Finding a Way to Stay in Harlem
Posted June 16, 2018 2:12 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — When Kathy Smith was growing up in the South Bronx, her parents would often take her and her siblings out for family drives. It was on one of those drives, in the late 1960s, that she saw Harlem for the first time. She was 7 or 8, and she remembers being mesmerized. Someday, she decided, she wanted to live there.
“Everyone seemed like they were busy, together, doing things,” she said. “I had never seen that many black people together in a neighborhood before. It amazed me.”
She finally moved to Harlem in 1999, when she married Joseph Kinlaw and moved into a townhouse he owned on 121st Street. He lived in the three-bedroom downstairs apartment, rented out rooms on the upper floors, devoting most of his spare time to repairs. (They met at Roosevelt Hospital, on the west side of Manhattan, where they both worked.)
The building, she said, was in such bad shape that it was barely held together by his near-constant ministrations. “Electrical, heat — it wasn’t really up to par,” Smith said.
When her husband died in 2005, Smith had neither the skills nor the money to make the necessary repairs, and the building violations piled up. She knew, however, that selling was likely to displace the building’s occupants — herself included — not only from the house, but also the neighborhood.
She had recently retired from her job as a nutritionist at Roosevelt Hospital, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to stay in Harlem long paying $1,200 a month, which was the going rate for a one-bedroom apartment at the time, she said.
And Harlem, by that point, was not just an ideal to her, but also her home.
“Harlem is not only a place, it’s a spirit, a feeling: the Schomburg Center, the Apollo Theater. I love the ambience,” she said. “You feel like you can get anywhere in the world from Harlem.”
The neighborhood’s many newcomers, she knew, had been drawn to the same ambience that attracted her, but she worried “that they were making it so unaffordable that the spirit was leaving.”
One day, the solution literally knocked at her door. Representatives from the Abyssinian Development Corp., the nonprofit development arm of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, said they wanted to buy the house. At the time, Abyssinian was buying and renovating many properties in the area and then selling them as single-family homes.
As part of the deal, Abyssinian agreed to place her and the tenants in other affordable units the corporation owned.
“I was the last person to leave,” she said. “I made sure they moved the tenants into newly renovated buildings. I didn’t want them living in traps.”
Of the several apartments Abyssinian showed her, she chose a large one-bedroom in an income-restricted elevator building on West 127th Street.
“It fit me,” she said. It also fit her living room and bedroom set — not as easy as it might seem, given the diminutive scale of many Manhattan apartments. The rent, when she moved in, was $600 a month, and has had modest annual increases since then.
In 2014, however, news spread that Abyssinian was selling a sizable portfolio of its Harlem buildings, including the one where Smith lived. The building had, until then, been restricted to those earning 60 percent or less of area’s median income.
“We were concerned they might make it into co-ops or go market rate,” Smith said.
Once again, she knew that leaving the building would almost certainly mean leaving the neighborhood. Hastily, she formed a tenants’ association, and after a bit of detective work, tracked down a contact for the new owner, Genesis Cos., to request a meeting.
To the tenants’ relief, Genesis told them that the building would remain not only affordable, but income-restricted.
Smith was also relieved to hear that the new owners planned to do some much needed repairs. The superintendent was responsive, she said, but there was a limit to what he could fix.
In the last four years, Smith’s bathroom and kitchen have been replaced, as have the building’s roof, boilers, entry doors and windows.
Smith has been devoting herself to improving the block, specifically relations between the old and new residents.
When a new homeowner recently posted photos of a teenager who wasn’t picking up after his dog — and word got around to Smith that the teen was planning to splash paint on the man’s door in retaliation — she defused the situation by talking to the teen’s parents.
And after she discovered there were plans afoot for a homeowners association, she convinced residents to start a block association instead, which would serve renters, townhouse and condo owners alike. She has also helped start a community garden in a defunct playground and makes sure to circulate a birthday card every year for the block’s oldest resident, Miss Ruth, who is 88.
“On this block we have millionaires, opera singers, people on public assistance. But everyone has a part to play,” Smith said. “I hope that Harlem doesn’t get to be where it’s just co-ops or condos. No matter your line of work or income, you have something to bring to the table.”
She added: “The homeowner is the ideal thing in America. Well, someone has to rent!”