In upper New York City’s Harlem community, legendary and historic dance halls such as the Audubon Ballroom, the Savoy Ballroom and now the landmark Renaissance Ballroom, along with its theater and casino, have been targeted for the kind of redevelopment that is changing the face of the community.
Vacant since 1992, the Renaissance Ballroom complex, popularly known as the Renny, once was the social, economic and cultural center of Harlem and home to the Harlem Rens, a world-champion basketball team. Located on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard between 137th and 138th streets, it was the gateway to one of Harlem’s most-celebrated neighborhoods, Striver’s Row, a block of stately homes that constituted the heart of Harlem’s Black middle class.
The Renny was built by William H. Roach, an immigrant from Montserrat who bought the northeast corner site in 1920 in partnership with his countryman, Joseph H. Sweeney, and an Antiguan, Cleophus Charity. According to the Landmarks Commission, the architect, Harry Creighton Ingalls, was inspired by the Islamic architecture of North Africa. Bought in 1991 by the Abyssinian Development Corp. (ADC), the community and economic development arm of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Renny now will be transformed into approximately 112 apartment units, with 10,000 square feet reserved for commercial space, another 10,000 square feet for community use, and 27,000 square feet for arts and culture.
The developers and ADC officials hope the project will re-establish the Renny as the cultural epicenter of the new Harlem. Getting to the groundbreaking on March 23 was not easy, however. The ADC had to fight the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s 1991 proposal to designate the complex a landmark. That designation would have meant death for the ADC’s 10-year-old plans for the complex.
“As we arrive at this axis between vision and action, the rebirth of the Renny becomes a particular testament to Harlem and communities like Harlem throughout the country: Revitalization of a previously depressed community can be done successfully,” says the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church and chairman of the ADC. “With thoughtful preparation, ADC’s plan has taken into account the needs of area residents and fully engaged all facets of the community in planning and execution, including substantial job creation in an area of high unemployment,” he says.
To move the Abyssinian Neighbor-hood Project from vision to action, the ADC garnered the support of the community, from the Office of the Manhattan Borough President and from private and public backers. The project is slated for completion by 2009.
“We are extremely excited to break ground on this historic initiative that will rejuvenate the artistic and cultural spirit of the Abyssinian Neighborhood, including provision of community meeting and program expansion space, while also addressing local business development and presenting home ownership opportunities,” says Sheena Wright, ADC’s president and CEO. “It is through these types of model mixed-use developments that Abyssinian Development Corp. tackles a myriad of social issues to fully embody the concept of comprehensive community development,” says Wright, who is a 2006 TNJ “40 Under-40” honoree.
Since its creation in 1989, the ADC has leveraged more than $300 million worth of investments in Harlem. Its officials say the Abyssinian Neighborhood Project and the Renaissance Complex design will not destroy the overall character of the neighborhood. The Renaissance Complex, in fact, will focus on preserving the physical structure where possible, while restoring and vitalizing the cultural significance of the site, they say.