School’s out forever; at least at P.S. 186. This aging beauty has loomed over West Harlem’s 145th Street for 111 years—but it’s been vacant exactly a third of that time. The Italian Renaissance structure was considered dilapidated when it shuttered 37 years ago, and today its interiors feel more sepulchral than scholastic.
Windows gape on four of its five stories, exposing classrooms to a barrage of elements. Spongy wood flooring, wafer-thin in spots, supports a profusion of weeds. Adolescent saplings reach upward through skylights and arch through windows. They’re stripped of their foliage on this unseasonably warm February morning, lending an atmosphere of melancholy to an already gloomy interior. Infused with an odor not unlike an antiquarian book collection, upper floors harbor a population of hundreds of mummified pigeon carcasses—the overall effect is grim. You’d never guess this building had an owner, but sure enough…
The site was purchased in 1986 by the nonprofit Boys and Girls Club of Harlem for $215,000 under the condition that new development would be completed within three years. After several decades of inactivity, the group introduced a redevelopment plan that called for the demolition of P.S. 186 and the construction of a 200,000 sq. ft. mixed-use facility with affordable housing, commercial and community space, and a new public school.
News of the school’s demolition mobilized area residents to save the structure. A series of local petitions and letter-writing campaigns championed the preservation of P.S. 186, and gained the support of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, though a landmark bid was blocked at a 2010 community board meeting. At the time, owners insisted that rehabilitating the decrepit building was a financial impossibility.
In a surprising turn of events, the BGCH recently downsized the plan in favor of preservation. The school will be renovated into 90 units of affordable housing and a new Boys and Girls Club.
It’s a rare victory for preservationists, and an unlikely one given the school’s history—when the building was last in use, community members wanted nothing more than to see the place razed.
In addition to generally run-down conditions, safety became a major concern at P.S. 186 in its final years. The H-shaped design allegedly had the potential to trap “hundreds of children and teachers” in the event of a fire. Doors on the bottom floor were to remain open at all times to keep the outdated floor plan up to code, leaving the building completely vulnerable to neighborhood crime.
According to the school’s principal at the time, “parents have been robbed in here at knife point, and people…use this building as a through-way.” In a 1972 incident, two youths, including the 17-year-old brother of a 5-year-old P.S. 186 student, broke into room 407 and raped a teacher’s aide at gunpoint.
Increasing community concern reached a boiling point earlier that year when 60 members of the African American empowerment group NEGRO (National Economic Growth and Reconstruction Organization) moved into the school to call for an evacuation of 600 students on the top three floors.
The stunt caught the attention of the Fire Department, who toured the school later that week. A deputy chief “didn’t see any real hazardous problem,” but was forced to evacuate the remaining 900 students when he was unable to activate the fire alarm. Inspectors discovered that wires leading out of the alarm system had been cut, although a school custodian claimed that the alarm system had worked during a routine test at 7:30 that morning.
By 1975, funding was at last approved for a replacement school, and much to the relief of parents, plans were put in place for the immediate demolition of the aging fire trap. Who could predict that thirty-seven years later P.S. 186 would be getting a second chance?
A few decades ago, this school was described as “antiquated,” “unsafe,” and “plain,” but today, it’s called “historic,” “magnificent,” and “beautifully designed.” This reversal illustrates the complex relationship we New Yorkers have with our buildings, and begs the question: what might the the thousands of old structures we see torn down every year have meant to us in a century?
It’s been a few months since I’ve set foot in the building, and today the visit feels like a half-remembered dream.
To keep vagrants out, cinderblocks had been installed in almost every window and door of the bottom floor. It looked too dark to shoot—but as my eyes started to adjust, I saw that light was finding its way in. Through every masonry crack and plaster aperture, bands of color projected onto decaying classrooms, vibrant variations on a pinhole camera effect. Past a vault inexplicably filled with tree limbs, a hall of camera obscuras each hosting an optical phenomenon more bewitching than the last. P.S. 186 is largely considered an eyesore in its current state, but who could deny that its interior is a thing of beauty?
However photogenic, this decay does little good for its underserved community—it’s the sort of oddity this city doesn’t have room for. Here’s a look inside, before we turn the page on what’s destined to be the most colorful chapter in the controversial, and continuing, history of this unofficial Harlem landmark.
The dance floor of the Harlem Renaissance Ballroom sprouts mushrooms today, but 80 years ago it quaked with the frenzied rhythms of the Lindy Hop.
The Ballroom was completed in 1924 as part of a larger entertainment hub that included a bustling casino and 900-seat theatre. Built and operated by black businessmen, the “Rennie” was the only upscale reception hall available to African Americans at the time. Prize fights, concerts, dance marathons, film screenings, and stage acts were held at the Renaissance, along with elegant parties and meetings of the most influential social clubs and political organizations in Harlem. The community’s elite gathered to dance the Charleston and the Black Bottom to live entertainment by the most renowned jazz musicians of the age.
The nightspot even played host to the nation’s first all-black professional basketball team, also called the Harlem Renaissance, considered by some to be the best in the world in their day. On game nights, portable hoops were erected on the dance floor, converting the ballroom into a stadium. Following each game, almost invariably a victory for the Rens, a dance was held where players would mingle and jive with the choicest ladies of Harlem. The team barnstormed in towns across the country, playing exhibition games in which coveted matches with white teams drew the largest crowds. In their best season, the Renns set a record with 88 consecutive wins that has yet to be broken.
A year before construction on the ballroom was completed, the institution that would one day demolish the Renaissance Casino moved in next door. The Abyssinian Baptist Church was once the largest Protestant congregation in the country, and continues to prosper today, both as a religious institution and a driving force of change in the surrounding neighborhood. Established in 1989, its nonprofit arm, the Abyssinian Development Corporation, has invested over $500 million in community development, becoming the most influential social service and housing provider in Harlem.
The corporation currently rents all of its 1,200 units of housing to low-income families, is responsible for constructing Harlem’s first new high school in 50 years, and has attracted numerous supermarkets, department stores, and national retail chains to aid in the development of the neighborhood. Despite their success, Abyssinian’s dealings have brought controversy in recent years. Many of their low-income tenants accuse the organization of neglect, pointing to hundreds of standing violations in their residential buildings. Their vision of the “New Harlem” seems at odds with some long-term community members, who call their “progress” gentrification.
The ADC purchased the Renaissance property in 1991 with plans to renovate the site back to its historical role as a social hall and community space. In the intervening years, they introduced a new plan that diverges sharply from their traditional housing ventures. While a portion of the property will be utilized as a community center, only 20% of the residential units will be “affordable,” the rest of the 19-story construction will be set aside for luxury condominiums. In a Times quote, Executive Director Sheena Wright cites the necessity of bringing “diverse income levels” to the neighborhood as justification for the project; she asserts, convincingly, that “one should not relegate Harlem to housing just for the poor.”
The first stage of development involves the demolition of the theatre structure. Plans call for the preservation of the ballroom’s facade, but the interior is coming down. The project almost hit a roadblock in 2006 when the structure was pegged for a Landmarks Commission review, but the ADC exerted its political muscle to block the designation, enlisting big name supporters like former Mayor Dave Dinkins, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, and the New York Landmarks Conservancy to voice their opposition. In the five years that have passed since the ADC overcame this obstacle, a bleak economic climate has forced them to put the project on hold. Abyssinian is currently pursuing investors for the project.
The site of the former theatre is now an empty lot harboring a few disused construction vehicles, but contrary to some reports, the Renaissance Ballroom still stands, for now.
Most of the windows are boarded up, but light finds its way through a caved-in ceiling, exposing the diaphanous remnants of a golden age—colored light bulbs still lodged in the nightclub’s chandeliers, seat numbers pinned in the balcony. Ghostly images of jazz singers and blasting trombones barely cling to the proscenium of the ballroom’s weathered stage, once graced by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Ella Fitzgerald. The sense of history here is palpable, and the deterioration absolute. Reduced to mulch, the dance floor supports a thriving green fungal colony. Little points to the existence of a casino on the lower floor, but a coatroom remains largely intact. The rest gives the impression of a war zone—feral cats tread freely over piles of rubble that once delineated rooms. It’s easy to see why Spike Lee used this location as a nightmare crack den in Jungle Fever.
Langston Hughes had the Rennie in mind when he described “a golden girl, in a golden gown, in a melody night, in Harlem town.” It’s been decades since the “mellow magic of dancing sound” has reverberated here, but the Ballroom remains significant through its connection to the cultural and intellectual movement it nurtured.