Monday, March 30, 2009

☞ PROTECT: Sylvan Court Mews

What is more enigmatic than the history of the mews on Sylvan Court (top photo) is that the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission does not see their value in relationship to other historic mews districts in the city. Mews are typically former 19th century stable yards that end abruptly in an alley-like layout. The carriage houses are only two levels or so and have historically been converted to cottage-like living quarters for the lower middle classes. In the New York City area, there remains the Sniffen Mews (lower photo) in Murray Hill, the Washington Mews by Washington Square Park, Sylvan Terrace in upper Harlem and the Brooklyn Heights Mews. All of the four have been landmarked and restored.

One of the East Harlem community sites mentioned its desire to have Sylvan Court landmark designated but expressed that there is not much left to protect that is original. We disagree. From the looks of it, only windows have to be replaced and the dirt road needs some paver stones or cobblestones for these charming houses to be complete. There are also government subsidies for this type of restoration if the property is part of a historic district in a low income area. Sylvan Terrace (see previous post) forty blocks north was in worse condition by the time it was landmarked a couple of decades ago, so there should be no problem restoring this rare bit of 19th century history in East Harlem to its former glory. The Sylvan Court Mews is on the street north of the landmarked Harlem Courthouse on 121st Street between Lexington and Third Avenues. Take the 4,5,6 to 125th Street or the 6 train to 116th Street.


  1. Do the owners of those homes want them landmarked? I thought that the church next door on 122 owned a bunch of the houses and didn't necessarily want the restrictions of landmark status so they'd have flexibility in repairs... although I agree that the street is an unappreciated gem in East Harlem. I had a friend who lived on it, and said that people would often wander down the court and ask about buying one of the houses, but he didn't think the church wanted to sell.

  2. I think these are treasures that need to be preserved for posterity. They don't make them like that anymore.

  3. I lived on Sylvan Court for 4 years. It was an incredible place to be -- I remember when Max Bond, the famous Harlem-based architect who died recently, visited our home, and was astonished at the beauty of the mews.

    Of the seven townhouses on the mews, I believe that a pair of them are owned by a nearby church & the rest are owned by individuals. While both landmark status & also investment could help improve the mews (three houses are currently boarded up), I think that a major social challenge is that many of those who expressed interest in purchasing the buildings were realtors who seemed intent on selling the houses at large profits, which would significantly change the character of the community. It is a middle-class community of primarily black & brown residents, and those demographics would be at risk based on the rapidly gentrifying real estate market in the neighborhood.

    Generally, though, I would support such efforts to promote the preservation of this NYC treasure.

  4. Ethan - you are bordering racism. It is a capitalist society and if a white realtor wants to buy, then they should buy if it is for sale. Obviously the people in the neighborhood have neglected these lovely buildings and private investment from rich upper class people either save these building or they disappear forever.

    This is what is wrong with plenty of the institutions in Harlem - racism. The church who does not sell to white people yet preach against racism are hypocrites.

  5. Who is to say that the real estate developers would save the buildings? Ethan was not being racists, just saying enough is enough, can't the working class have something in Harlem...they have just about been gentrified out of it. White people allowed real estate brokers to scare them out of Harlem and the greedy capitalist brokers lined their pockets with more money by overcharging black and brown families who were moved in to rescue a downspiraling real estate market in the early 20th century. The whites didn't have to move, but they let their racism get in the way and they gave up prime real estate out of fear of what? What was wrong with living next door to a black or brown family? So, they left Harlem to the blacks and the browns because of racism. Perhaps the blacks and browns could have maintained the properties had there not been redlining and discriminatory practices by the capitalist banks who wouldn't give them loans. And to compound the dilemma, city services decreased too. We get kicked in the butt all around. I am a brownstone owner who purchased in 1980 when property was greatly undervalued. I couldn't get a loan to renovate so I had to deplete my savings and max out my credit lines to do it. I happen to be black and a little more blessed that I had savings and credit lines that others might not have been lucky enough to have. What I see with the influx of some new Harlem residents coming in is an arrogance like yours that is ignorant of history and callous enough to go on record about it. Hey, ain't no rich upper class white person buying property in Harlem, only middle class and working class whites who can't afford the outlandish prices for real estate below 96th Street are settling for Harlem. And when they come, they have absolutely no appreciation for the rich cultural legacy communities of color have produced. Had it not been for "us" Robert Moses would have knocked down every building and erected ugly public housing and made the whole area undesirable. But I know that I and other neighbors fought to keep houses from being knocked down, from having a plethora of social services sited in Harlem to futher destablise it and to force agencies to provide the same level of city services that folks get below 96th Street. We marketed the area and put pressure on the city to develop programs that encouraged home ownership. Its desireable now because we have managed to hold on even if the properties need a facelife, but most of all because we fought to bring Harlem back. There is a social obligation on the part of government to provide a rememedy to assist working class people with distressed properties. At our years of urging, it was the City that provided subsidies for brownstones to be rehabilitated which initially started the migration of whites as well as upscale blacks and browns back to Harlem. Now it has gotten out of hand because there are no more subsidies. Would it have been racist to prevent whites from enjoying these subsidies that were intended for middle income families of color? Frankly, I welcome everyone. A mix of incomes and ethnicities makes for a more vibrant neighborhood. I just don't think we need to tip the balance for the sake of capitalism, because in the current financial state the country is in, it has been proven that unchecked capitalism doesn't work.