Negro.”
But black families and real estate brokers knew the power of owning property and began steadily buying up brownstones. Businesswomen like Madam C.J. Walker and Lillian Harris Dean-otherwise known as “Pig Foot Mary,” after the delicacy that made her famous-placed strategic investments in Harlem real estate. Black churches followed the migration uptown, and they, too, preached the gospel of property ownership. The Urban League set up a Harlem chapter, as did the young N.A.A.C.P., which was slowly establishing civil rights precedents in the courts. Across the country, Harlem became a kind of whispered watchword, a promised land, a harbinger of a new black identity.
Yet it was often an identity bound to an exclusively white patronage. With most Harlem businesses still run by white proprietors, the neighborhood’s new residential demographics weren’t reflected in the public sphere: Shops, restaurants and entertainment venues remained largely segregated. When boxing champion Jack Johnson founded the Cotton Club, he was forced out by white gangsters, anxious to maintain their hold on the neighborhood rackets-namely, speakeasies and bootlegging.
There were a few exceptions to Harlem’s rigid racial codes-the block-long Savoy Ballroom, for instance, which broadcast on live radio the delirious stomping of its 4,000 patrons, its euphoric jazz sessions launched across the airwaves fused to the sounds of integrated crowds dancing. Then there were individuals like Joe Louis and Lena Horne who, by the sheer force of their celebrity, could and did go anywhere they pleased, including the Theresa.
But it would take another shift in economic tides-this time, the Great Depression-to radically alter Harlem’s racial topography again. With the end to the economic excess of the 1920s, tourists and white patrons stopped piling on the uptown A train. Harlem’s nightlife receded, and many of its luminaries faded into obscurity. In 1940, now in an all-black neighborhood, the Theresa was finally desegregated. The “Waldorf of Harlem,” as it became known, was transfigured into a crossroads for the black bourgeois, black celebrities and what W.E.B. Du Bois referred to as “the talented tenth.”
After playing down the street at the Apollo, jazz royalty would congregate at the hotel-Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Ray Charles, Dinah Washington, Cab Calloway, Etta James and Louis Armstrong among them. Joe Louis kept two full-time suites at the Theresa, and his victories drew swarms of fans outside the lobby. Sugar Ray Robinson was another frequent guest, as was a young Cassius Clay. Zora Neale Hurston spent several months at the Theresa while writing the musical drama Polk County. A. Philip Randolph, co-founder of the socialist magazine The Messenger, used space in the hotel to plan his march on Washington demanding an end to hiring discrimination.
In 1952, the radio station WLIB moved its entire broadcast operation to the Theresa. Host Hal Jackson played “race music,” as it was called then, filling his “House That Jack Built” hours with “all your favorite recording stars from here to Mars.” As with most things in Harlem, pop culture and political activity were tightly bound. WLIB broadcast live from the Savoy Ballroom as well as from N.A.A.C.P. conferences. Berry Gordy, before going on to Motown glory, traded records with Jackson, and Malcolm X, whose Organization of Afro-American Unity was also based at the hotel, frequently came by for interviews.
On the corner of Seventh Avenue in front of the hotel, throngs regularly gathered to hear Malcolm X. When the Muslim leader returned from his pilgrimage to Mecca, it was in the Skyline Ballroom on the hotel’s top floor that he held a press conference and said, “I no longer subscribe to racism. I have adjusted my thinking to the point where I believe that whites are human beings as long as this is borne out by their humane attitude toward Negroes.” It was also there that he was asked if he was serious about sending armed guerillas to protect civil rights workers in Mississippi, to which he famously replied, “Dead serious. … As far as I am concerned, Mississippi is anywhere south of the Canadian border.”
But perhaps no one put the Theresa on the political map like Fidel Castro, who stayed at the hotel during his 1960 visit to the U.N. General Assembly. Insulted that a midtown hotel had demanded a hefty down payment and persuaded not to spend the night camped out in the U.N. gardens, he and his entourage arrived to ecstatic fanfare outside the Theresa. There, Castro received visitors including Nikita Khrushchev, Malcolm X and Jawaharlal Nehru, and, according to the accounts of hotel maids, brought in live chickens to pluck and cook in his room.
In the postwar years, a slow stream of black middle-class families started migrating to the suburbs, gaining momentum over time. Meanwhile, the manufacturing economy, which had employed most of Harlem’s working class, began to disappear. By the 1960s, Harlem was imploding. “Harlem is a ruin,” Ralph Ellison wrote in Harper’s in 1964. “Many of its ordinary aspects (its crimes, its casual violence, its crumbling buildings with littered areaways, ill-smelling halls, and vermin-invaded rooms) are indistinguishable from the distorted images that appear in dreams.”
Love B. Woods, the black businessman who had bought the Theresa, was forced to sell it in 1966. When news broke that the hotel was being sold to white owners and converted to office space, several prominent members of the Harlem community rallied to raise the capital to buy the Theresa, but they were ultimately unsuccessful. A few tenants remained in the building under the new ownership, Jimi Hendrix among them. The building was now called the Theresa Towers, and its first six floors were rented by the Haryou-Act Anti-Poverty Program, which addressed joblessness in the black community.
Over the following decades, a parade of nonprofits and social services agencies moved through the Theresa. In Push, the novel by Sapphire (on which the movie Precious is based), the 16-year-old Precious attends an alternative school housed in the Theresa. Kicked out of public school for being pregnant, she arrives at the front desk and asks, “This the alternative?”
With office buildings few and far between, Harlem rents—even for rundown space—often exceeded the market rates for downtown districts. The nonprofits attracted to the Theresa were typically those with a vested interest in the neighborhood, but they were often unable to afford it. A fluctuation in funding, damaging for any nonprofit, could prove especially debilitating. During the Giuliani administration, for instance, the Theresa’s manager told Newsday that an adult literacy program-likely similar to the fictional one attended by Precious-lost its government funding and had to close.
Bill Clinton’s 2001 move to 125th Street, a block from the Theresa, established Harlem as something of a nonprofit hot spot-at least for those that could afford to stay. The Theresa’s tenants have tended toward the spectrum of endowed, educational institutions reflected in today’s roster: Touro College; Arbour Education and Training; a branch of the Columbia’s Teachers College; the Borough of Manhattan Community College.
In 2007, Mayor Bloomberg proposed a drastic shift in Harlem zoning regulations to pave the way for new construction. As hyperbolic midtown rents pushed development farther and farther uptown, city officials and developers promised a “renaissance” of new office towers, hotels and residential buildings, a dazzling Harlem rebound. Over the objections of community members, small businesses were uprooted to make way for a bevy of new building projects. Most, however, were slated to begin just as the real estate market was proving a speculative illusion, and the downturn put a halt, at least temporarily, to much of the new development.
Harlem has always been particularly vulnerable to the nation’s economic mood swings. In 1931, a report to President Hoover noted that 50 percent of families in Harlem were out of work, and only 9 percent received government relief jobs. When a bright, hopeful administration took office in 1932, evidence that the New Deal was not a new deal for black America was blunt and swift. The National Industrial Recovery Act discriminated broadly against black workers, and President Roosevelt jettisoned legislation directed at the black community, fearing the loss of Congressional support for his economic agenda. In later decades, elected officials held press conferences heralding an endless succession of new development initiatives for Harlem, but the results were often as empty.
Mayor Bloomberg was not the first to conjure up grand towers of deliverance, nor were these the first developers’ dreams deferred. But now instead of buildings, there’s a crane frozen above a mess of uncongealed scaffolding and a skeletal hotel carcass. Down the street, a chain-fenced lot is littered with plastic bags.
But 125th Street itself is anything but stalled. The days when Malcolm X charged crowds to action outside the Theresa are long gone, but the 125th Street intersection is an endless gush of people: hawking, preaching, hustling, converting, pushing their way through. Dead buildings or no, the street is alive, the kind of place where the whole scene can upturn and change in an instant, where, depending on the day, the Apollo’s sidewalk can fill with revelers or mourners or both at once, the street vendors with their incense and jewel-toned oils and Farrakhan tomes right there, too, Barack Obama or Michael Jackson T-shirts at the ready.
It’s a street, like Harlem itself, that has a way of subverting the best-laid plans, of becoming exactly what nobody expected. Harlem was always about people stepping into the unknown, whether the word itself stirred the exodus of thousands from rural towns across the country, or whether it meant crowds assembling outside the Theresa, come to embark on the brazen enterprise of social change. Which is maybe why the easy promises handed down by developers—the markups of gleaming towers, always absolute in their salvation—haven’t stuck very well in Harlem: The energy of 125th Street, when it’s been there, has always come from the street up. Trickier to legislate—though what truly democratic endeavor isn’t?—and more bebop than big band, it’s what blows the long hard note of breath into buildings and the streets they make up.