Consider vacant buildings: claiming a place on the street but empty inside, part of a neighborhood but not. Their silent presence captures the arc of a neighborhood’s life: past investment, disinvestment, abandonment, potential, possible reinvestment, and growth.
A 2007 survey found that 74% of Manhattan’s 1,723 vacant buildings lie north of 96th Street. Many are located in El Barrio — a Manhattan neighborhood also known as East or Spanish Harlem, bounded by East 96th Street, the Harlem River, the East River, and 5th Avenue — so many that the district’s City Council member Melissa Mark-Viverito and housing advocates have dubbed these vacant buildings “haunted houses.” More recently, the vacant buildings of El Barrio have come under scrutiny by two neighborhood residents, artist Rainer Ganahl and documentary filmmaker Andrew Padilla.
Rainer Ganahl’s film Haunted Houses (also referred to as Haunting Houses) expands on Mark-Viverito’s description through a survey of the buildings on 3rd Avenue from 100th to 120th Streets. Ganahl mounted two cameras on the back of a moving vehicle, one trained on street level, the other looking up at buildings’ higher floors. The film is presented split-screen, showing in sharp contrast the inhabited ground level and the boarded-up floors above. From 100th to 120th Streets, almost every block shown has one partially vacant building; some blocks have as many as three. The notable exceptions are the stretches populated by public housing. Ganahl gathered footage at quiet moments, when few people were on the street and the stores’ overnight gates were still drawn, emphasizing the impact the vacant buildings have on the neighborhood.
Haunted Houses is part of a broader series of the same name, which includes another version of the film (filmed on a bicycle), photographs of the buildings, reading seminars, and concerts, all of which are meant to address the odd “sense of normalcy” and simultaneous “lack of residential vitality” caused by the neighborhood’s open street-level stores and sealed-up residences. Ganahl is concerned by the vacant buildings and the ways they “cater to all the negative prejudices this neighborhood has suffered so much from,” but he also finds them visually compelling. He notes, “From an aesthetic point of view this inaction offers the beautiful spectacle of a time capsule.”
While Ganahl is captivated by these vacant structures in a formal sense and as reminders of historic and current disinvestment, disinterest, and disengagement in East Harlem, filmmaker Andrew Padilla considers these buildings to be the front lines of the gentrification of El Barrio. Padilla is the creator of a documentary and series of walking tours called El Barrio Tours: Gentrification in East Harlem. Born and raised in the neighborhood, Padilla’s work is rooted there though he sees gentrification as an international phenomenon.
Padilla’s built environment-based walking tour and his more people-focused documentary complement each other. The film mixes interviews with residents, storeowners, activists, and elected officials with footage of a tenant meeting (not-exactly-a-spoiler alert: the tenants are having issues with their landlord) and historical images, telling the story of the neighborhood’s change from Italian enclave to “the largest Puerto Rican neighborhood in the 50 states” (as the film’s flier notes) to a community threatened by gentrification.
Earlier this summer, Padilla met me outside the Starbucks on 96th Street and Lexington Avenue for a walking tour of El Barrio. Padilla began: “I start the tour on 96th Street because growing up, this was the unspoken boundary line. All people with a mere semblance of wealth used to get off the subway by 96th Street. You could predict what stop it was by who was or wasn’t on the train. As a little kid, seeing that, I used to wonder why. Then, I started seeing those people on the train after 96th Street — and I started to wonder why.”
To address the first “why,” Padilla pointed out the MTA’s Tuskegee Airmen Bus Depot on Lexington between 99th and 100th Streets, just one of the public facilities housed in East Harlem that affect the health of neighborhood residents. “Growing up, one third of my classmates had asthma,” Padilla noted. “Then I went to college. I knew only one person with asthma.” The East Harlem Congressional District also has a higher concentration of public housing than any other district in the country. “People thought El Barrio would never gentrify because of the projects,” Padilla said. “They were wrong.”
Walking east, we paused in front of Artspace PS 109, a $52.2 million project to turn a former school into 90 units of affordable housing for artists and their families as well as space for arts-based non-profits and galleries from the surrounding neighborhood. Padilla noted that the project is spearheaded by a neighborhood organization, but in partnership with a well-funded outside arts organization and is sited next to one of the NYCHA properties the Authority is considering leasing to private developers. “There is a lot of good that could come from a project like this,” Padilla said. “But NYCHA placing their luxury apartments right next to PS 109 does force you to wonder who will eventually reap the benefits.”
Venturing west, we saw the site on which Harlem Community Development Corporation proposes to build “La Marqueta Mile,” which would turn a currently vacant area under the elevated Metro-North Railroad tracks into a “vibrant permanent outdoor market and public park promenade featuring cultural events, specialty foods, arts and crafts; all produced on-site by local artisans.” We paused on 3rd Avenue, busy with people shopping, unlike the 3rd Avenue of Ganahl’s film, which was empty in the early hours of the day. But that 3rd Avenue still exists – Padilla assured me that I wouldn’t want to walk alone at night on the avenue, which becomes desolate once the stores close.
The upscale Lexington Hill Condominiums, on Lexington Avenue between 103rd and 104th Streets, replaced a single-story supermarket – not such a loss, according to Padilla – but also affected surrounding tenants. Seeing Lexington Hill go up, the owner of the building across the street chose not to renew his ground floor tenants’ leases, hoping to attract more upscale stores. Those storefronts still stand empty. “It’s not that one building is going to change the neighborhood,” Padilla noted. However, the ripple effect of events that occur after one development could cause lasting impact.
Of course, neighborhood change does not have to be negative. As Padilla noted, “We want the same things all neighborhoods want: safe, clean streets, better housing, more park space. But we just want to be here when all that happens. We need to be the stakeholders and benefactors in the process, at the table, determining our own fates.”
To demonstrate an alternative to expected patterns of gentrification, Padilla stopped on East 110th Street between Lexington and Park Avenues. For years, Luis Perez’s Casablanca Meat Market was the only business on this block. Out of fear that the City would condemn his business and use the land to build public housing, Perez bought some of the buildings around him. He now rents out these apartments below market rate and, with financial help from the City’s Housing Development Corporation, other City and State subsidies, and the support of DDM Development and Services of Harlem, Perez was able to develop the mixed-use building in which his market is now housed. The building has 46 residential units rented to low-income tenants. For Padilla, this is an example not only of a local resident making the community better, but also how the City and State can recognize and support the work of a community member and not rely on outside forces to “improve” a neighborhood.
Padilla sees community discussion about gentrification as vitally important. At each film screening guests are greeted with copies of Tom Angotti’s “Five Things You Can Do About Gentrification in New York City” and at the end of every screening, Padilla, an invited guest, and the audience engage in conversation about the film and neighborhood.
Sam J. Miller of Picture the Homeless was the featured guest at a screening in late April. The discussion touched on issues ranging from NYCHA’s idea of leasing portions of public housing land to private developers, to how difficult it is to win a housing raffle, to how Padilla chose to name his film (a “cheeky reference” to the bus tours of West Harlem where tourists do little more than take pictures in front of the Apollo Theater), to the neighborhood’s vacant buildings. Miller noted that while it may seem like there is no interest in these abandoned buildings, owners may be waiting for an opportune moment in the housing market to reinvest.
Seen in this light, El Barrio’s vacant buildings are not spaces to be revived for the neighborhood’s current community, but are instead placeholders for future inhabitants. In their close examinations of East Harlem, both Ganahl and Padilla call attention to the significance of these haunted houses to the city, the neighborhood, and those trying to make this place home.
Rainer Ganahl’s Haunted Houses projects can be found here and information about his other works here. El Barrio Tours will have a Brooklyn or Bronx premiere some time in October. Upcoming screening dates will be posted here. Information about walking tours can be found here.
Renata Silberblatt is an urban planner who currently works on transportation policy in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. She lives in Midwood, Brooklyn. Unless otherwise noted, images by Renata Silberblatt.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.