Thursday, July 1, 2010

better off abandoned

It was abandoned like so many other structures here for decades. Neighborhood lore held that in the bad old days, rival gangs would stash the bodies of their victims in the flooded basement. Was only a legend but it added to its mystery. Built in the late 1800's, the wife of Charles Becker, the only police officer in New York City history to be sent to the electric chair, taught here circa 1900. It was the site of a massive turnout for an electoral vote, one of the first where all of Harlem could participate.

I've only found one picture of it from back then, a grainy black and white photo, showing youths in jaunty caps and filling the entire courtyard, recognizable to me by the high arched windows that frame each side and the two buildings down the street that I pass going home from the train. For years, whenever I would walk by, peering past the overgrown trees and looking into its broken windows, especially noticeable in the summer, the middle sidewalk was eerily cold, even with sunlight beaming down at you. I notice odd things like that.

Neighborhood fought for years to have it turned back into a school. Nasty fights at the community boards, developers lying and saying "there aren't enough children in the area." Bullshit. The walls facing the courtyard were painted in a beautiful mural. Developer said it couldn't be saved. Clutching their trade mark coffees and wearing sweaters that seemed more suited to Vermont they wore looks of fear as staunch old timers and young ones like me shot them down. Now it's destined to be something it never should have been, a luxury amenity. Where children use to learn, soon to be a tenant's lounge and cookie cutter apartments. Windows that once looked onto an open courtyard that welcomed everyone will now see only the handful of people who can afford to live there. If they can at all.

I stand across the street, thinking it looked much better with broken windows, and haunted chandeliers glimpsed through long weeds. And that cold feeling? It's still there.

If your interested in learning more about Charles Becker, pick up The Starker by Rose Keefe

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