The Historical Renaissance Ballroom

There is the history, the promise, the proposal, the existing structure, and the deception behind the proposed restoration of the historical Renaissance Theatre and Casino Ballroom.

Photo Credit:
Francette Carson

The Renaissance Theater & Casino Complex was the “Heart and Soul of Harlem.” The Renaissance was a metaphoric symbolization of independence, self-reliance, and strong community values for people of color. The formal address was 2341-2349 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. The social venue occupied an entire block between 137thto 138thstreet. The Renaissance Theater consisted of a casino, ballroom, 900 seat theatre, six retail stores, and a basketball arena.

The social venue was designed, financed, built, owned, and operated by African American entrepreneurs. The Sarco Realty company was under the ownership of West Indian entrepreneur, William Roach. The theatre was constructed in 1921 and designed by notable theatre architect Harry Creighton Ingalls. The historical structure was a vehicle bringing forth over a decade of black culture, arts, and political activism.

The theater complex was a historical landmark where people of color came together to engage in culture. Many orchestras, ragtime, jazz performers, and musicians graced the stage, including Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and others. The African American theatrical performances were a frequent occurrence. The Renaissance complex was the center of racial pride; parties, community events, fundraisers, assemblies, political rallies, dance marathons, wedding receptions, college formals, Debutante, Cotillion, and Masquerade balls. Joe Louis’s professional fights were hosted at the Renaissance. The celebration of African American achievements held prominence. The Renaissance was utilized by organizations such as the NAACP, CRISIS, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Business and Professional Men’s Forum, and many others.

Most notably, the arena was home to the Harlem Renaissance Five, a black professional basketball team, also known as the Rens’. The team spread the news of the cultural, social, and artistic explosion of life in Harlem through the mid-west, south, and northeast. The nostalgia of Harlem motivated people of color to migrate to the Black Cultural Mecca. There were a number of night clubs located in Harlem; Lenox Club, Plantation Inn, Savoy Ballroom, and the infamous Cotton Club. These venues catered to white audiences and had a negative perception of blacks, although they were located within the black community. The Renaissance Theatre was a true representation of the Harlem Renaissance movement. The Renaissance Ballroom Complex was referred to as the “Negro Theatre”, catering to African American audiences. The theatre was utilized as a platform for the development of a new identity for people of color in America. The Renaissance complex supported the ideology of the “New Negro”, redefining the race through intellectual production of literature, art, and music to promote social, political, and racial equality. Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association was the force behind the construction of the Renaissance Theater & Casino.

The complex was vacant since the late 1970s. In 1993, The Renaissance Complex Redevelopment Corporation (RCRC) purchased the property for $300,000. The RCRC was comprised of the Abyssinian Development Corporation (ADC) which owned 51% of the corporation. The other 49% of shares were owned by nine other Harlem based investors. The RCRC redevelopment plans failed to be implemented due to lack of funds, and the structure remained in deplorable condition. The property was sold by the Abyssinian Baptist Church for 15 million dollars.

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The Save Harlem Now non-profit advocacy organization coordinated a protest to cease the demolition of the Renaissance. The protest was led by Historian and Activist, Michael Henry Adams. According to Adams,” the Landmarks Preservation Commission ignored the neighborhood.” The New York Landmark’s Conservancy failed to grant the Renaissance Casino Ballroom landmark status. Before the demolishment of the historical Renaissance theater, a proposal was made in 2008. The promise to promote economic growth, employment opportunities, to support and encourage private investment, and improve the overall quality of life for Harlem residents. The identified goal was for the gentrification process to replace vacant buildings and land with affordable housing, offices for media and entertainment businesses, cultural and retail space. The initial prospective project was being constructed by the Richman Property Services and Monadnock Development LLC. The developers had planned to build along 125th-127thstreet. The massive complex would have been a 1.7 million square feet retail, office, and commercial units and 30,000 square feet for East Harlem Media Entertainment Center and potential for affordable housing. However, the significant historical landmark was demolished in 2015.

Michael Henry Adams, historian, activist, writer, lecturer, believes the demolition of the historical Renaissance Theatre and construction of the Rennie, a luxury condominium was deceptive from the beginning. The initial proposal indicated the structure would provide 100% affordable housing for the index of the community. The result is a luxurious condominium complex catering to wealthy upper-middle-class residents with the least expensive unit costing $530,000.

Adams is an expert on Harlem’s historical landmarks. His historical research concludes the landmark commission protects only 20% of Harlem’s historic structures. Adams provided knowledge of various historical landmarks in Harlem. Harlem is home to the wealthiest African American church, St. Phillips Episcopal Church. The first African American Architect designed the church, Vertner Tandy, who also designed Madame C.J. Walker’s home. The Renaissance Ballroom Casino Complex held great historical significance; it was a place of pleasure for people of color. Marcus Garvey preached, “do not buy where you cannot eat.” Blacks did not want to continue to spend their money on a venue where they were not welcomed, so they invested in the Renaissance. In the 1970s, the black-owned theatre complex lost control to a financial institution. The bank officials allegedly fired the black employees and hired an all-white staff. For over twenty years, an event was sponsored to collect donations to save the Renaissance theatre. A fire occurred, and the theatre was destroyed.

The developers made promises indicating they would preserve the facade of the building. The only part of the structure saved was diamond-shaped panels from Morocco. The panels will be placed in the front of the building to remind the community of the past existence of the historical Renaissance Ballroom and Casino. The structure sat for many years, and the justification to demolish this historical landmark was to declare the building structurally unsound. Save Harlem Now held a protest from October 2019-April 2019, and the day of the demolishment, Michael Henry Adams was arrested for trying to stop the demolition.

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The project began on April 25, 2019, after the initial proposal of redevelopment in 1993 and several redevelopment plans.  According to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, the developer planned the construction of a 19 story apartment complex building, designed by S9 Architecture located at 201 East 125th and Third Avenue with the proposal of constructing 400 mixed-income apartments, of which 300 would be affordable. A plan to construct 65,000 square feet of commercial space, 5,000 square feet of cultural facilities, and 10,000 square feet of public open space to the neighborhood.

The Rennie Luxury Condominium Complex

The existing structure is titled “The Rennie- Luxury Harlem Condos” located at 2351 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in central Harlem. The housing complex consists of 134 luxury condominiums for sale with eight stories, prices ranging from $530,000(studio), 690,000 (1 bedroom), 968,000(2 bedrooms),-1.6 million (3 bedrooms). The Rennie advertisement reads as follows “ the Manhattan condominiums are near organic groceries, coffee shops, gyms, and more. A medley of brand new Harlem condos offering a suite of amenities and a 25-year tax abatement. The amenities include a children’s playroom, fitness room, a party and entertainment room, bicycle storage, and on-site parking and private storage and rooftop lounge for the residents. The new meaning to city living in Harlem. The Heart of Harlem. Soul of the Renaissance. Manhattan’s Most Vibrant Neighborhood Beats to Its Own Rhythm.” According to Meredith Marshall, co-founder of BRP development company, “the launch of sales at this new building continues our commitment to offering desirable urban housing options for diverse populations in sought after neighborhoods. With the Rennie, we are honoring the legacy of the site, while providing unique amenity options in a neighborhood with significant culture and history.”

On March 4, 2020, at a seminar held at City College of New York, Mr. Henry Adams concluded the proposal for the new Renaissance Theatre complex was falsely misleading. Propaganda and deception were transparent. The landmark preservation Commission received support from influential blacks not to landmark the building. He indicated the black bourgeoise, including David Dinkins, the 106th Mayor of New York City. Calvin Otis Butts III, Pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church and chairman and founder of the Abyssinian Development Corporation has invested $500 million in housing and commercial development in Harlem. Scott Stringer, Comptroller who plans to run for Mayor, has engaged in the planning and gave their approval for the new building.

The initial proposal for the reconstruction of the Renaissance Ballroom Complex appeared to support anti-gentrification strategies. However, gentrification can manifest into racial division due to the disparities in economic and social class. The gentrification process can cause a community to become mono-culture, resulting in a lack of economic and racial diversity.

The anti-gentrification strategies are usually implemented through non-profit developers building and maintaining affordable housing in specific neighborhoods to have economic diversity within a community. The construction of the Rennie, the luxury condominium complex indicates the opposite end of the spectrum, profit over affordable housing. City officials govern the community and economic development of a city through commercial re-zoning laws enabling developers to target distressed neighborhoods to transform them into communities populated with expensive luxury apartments and upscale amenities.

There are many consequences for long-time residents as a result of gentrification. These consequences should be identified early and used as a guide for the implementation of effective policymaking laws to support the preservation of history and to maintain the integrity of the community. The idealistic goal of gentrification is to mix race, age, sexual identity, and social class to live amongst each other, enjoying the pleasures of life. The financial difficulties create division, and all cannot live well in an environment that is not affordable. These economic differences result in racial and ethnic division within a community.

The public policy process should begin with the identification of neighborhoods eligible for gentrification and variables that will affect the changes in the community, such as housing availability, economic status, and demographics of the residents. Long-time residents must build political and economic power to maintain some control in their communities. The importance of voting and seeking leadership positions in the community supports the goal of political involvement. It is essential to utilize organizations such as the Harlem Development Corporation, Save Harlem Now and, the Landmark Preservation Commission. The residents should attend City Planning Commission hearings to express their opinions, gain knowledge and, make decisions regarding the plans for their community. It is vital to have public participation, so the community voice can be heard. The long-time residents must become a part of the decision making process.

The solution to protecting one’s heritage, history, and culture is for the long-time residents and politicians to reinvest in their neighborhoods, supporting gentrification earlier in the process by purchasing property, investing in entrepreneurship to serve their communities. The Board of Alders are the zoning authority, and community members should take steps to communicate their interests. The historic district commission must implement zoning laws to prevent the destruction and support reconstruction in the preservation of historical landmarks.

The Save Harlem Now preservation advocacy is dedicated to the fight of preserving Harlem’s historical landmarks. Michael Henry Adams concludes “the destruction of the Renaissance Ballroom Casino Complex is a cultural and historical catastrophe.”