Budgets are tight and frills are few, but effort has been made and much as been done for the re-housed homeless at Sugar Hill
Back in the early ’90s Ellen Baxter was aghast when she visited the Fort Washington Armory homeless shelter in the poor Washington Heights neighbourhood of Upper Manhattan.
Painted lines on the floor were all that separated more than a 1,200 unfortunates into the domains of tuberculosis sufferers and ex-cons or demarcated violent sociopaths from AIDS patients who had lost their homes. The hostel was as noisy and noisome as it was dangerous, its inmates as comfortless as battery chickens.
Baxter’s horror was in part because it was her own successful advocacy with the Coalition for the Homeless that forced New York’s government to provide emergency shelter for all the city’s homeless in the first place. The Armory wasn’t the solution she had envisaged so she set about tackling the affordable housing crisis once more. Her pioneering work has led the New York Times to dub Baxter ‘perhaps the city’s most accomplished not-for-profit entrepreneur’.
As head of the not-for-profit Broadway Housing Communities (BHC), she has since established a handful of innovative housing schemes in the Washington Heights area that engage residents in their running and offer education and support. Each scheme also has its arts programme (some with community galleries), fostering a sense of community in the block and in the surrounding area, drawing out creativity to help reinforce a sense of self.
Now, in the face of New York’s relentlessly deepening housing crisis, Baxter is overseeing the finishing touches to her most ambitious project to date – an $84 million, mixed-use, new-build block of housing, cultural and education uses by David Adjaye Associates undertaken in conjunction with New York’s SLCE Architects. It is as conspicuous as they come, a charcoal monolith at the top of the Sugar Hill neighbourhood where Washington Heights meets West Harlem.
Sugar Hill: to Britons of a certain age, the name immediately means the hip-hop record label and the Sugarhill Gang’s ghetto classic ‘Rapper’s Delight’, but the hilly district 40 to 50 blocks north of Central Park, just where Manhattan narrows and the land falls away from the island’s spine to the Hudson on one side and the Harlem River to the other, has a cultural pedigree dating back to the interwar Harlem Renaissance. In that period, poets, photographers, writers and musicians were drawn to the area and Sugar Hill offered the sweet life and pride to the African American community. Duke Ellington performed in Sugar Hill, Billie Holiday sang in the area, musicians had their homes here.
Walk the 10 blocks up St Nicholas Avenue from 145th Street. A train station and the area’s architectural pedigree remain on display, its brownstones and apartment blocks a variation on grand 19th-century themes. There are buildings nearby by architects George Frederick Pelham, Samuel Burrage Reed and especially Henri Fouchaux. There are swags of foliage, cartouches and columns aplenty and, in places, a characteristic Sugar Hill building line where a facade steps back from its neighbour then the next steps back further still, creating a serrated frontage the corners of which can be squared off or swell into turrets. It’s a designated historic district and the brownstones on the side streets are fast being renovated, but the entrenched poverty of the area remains obvious, from its rutted roads and faces to the downcast corner stores.
Where St Nicholas Avenue meets 155th Street near the Coogan’s Bluff promontory, Adjaye tore down a car park and put up a 13-storey tower. It stacks some unlikely uses on the steeply sloping site: affordable apartments; an early childhood education centre for 120 pre-schoolers; offices for the BHC; and the hands-on Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling. Adjaye, who has a flourishing New York office, won the project in an invited competition. He has called Sugar Hill a ‘new typology for affordable housing’ and it is certainly a rare and rich mix. When the lottery for tenancies was opened, 50,000 applications were received for its 124 units.
Aesthetically, it also stands in stark contrast to New York’s most conspicuous approach to public housing in the postwar period – the anonymous brick, often cruciform, skyscrapers that stud Manhattan from the Lower East Side to just down the hill from the Bluff where the 1968 Polo Grounds project has four 30-storey towers housing more than 4,000 residents. Yet Adjaye has made no concessions to prettification or homeliness with his striated pumice-coloured edifice. Its ribbed precast concrete panels may be disrupted by abstracted ‘Harlem roses’ that recall the florid ornamentation of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but this bare-knuckles building stakes a firm claim to the corner. It’s a classic Adjaye with a lineage back through his arts office at Rivington Place, Shoreditch and his early Dirty House and Elektra House.
The charcoal keep’s entire volume shifts horizontally halfway up and also in the vertical plane on its south side, recalling the staggered fronts of the nearby brownstone facades and creating four communal roof terraces in the process. Public funding did not run to the private balconies that might have moulded the monolith. Apparently the windows are on the large side for US public housing and the elegant dark frames are incised around their perimeter to increase modelling but, except for the ribbon of glass denoting the pre-school, the solid to void ratio is firmly weighted to the solid. The office floor is not given external expression and it is left to the different shades of the precast panels to offer some chequerboard patterning. Does this severity amount to boldness or is it just grim? Many commentators think the latter.
‘Tenants may be elderly, immigrants or recovering addicts moving on from shelters, but the spirit is communal both for residents and in terms of engagement with Sugar Hill’
This close integration of users who are supported is key to Baxter philosophy. Tenants may be in housing need for many reasons, but they are invited to rub along together rather than be segregated into their ‘problem’ groups. Tenants may be elderly, immigrants or recovering addicts moving on from shelters, halfway or ‘three-quarter’ housing, but the spirit is communal both for residents and in terms of engagement with Sugar Hill. Walk into the handsome lobby with its uniform ribbed in dark-stained timber with a gold ceiling, and brass fittings, and it might be tenants staffing the reception. Baxter, a slight, quietly spoken woman of middle years with long braided hair and an unlikely prize-fighter for justice, is first encountered fussing with the saplings on the forecourt.
Later, wandering through the pre-school areas that are optimistic with light, planted courtyards and apple fresh colours, she has to disentangle her legs from the embrace of a succession of affectionate three-year-olds. The kids have just produced an array of charcoal drawings of their tower and their education will include a good deal of interaction with the museum; the philosophy being to promote the ‘creative intelligence’ that underpins literacy. She blames government inaction, property prices, race (New York has the most racially segregated schools in the US), police relations, political corruption, a clinical and punitive social service model and a deplorable public health system. Up to 70 per cent of people in the area are born into poverty. On the public housing project opposite, just one in five people completes their high school diploma.
Baxter is dealing with the same weasel words about ‘affordable rents’ as has been seen in the UK and has had to use all her financial ingenuity to keep rents as low as possible to reach those most in need. For instance, people like the Vietnamese pensioner who slept for 18 years in a bunk in the basement of the block she cleaned – her pay was too low to afford a rent. Sugar Hill is her first home. She moved in with her possessions in a shopping cart. People like middle-aged James Rooke who shows off his studio apartment. He came from one of BCH’s ‘three-quarter’ hostels and has now been able to take his sax and vinyl out of storage. He feels ‘blessed’ by his new home that he has filled with outsize furniture. Up on the 13th floor the Westbrookes now have an apartment with a panoramic view of Manhattan when previously they faced eviction and their street. Their son has now graduated and has a place to stay.
Budgets are tight and frills are few but still the plain apartments have timber floors, other floors are linoleum rather than vinyl. Effort is made. The internal corridors on the residential floors widen at some points to reduce an oppressive linearity but they remain windowless to maximise the wrap-around of apartments. You can understand the thinking but it seriously compromises the quality of the landings, and the corridors in the pre-school that end in windows show the difference in results.
When I visited, the 1,579-square-metre museum was still being fitted out but much is being done with limited resources including conservation-standard galleries allowing loans, a permanent legacy gallery dedicated to the Harlem Renaissance, a studio for a genuinely resident artist-in-residence and, on the other side of a 32m-long rooflight, two generous glass-fronted workshops for children’s activities.
Art – whether visual or poetry and jazz events – is integral to the transformative experience, supplying dignity and autonomy as well as a roof. ‘We see how powerful it is’, says Baxter. ‘There are still people here who remember stories of that era. There’s the woman around the corner who had her viola carried up the hill each day by Thurgood Marshall [the lawyer who won Brown v Board of Education and the first Afro-American Supreme Court judge]. The cultural legacy of the neighbourhood creates obligations and opportunities.’
Adjaye has already been awarded the WEB Du Bois Medal for his contribution to African-American culture and it is a cultural legacy that Adjaye has been further entrusted with for the National Museum of African American History and Culture for the Smithsonian in Washington DC opening next year; the hermetic building continues his brooding aesthetic. Some may see this as acceptably rigorous for the arty crowd but too darkly demanding of those in housing need in Sugar Hill. It is an understandable view given the degree to which society’s least powerful have suffered as well as gained from experimental social housing, but it also forgets the integral role of the arts to BCH’s vision. As one worker put it: ‘there’s NOTHING cynical about this place’.
Baxter is fully aware that the Sugar Hill project is a small block filling the ‘gaping schism … in the principle of justice’ that New York’s homeless-ness reveals. When she was fighting for shelters in the early ’90s there were some 30,000 homeless in New York: ‘Now there are 60,000 men, women and children in the public shelter system every night; our city’s own refugees.’