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Will Gentrifation Spoil the Birthplace of Hip-Hop?:New York Times Article

New York Times Article
Hip-hop was born in the west Bronx. Not the South Bronx, not Harlem and most definitely not Queens. Just ask anybody at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue — an otherwise unremarkable high-rise just north of the Cross Bronx and hard along the Major Deegan. “This is where it came from,” said Clive Campbell, pointing to the building’s first-floor community room. “This is it. The culture started here and went around the world. But this is where it came from. Not anyplace else.”

O.K., Mr. Campbell is not just anybody — he is the alpha D.J. of hip-hop. As D.J. Kool Herc, he presided over the turntables at parties in that community room in 1973 that spilled into nearby parks before turning into a global assault. Playing snippets of the choicest beats from James Brown, Jimmy Castor, Babe Ruth and anything else that piqued his considerable musical curiosity, he provided the soundtrack savored by loose-limbed b-boys (a term he takes credit for creating, too).

Mr. Campbell thinks the building should be declared a landmark in recognition of its role in American popular culture. Its residents agree, but for more practical reasons. They want to have the building placed on the National Register of Historic Places so that it might be protected from any change that would affect its character — in this case, a building for poor and working-class families.

The Sedgwick building is part of the state’s Mitchell-Lama program, in which private landlords who receive tax breaks and subsidized mortgages agree to limit their return on equity and rent to people who meet modest income limits. The contracts allow owners to leave the program and prepay their mortgage loan after 20 years. Rent regulations can protect tenants from increases, but not always.

While Mitchell-Lama buildings in parts of Manhattan, like the Lower East Side, were among the first to leave the program, housing experts say that the trend has spread far beyond, from the Rockaways to the west Bronx.

Tom Waters, a housing policy analyst at the Community Service Society of New York, said there are about 40,000 Mitchell-Lama units in the city, down from 66,000 in 1990. The rate of buildings leaving the program has accelerated since 2001, he said, as landlords find they can do better on the open market.

Labor groups and housing advocates have called for safeguards on moderate-income housing, which they said was essential for the city’s economic health. While the groups have lauded Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg for his commitment to building such housing, they said the State Legislature should address policies that affect the city’s housing market.

“There is no single solution,” said Ed Ott, executive director of the New York City Central Labor Council. “Preservation of currently affordable housing is something we need to look at. Working people are going to have no place to go.”

In February, tenants of the Sedgwick Avenue building, which has 100 units, were told that the owners planned to leave the Mitchell-Lama program. The building’s owners did not respond to several requests for comment for this artic
Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, said landlords were entitled by contract to opt out after a set period. He said that if there were concerns about keeping the buildings in the program, the government should consider better incentives.

“Contracts should still mean something,” Mr. Spinola said. “Affordable housing is clearly a problem in the city. I do not believe the social concerns for citizens of the city of New York should fall on the backs of one particular owner when it is a citywide problem.”

The problem has been widespread enough to keep Dina Levy of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board looking for new strategies to slow it down. The group, a nonprofit housing advocacy organization, is advising the Sedgwick tenants.

“The market is so out of control in every corner of every borough,” said Ms. Levy, director of organizing and policy for the group. “We have run out of land, so anywhere in the boroughs can be the next hot real estate market. That’s why we’re scrambling to find preservation opportunities to keep them affordable.”

That usually involves seeing if there are mortgage requirements or land covenants that mandate the property be used for moderate-income housing, she said. But when tenants of 1520 Sedgwick came to her group in February, organizers stumbled on an interesting fact when they searched for the address online.

“The first hundred hits said ‘birthplace of hip-hop,’ ” said Dan DeSloover, an organizer for the group. “Kool Herc had lived there. That was a great coincidence to have this building be part of that history.”

The idea to have the building declared a landmark as a way of keeping it affordable for moderate-income families developed slowly, as organizers discussed it with tenants and elected officials’ staff members.

Preservationists doubted it would stop the building’s owners from leaving the subsidy program, since the landmark distinction would apply to the structure and not necessarily its use. And there is another obstacle: to be eligible for the National Register, a building normally has to be at least 50 years old. The Sedgwick building falls short of that by 12 years. Exceptions are made for extraordinary cultural significance.

“It is complicated when you try to preserve some other feature of a building besides its architecture,” said Lisa Kersavage, a preservationist at the Municipal Art Society of New York. “But this is a very important cultural touchstone for New York, and awareness should be raised.”

Cindy Campbell, who promoted the first party where her brother spun the tunes, is intent on doing at least that. She hopes that by highlighting the history of the building, where her family lived for nine years, she might be able to enlist big-name rappers to Mayor Bloomberg in her campaign to help the tenants.

She still recalls the first party — on Aug. 11, 1973, she says — which she dreamed up as a way for her to get some extra money for back-to-school clothes.

“I didn’t want to go to Fordham Road to buy clothes because you’d go to school and see everybody with the same thing on,” she said. “I wanted to go to Delancey Street and get something unusual.”

Her brother wound up giving the neighborhood something unusual, too, inside the packed and sweaty community room. Drawing on his wide-ranging musical tastes, he combined sounds and in time those sounds were combined in new ways as he extended the beats to the delight of the dancers.

“It wasn’t a black thing, it was a we thing,” said Mr. Campbell, now 52. “We played everything. Gary Glitter? We rocked that. We schooled people about music.”

Since leaving 1520 Sedgwick, Mr. Campbell has moved to Long Island and has continued spinning tunes. (On Sunday, he was the D.J. for the city’s first Dance Parade, which traveled from Midtown to Lower Manhattan.)

Some old-timers rushed up to him last week when he and his sister visited the building. They told him — to his dismay — that the community room has been closed for renovations since last year.

“All of it came from here,” he said. “From this building. It should be respected.”

Curtis Brown, who was a teenager living a few blocks away during Kool Herc’s heyday, agreed. Mr. Brown went from being a fan to becoming Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers, an early and influential rap group.

“That place means everything,” he said. “You can look at it objectively and say it could have happened somewhere else. Maybe. But this is where it did happen.”

To him it is already a landmark.

“As far as government and what they consider important, who knows?” he said. “But for something that saturated the world culture, that went from one building to the world, I would want to hold on to the historical significance of that building.
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