Written by David Gest
On May 21, 2007, the New York Times’ David Gonzalez wrote an article entitled “Will Gentrification Spoil the Birthplace of Hip-Hop?” It described the plight of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, a low- to middle-income housing development built in the late 1960s as part of New York State’s Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program. As a fan of urban history, hip-hop, and historic preservation, I had always marveled that oral histories pinpointed the exact genesis of hip-hop music and culture to a series of parties held in a Bronx housing complex in the early ’70s. Now that the state’s contract with the landlord (a management corporation) permitted it to opt out of Mitchell-Lama, the corporation sought to abandon its tax breaks and subsidized mortgage—which had allowed for 20 years of affordable housing—and sell the property.
After reading the article, I contacted the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, a nonprofit group organizing the tenants’ opposition to the proposed sale and likely loss of affordability under new ownership. I tried to help the cause by writing a narrative description of the building’s historic significance, drawing from my experience working for a preservation consulting firm in Los Angeles and my love of old school hip-hop that blossomed during junior high school in Washington, DC. Based on my research (composed in 2007, some of which is presented in the version published in Forum Journal), the New York State Historic Preservation Office determined that 1520 Sedgwick is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, possibly even as a National Historic Landmark. Better yet, at a July 2007 press conference at the building announcing the finding of eligibility, I had the honor of meeting (and yes, asking for autographs from) a who’s who cast of original hip-hoppers, including DJ Kool Herc (who manned the turntables at the 1520 Sedgwick parties), Afrika Bambaataa (founder of the Zulu Nation), Grand Wizard Theodore (the original record scratcher), and Melle Mel (lead rapper of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five).
In the fall of 2008, the building was sold to a private real estate developer for $7 million. However, the economic recession has temporarily made conversion of the building to market-rate units unfeasible, and according to a January 2010 New York Times article, the new owner has let the building fall into disrepair, with a dramatic increase in the number of housing violations since the change in management (from 82 to 598 violations).
While a museum at the site probably would not be appropriate – the current residents would like to continue to be able to use their recreation room, where DJ Kool Herc hosted the first ever hip-hop parties – some kind of publicly accessible historical documentation, or perhaps a series of hip-hop concerts, could benefit the building, local neighborhood, and fans of music history everywhere. Most importantly, a philanthropist (possibly one or more of the numerous millionaire hip-hop recording artists) could purchase the building and promote a new dimension of historic preservation: in addition to preserving the building’s bricks and mortar, such a benefactor could aim to preserve the socioeconomic conditions that helped give rise to hip-hop in the first place: housing affordable to the low- and middle-income community of the South Bronx.
This post presents highlights from David Gest's article of the same title in the Summer 2010 issue of Forum Journal, which confronts the challenges of preserving modern and recent past resources. Articles in this issue ask readers to re-examine the sixties, reconsider the 50-year rule, and branch out in defining and identifying cultural resources deserving of preservation. You can now read the introduction by Christine Madrid French (director of the National Trust's Modernism + the Recent Past program) and David Gest’s full article for free here. Abstracts of additional articles by Theodore H.M. Prudon, Elaine Stiles, Alan Hess, Paul Goldberger, Senya Lubisich and Cheryl Dos Remedios are also available.
If you would like to purchase a copy of the latest issue of Forum Journal, visit www.preservationbooks.org and don’t forget to take advantage of Preservation Books’ Annual Summer Sale where you can get 10% off (in addition to regular discounts) when you use the code SALE10 at checkout. Sale ends September 3rd.
David Gest recently received degrees in law and city planning from Columbia Law School and the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, respectively. The author wishes to thank Dina Levy of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board for the opportunity to prepare this context statement for the National Register nomination and architectural historian Francesca Smith for providing the building description and analysis of National Register eligibility.
The full article is reprinted with permission of David Gest; a longer version was originally published in Panorama 2008, Journal of the City and Regional Planning Department of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, pages 67-73.
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