New York has had its share of neighborhood turnarounds in the last 20 years, but few have been as rapid and transformative as that of Frederick Douglass Boulevard, a formerly blighted corridor of often-abandoned tenements interspersed with rubble-filled lots and tire-repair shops. Sometimes called Eighth Avenue, Frederick Douglass originates at 110th Street, the longtime psychic barrier between the Upper West Side and Central Harlem, and runs to the Harlem River Drive above 155th Street, near a public housing development on the site that New York Giants baseball once called home.
The boulevard forms the spine of a 44-block area from 110th to 124th Streets that the city rezoned in 2003, allowing some residential buildings of greater density. In the decade since, spurred by city subsidies and rising values, that southern stretch has experienced a surge of construction, producing crisp-looking condominiums, rental buildings, restaurants and cafes. The boulevard has also been spiffed up in spots north of 125th Street. “In 1988 it looked like Detroit does now,” said Willie Kathryn Suggs, a longtime Harlem resident and broker. “Now, if you’re living in the neighborhood, there are people out there all the time, and you don’t feel you’ve got to get out of the subway and jump in a cab to go two blocks.”
For C. Virginia Fields, who lives near Eighth on 138th, the changes represent something of a vision realized. When she took office as Manhattan borough president in 1998, the city owned most of the buildings on Frederick Douglass below 125th; she pushed mixed-income development.
“We did drawings and we scheduled tours, in big Greyhound-type buses, where we brought developers up from downtown as if they were immigrants coming from a foreign land,” she said. “Because the properties were city-owned, the buildings along Frederick Douglass were purchased for little or no money, and the developers got tax breaks.”
Among the many new residents were the restaurateurs Stephen and Sheri Wilson Daly, who in 2007 fled a tiny one-bedroom rental on East 91st Street, paying $940,000 for a three-bedroom in a mixed-income condo near Eighth. Although delighted with a 25-year tax abatement, the couple were less impressed with the scant restaurant and shopping choices.
“On Friday and Saturday nights from 7 to 9, between 2007 and 2011,” Ms. Daly said, “you could watch droves of people heading to Frederick Douglass and hailing cabs to leave the neighborhood because there were so few places to go in the area.”
In response, the couple opened Harlem Tavern, a family-friendly bistro, on 116th and Eighth, replacing a shuttered auto-repair shop. The menu was priced reasonably, Ms. Daly said, “so we wouldn’t alienate the neighborhood; we wanted new residents, but we wanted the old residents, too.”
Others have set up shop on the boulevard’s new restaurant row. In April, Yvette Leeper-Bueno, who lives nearby in a redone single-room occupancy rowhouse, opened Vinatería, a trattoria that would not be out of place in SoHo. “This neighborhood’s been able to retain its character and still open itself to new and wonderful things,” she said. “It’s still evolving.”
What You’ll Find
The renaissance of the boulevard got a jolt of energy with the city’s recent $25 million sale of a site at 110th and Eighth to an affiliate of Artimus Construction for a 127,000-square-foot mixed-use project. Replacing a BP station at the boulevard’s gateway, the project will have some 56 units, at least 20 percent below market rate, as well as space for the Millennium Dance Company, said a spokesman for the city’s Economic Development Corporation. Artimus is the developer behind the new One Morningside Park luxury tower, also on 110th.
Side streets are pulsing with life as well. In some cases, homeowners are renovating townhouses for themselves, with rentals to offset mortgage costs. In others, developers are reimagining houses as boutique condos.
On 112th west of Eighth, Ms. Leeper-Bueno added projecting angled windows to her south-facing rowhouse, gaining a western view of Morningside Park and the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. At 233-235 West 113th, Epic Management is developing two townhouses into a 10-unit condo. “Harlem is still a village,” said Jeffrey Berger of Isen & Company, the firm handling the sales, so quaint buildings “are desirable.”
Housing officials say that unsubsidized private development in the area would never have happened without city investment in low- and mixed-income housing. Some 2,725 units of income-restricted housing have been created in Central Harlem since 2002; more than 1,650 were built or preserved along Eighth.
“Now it’s possible for a private developer to go out and get private financing, without city subsidies, for a building of market-rate rentals or sales,” said Marc Jahr, the president of the city’s Housing Development Corporation. “But the only way we reached this point was through an enormous infusion of city subsidies.”