By DAVID GONZALEZ DEC. 13, 2015
Morning sunlight filled Karen D. Taylor’s apartment, casting a warm glow on the books and artwork lining the dining room. Here, perched high along the bluffs in Harlem’s Sugar Hill, she invoked the names of prominent African-Americans who made her imposing building, 555 Edgecombe Avenue, the address of choice decades ago: Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Count Basie and W.E.B. Du Bois, for starters.
Today, the plaster reliefs in the lobby are chipped, the uniformed staff long gone. To a casual observer it looks like a building that will sooner or later be consumed by the kind of gentrification that has already remade central Harlem. Ms. Taylor is keenly aware of that, which is why she has enlisted a band of like-minded people to document and preserve the area’s history to ensure that whoever moves here knows the greatness that has dwelled within her building, as well as at 409 Edgecombe, a few blocks south, where Thurgood Marshall and Roy Wilkins, among other luminaries, once lived.
“The way I look at it, so-called gentrification is a foregone conclusion, and there is nothing we can do about it at this juncture, because the market forces are too strong,” said Ms. Taylor, an editor and writer from Cambria Heights in Queens. “We are trying to uphold the legacy of the enormous intellectual, political and social activism that went on in both buildings. I have lived in Harlem for almost 30 years because the history here is so rich.”
They call their group While We Are Still Here, a straightforward declaration and reminder, given how their neighborhood has changed over the years. Her eyes brightened at her early memories of 125th Street, with its small businesses and larger-than-life characters. Now, she sees central Harlem as an example of the forces encroaching upon her own neighborhood farther north: rising rents, luxury buildings and chain stores.
Ms. Taylor first lived about a half-mile south of 555 Edgecombe, arriving in Harlem in the mid-1980s during the chaos of the crack wars. Despite that, she found herself in a tight-knit building, where people looked out for one another. They complained to the city about quality-of-life issues, including litter-strewn streets and open drug dealing, but she said little was done. Instead, she took to the street with a broom to clean up the broken glass and dog waste scattered along the sidewalk.
“We were the people, like others throughout Harlem, who swept in front of their houses,” she said. “And now it’s strange to see new groups of people come in and look down their noses at you.”
That feeling of being a stranger in your own community still irks her and others in her group, which includes writers, activists and professionals. Many of them said they grew concerned about the future after seeing newcomers move in with what seemed like little regard for those who had lived there — and held things together — for decades.
“People used to speak to each other,” she said. “Now, it feels alien, that energy has dissipated. You don’t get to know the people now. They don’t really speak to you. They’re not really friendly.”
If anything, that lack of communication made the group more determined to embark on a plan to collect, preserve and discuss the area’s history. With the help of small grants, the group has been planning a series of panel discussions for the coming year spotlighting the accomplishments of past residents in the arts, activism and the law. The group already held a town-hall-style meeting attended by about 50 people at a neighborhood cafe that used to be Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, where Redd Foxx and Malcolm X once worked as dishwashers. Among the suggestions were historical markers in the area and creating lesson plans that could be used by local schools.
The group has also been recording oral histories of some of the area’s older residents. One of them was Judy Stafford, an educator whose father got her an apartment at 555 Edgecombe in the 1970s. In a video interview shortly before she died in September, she recalled her awe as a child when her father told her Jackie Robinson had lived in the building, too. To know that other accomplished athletes, artists, writers and musicians had called that address home made her want to live there even more.
“We wanted to be part of that world,” she said in the interview. “Everybody took pride in what they were doing. There was this amazing sense of ‘I’m black and I’m proud.’ I still feel that way.”
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Karen D. Taylor, the founder and executive director of While We Are Still Here, a cultural advocacy group, at her apartment in Sugar Hill. CreditDavid Gonzalez/The New York Times