Garbage bags and seedlings in hand, schoolchildren and good Samaritans gathered on Saturday morning along the medians of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard in Central Harlem. Their goal: to make the green spaces in the middle of the street as beautiful as those on Park Avenue.
The event was the work of Marie Littlejohn, the president of the Friends of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard Malls, who led the assembled planters with a bright smile and a passion for the local community.
Littlejohn, who has dedicated herself to the avenue, its history, and the people who live around it, has watched her neighborhood change since she moved here in 1983.
“I moved to Harlem in large part because though it is a large community, it is still a community,” she said. “Even the street people look out for you and make sure you are safe. That is one of the reasons I have become an advocate, because I would like to preserve that sense of community. If you have a community, children are safe, and there is a connectedness.”
When she first arrived in the neighborhood, she started planting with the Friends, getting more involved over the years to attain her current role as president.
The work on Adam Clayton Powell, she said, is not just about making the street look nicer—it’s also a critical part of preserving history.
“Most people don’t even know who Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was,” she said. “That really disturbs me, because he was one of the greatest politicians ever.”
Powell represented Harlem in Congress between 1945 and 1971. The first African-American congressman in the state, Powell was the neighborhood’s best-recognized politician—that is, until he was defeated by a state representative named Charles Rangel.
Littlejohn said Powell’s legacy deserved recognition.
“This is a boulevard in his name that I feel should be maintained and is a way to keep a past about our history in its forefront,” she said.
The Friends have raised money to purchase plants and organize activities—including an annual Christmas tree lighting—with local sororities, fraternities, youth groups, families, and businesses.
Now, the medians along Adam Clayton Powell are among the few in the city maintained solely by community members. So are Park Avenue’s, which are supported by The Fund for Park Avenue, with an annual budget of over $1 million. Littlejohn declined to detail the budget of her group, but stressed that it was built on local fundraising.
Littlejohn also observed that the project has strengthened the community’s bond.
“I remember how, once, a bus driver stopped and yelled ‘Thank you!’ as we were planting,” she said. “At first, people were also concerned that the bulbs would be stolen. That hasn’t happened. I think that people really do appreciate what we’re doing. I hear comments all the time from people who like it and from children who can say, ‘I did that!’”
Littlejohn, though unassuming in appearance, exudes an aura of confidence that reflects her natural disposition for leadership in the community. She’s retired, but she still serves on the Harlem Hospital Advisory Board, regularly attends Community Board 10 meetings, and remains an active member in her service-oriented sorority and church community.
Littlejohn said that as Harlem continues to change, with rising rents and a higher profile in the city, the work the community is doing will become even more important in maintaining the neighborhood’s identity.
“I think the world has, all of a sudden, discovered Harlem, and so everyone is rushing to take stakes,” she said. “Progress is not going to be stopped, so I think it is important—and I’m not sure that it is being done—that we preserve what we have as we continue to move forwards.”
“We need to know and remember our past so that we can continue to build on it,” she said.