Addisleigh Park residents clockwise from top: Ella Fitzgerald, Count Bassie, Fats Waller, Milt Hinton, Jackie Robinson and Lena Horne. (Courtesy: NYC LPC, Jazzagemusic.com)
Yesterday morning, after a bevy of Modernist aficionados crowded into the Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing room to tout the merits of Bunshaft’s interiors at the Manufacturers Hanover Trust, the commission turned their focus to two historic African American neighborhoods: Sandy Ground in Staten Island and Addisleigh Park in Queens. The unanimous vote for the landmarks designations passed on the first day of Black History Month.
While the three building designations in Sandy Ground may have appeared a bit piecemeal to an outsider, the historically inclined might have been able to knit together the original fabric of the historic black community on Staten Island. The designations included the Rev. Isaac Coleman and Rebecca Gray Coleman House, the Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church, and two wood frame houses on Bloomingdale Road.
The former home of Duke Ellington and, later, James Brown. (Courtesy H.L.I.T/flickr)
The real blockbuster designation went to Addisleigh Park Historic District. The new redistricting includes more than 400 homes, putting the area firmly in the historic camp with Sugar Hill in Harlem, though its English Tudor, Colonial and Mediterranean Revival suburban homes make it look more like Ardsley or Bronxville in Westchester. The land, purchased at the end of the 19th century, saw its first homes in the 1910s and 1920s. Originally an exclusive white neighborhood that prohibited blacks from moving in through restrictive covenants, the area became a legal battleground when white neighbors took to the courts to keep blacks out during the 1940s. But by that time the area was already home to 48 black families, including Lena Horne, Count Basie, and Fats Waller.
“The very people who had to fight to preserve it had to fight to get in it,” noted one of the commissioners. After the Supreme Court ruled against racially restrictive covenants in 1948, the area blossomed as a middle class black community. Horne, Basie and Waller were joined by baseball greats Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella. Bassist Milt Hinton and Ella Fitzgerald moved in.
For Rene Hill, a member of the United Coalition of Veterans and Community Rights (UCVCR), the designation was bittersweet because it did not include the 55 acres of the Community Living Center run by the Veterans Administration. Nearly half the site has been proposed for a housing development by St. Albans Village, LLC. Resident Yvonne Jackson nodded her head in agreement, but said the day was still worth celebrating. Jackson grew up walking through Addisleigh Park on her way to school and bought her home in the neighborhood after retiring in 2001. She said, “I always told my friends, when I grow up I have to move there.”