Designing A Master Vision Of Harlem: With, Not For

Historic picture of the Mart 125 corridor

In an age of spoiler alerts ruining your movie watching experience, when the community is involved, starting a conversation with the end in mind can be considered a more direct approach. The question many were left with after the June Mart 125 Town Hall discussion was the following: who is designing a master vision for the future of Harlem? Does one even exist?

The presentation was framed as an opportunity for community feedback on the project. While initially unclear, Spaceworks was said to be a facilitator for that exchange. After the presentation began it became apparent Spaceworks was more than a facilitator, they were the designated site operator for the Mart 125 space. Much of the remainder of the exchange centered around unpacking the rights and lease transfers that designated Spaceworks as the operator of choice by the city’s Economic Development Corporation, how equitable the process was itself, the history of the Mart 125 space and its significance, as well as a vision for the future of Harlem both in the context of the desired community impact of a revitalized Mart 125, as well as the business plan and process by which that vision might be achieved.

It should be said upfront, that culture matters. When the conversation centers around the future for Harlem, this should be widely understood although it is not always brought up. As much as Mart 125’s legacy in the community is as a sacred cultural space occupied by early Black entrepreneurs from the community, the reality is the designation of Mart 125 as an initial space for business incubation was an economic decision. The thought that its proximity to the Apollo, and central location on 125th street, factored into the designation of Mart 125 as a site to begin with at a time when, in the 1980s, Harlem was undergoing tremendous change. Harlem was battling its own possibility, contrasted with its existing circumstances.

What was readily apparent from the Spaceworks presentation, was that the deck was “fluffy,” and lacking on the details around a definitive business plan, or even how the rights transfer happened over the last 20 years since the space closed and vendors were evicted. For the sake of benefit of the doubt, showing up to a meeting with a deck to discuss a vision absent the business plan to reach that vision was short sighted at best, and dubious at its worst. Any community for whom the future of the space has been on the hearts and minds of a generation, being one of the last remaining vestiges to the legacy and struggle of “old Harlem,” demands not just a vision, but the nuts and bolts. Catching a community up to speed cannot absolve the responsibility of the details that allowed you to come before the community to begin with.

Perhaps that was discussed at the initial Spaceworks meeting with Community Board 10, but that information was not shared at the meeting I attended, and those details were critically important to establishing trust in the process of designating the future of the Mart 125 space before the community. While it should not be underscored that Spaceworks are a progressive lead organization, they are not Harlem based. They are able to offer subsidized work space in large part because of how deal flow is structured on the backend. The vibe many in that room eventually got was that Spaceworks was a trojan horse, incubated through the Department of Cultural Affairs, for the purpose of being a well incubated cultural vendor with an operational real estate background. By the Economic Development Corporation’s own admission, other culturally designated community based organizations in other communities failed around this very issue of real estate operation. While a community member and former EDC SVP of Diversity also in attendance admitted this was a market failure, the EDC’s reaction was to incubate one organization with this real estate insight, rather than go community by community to develop this skillset amongst existing community based organizations.

That is not how any of this should work. When speed and expediency becomes a substitute for depth of knowledge, and growing the levels of understanding within a community that may be lacking that insight, you are significantly reducing if not potentially removing entirely, the agency of that community long term. When you are discussing lease terms, then the lease operator of this particular space maintains the control and is not rooted in community. I also recognized the lack of communication and transparency around this issue was to blame because my friend Sherrell Dorsey, who runs a community-based technology startup and incubation space (BLKTECHCLT) launched in North Carolina but had been living in NYC, was not a consideration for feedback on this effort. So suggesting the skillset or capability doesn’t exist, thereby justifying your decision to go forward without an RFP, is a faulty presumption.

The lack of technology’s presence in the designation of this Mart 125 space is also a missed opportunity, both in terms of where the conversation on skills advancement and economic opportunity is, but also in terms of scalability. If we wish to develop more sustainable, resilient communities, that starts with greater transparency, greater communication, greater design, and greater platforms for empowerment. At a time when scarcity mentality is rampant, where one person’s slice of the pie falsely suggests the pie cannot be made bigger for all, the city should leverage its position as an owner of these properties across communities like Harlem and the Bronx, to see how we might cooperatively, collectively, think about empowering from the inside out.

In 2009, Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Peace Prize in Economics. At the time it was long a widely held view among economists that natural resources that were collectively used by their users would be over-exploited and destroyed in the long-term (think: fishing waters, and forests). Elinor Ostrom disproved this idea by conducting field studies on how people in small, local communities manage shared natural resources. Her work proved that when natural resources are jointly used by their users, in time, rules are established for how these are to be cared for and used in a way that is both economically and ecologically sustainable. The collective “pie” can be made bigger with the right structure and leadership.

That structure and leadership is clearly missing. At a time when you can search articles about Mart 125 online and come across references to City Councilmen who are STILL in City Council 18 years later, it is clear that the more things seem to change in Harlem, the more they also tend to stay the same. At a time when unemployment rates continue to rise in the community, we instead are widening the opportunity gap around many of the youth and families who have been in this community the longest. Instead of adequately addressing and designing for these market failures, and systems challenges, we have so called “leaders” in the community going along with the flow, selling the community short often for their own self interest, ignoring the worsening reality for so many river to river in this district.

The tools exist in 2018 to improve these processes, but to do so is not easy work. Most importantly, it requires the will to change. If EDC wishes for Mart 125 to preserve cultural space, they should connect with the 125th Street BID and get a broader scope for spaces along the corridor that may better align with that vision while not sacrificing the historic and economically vibrant existing Mart 125 location (spoiler alert: there is a spot that could work if the conversation is brokered soon enough*). As for the vision of the existing space, we should consider the necessity of standing up a homegrown incubation program within the Harlem community that can inform interested and invested community partners, creating a lever for deeper engagement with the community in the process. We should also think through opportunities to possibly expand the Mart 125 vertically if there are air rights that might exist or be leveraged. A 25,000 square foot rock climbing facility is going next door (yes, you read that right; the second rock climbing facility in Harlem), and the new hotel/ residential building in the old Victoria Theater location will be the same height as the state building. Why not consider opportunities to reimagine the Mart 125 space in alignment with its intended economic development mission?

Like so many things, the work of seeking to empower Black entrepreneurs is as pertinent today as it was when the Mart 125 space initially opened. At a time when EDC is pouring significant resources into projects like La Marqueta in East Harlem, and technology ventures throughout NYC, shouldn’t other areas be considered for similar equitable investment? If there is one thing I have seen as a resident, native son, and concerned citizen, Harlem is global. What happens in this village ripples across the world. In the book of sermons that belonged to my great grandmother, the Reverend John Johnson of St Martin’s Episcopal on Lenox avenue said “Harlem ought to be an example for the lesser Harlems scattered all over the country.” That was in 1942. Let us leverage that reality, in the spirit of the rich history of this community, to carefully consider how EDC can serve to empower, and not simply exercise control. The community wants them to be successful in their effort, but that effort must be with, and not simply for.

A guy who cares about Harlem. Strategist, HireHarlem Co-Founder, Manhattan Community Board 9, Former EIR @civichall, NMAAHC Ambassador, V.C. Thinker & doer.