Sunday, July 06, 2008

Marcus Garvey Park: An Old Sound in Harlem Draws New Neighbors' Ire

July 6, 2008

An Old Sound in Harlem Draws New Neighbors’ Ire

New York Times

It is Saturday evening, the second day of summer, and the air around Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem is filled with the scent of blossoming linden trees and the sound of West African drums.

Across the street from the park is 2002 Fifth Avenue, a new seven-story cream and red brick luxury co-op with a doorman, $1 million apartments and a lobby with a fireplace.

The drummers in the park are African-American and from Africa and the Caribbean. They form a circle and have played in the park, in one form or another, since 1969, when the neighborhood was a more dangerous place. The musicians, who play until 10 p.m. every summer Saturday, are widely credited with helping to make the park safer over the years.

Their supporters, who acknowledge that the drumbeats can pierce walls and windows, regard the musicians as part of the city’s vibrant and often noisy cultural mix. But some in the building at 2002 Fifth Avenue, most of them young white professionals, have a different perspective: When the drummers occupy a spot nearby, residents say, they are unable to sleep, hear their television sets, speak on the telephone, or even have conversations with their spouses without shouting. Some say they cannot even think straight.

And so in this corner of Harlem, which is known as Mount Morris Park, two sides have formed, each with complaints that many agree are legitimate. The stalemate has bubbled over into a dispute about class, race and culture and has become a flash point in the debate over gentrification.

It is the talk of the neighborhood, and even beyond. The conflict received news media attention, but since then it has taken a darker turn: A racist e-mail message was circulated among residents advocating violence against the musicians, and the New Black Panther Party, which espouses anti-white ideals, has marched in support of the drummers.

Mount Morris Park is a tight-knit Harlem neighborhood where brownstones dating from the Gilded Age have been lovingly restored. It is also a place where black and white residents have lived harmoniously for years.

“The drummers are our friends, neighbors and brothers, and are an important cultural part of our neighborhood,” said Donald K. Williams, president of the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association. “But the new residents have said, ‘We have the right to live here too, and the right to have some aural privacy,’ and they do.”

Mr. Williams, 59, who has lived in the neighborhood for nine years, hesitated, before adding: “People get emotional around cultural issues. And they get emotional around sleep deprivation issues.”

Though few of the drummers’ critics say they want the musicians removed entirely from the 20-acre park, they say residents should not have to suffer for the sake of tradition.

“Everything, after four hours — even if it’s Mozart — is pure, unadulterated noise,” said a resident of a building on the park who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. “The community is right: The drummers have been doing this for more than 30 years. But no one told me there would be unremitting noise every Saturday for the rest of my life.”

The view from the drum circle is quite different. The musicians emphasize the spiritual and cultural elements of African drumming, an activity that was banned during slavery.

“This is the only place we can come — this is our watering hole,” said Hru Assaan, 33, whose father, Baba Jeremiah, 59, also takes part. “It’s important to us. People come to Harlem because it has a certain vibration to it. This is part of that vibration. No one’s excluded. Anyone can bring a drum and sit in or bring a blanket and watch.”

For many years, Marcus Garvey Park was an uninviting place littered with garbage, home to squatters who lived in the landmark Fire Bell Tower, and beset by muggers and drug dealers. On some days, the musicians would drum for as long as 10 hours, which provided a window of time for the neighborhood’s children to play in safety, residents said.

In recent years, conditions in the park have vastly improved. The 47-foot cast-iron tower has been repaired, and the park is clean, filled with linden and sweet gum trees, families who come to barbecue and teenagers playing basketball.

On Saturdays, a core group of 30 men and women drum or provide accompaniment on trumpets, flutes, spoons, cowbells, gourd rattles and tambourines. Others, including European tourists, sit in at times. The group has no leader and no requirements to join. When a drummer feels a rhythm, he or she pounds out a beat. Others accept or reject it, adding their own flourishes. Once a cohesive rhythm has been established, African women wearing brightly colored gowns called boubous dance inside the circle.

Most of the residents of the luxury co-op have purchased apartments that cost from about $500,000 to $1.3 million. Like thousands of others who have moved to Harlem during the past several years, the residents, among them lawyers, artists and financial industry employees, have come seeking large apartments that, while still expensive, are as much as one-third cheaper than in much of the rest of Manhattan.

Complaints about the drum circle began long before the co-op was built two years ago. In the past, however, if neighbors objected, the drummers simply found a new place in the park without engendering ill will, longtime residents said.

But since receiving noise complaints from the co-op last summer, the city’s parks department has relocated the drummers within the park twice.

The current location, not far from the co-op, is marked with a parks department sign that reads “Drummers Circle,” which is propped up by a pile of paving stones.

During a brief telephone conversation last month, Barry W. Segen, president of the co-op’s board, said that neither he nor any other residents would discuss the drummers.

A few minutes later, Mr. Segen sent residents an e-mail message titled “Urgent!!!” The message, which a resident later forwarded to The New York Times, read in part: “Please do not speak with the press on this issue. As we have determined in the past there is no benefit to the building or the community in speaking with the press.”

But some residents did speak, on the condition of anonymity. Most residents, they said, wanted to reach a compromise.

“Some people in the building don’t seem to understand the sensitive nature of what is going on here,” one resident said in an e-mail message. “Our building is not united against the drummers, and many of us think it is important to respect the drummers’ rights as residents of Harlem, and as musicians who are an important part of the Mount Morris community and who are practicing something they feel passionately about.”

Sylvester Wise, 68, a sociology professor who is one of the few black residents at 2002 Fifth Avenue, said some of his neighbors had called the police to complain about the drummers and become involved in arguments with them. While acknowledging that the drumming can be loud, he said the sound “adds flavor” to the neighborhood.

“There have been times when the drums have been annoying, but it’s a cultural thing,” said Professor Wise, whose penthouse apartment overlooking the park is filled with African-inspired prints and sculpture.

Last October, an e-mail message was sent to residents from the address of one of the co-op’s residents. “Why don’t we just get nooses for everyone of those lowlifes and hang them from a tree? They’re used to that kind of treatment anyway!” read the message, a copy of which was provided to The Times.

It added: “I hope you all agree that the best thing that has happened to Harlem is gentrification. Let’s get rid of these ‘people’ and improve the neighborhood once and for all.”

Professor Wise filed a complaint with the police about the e-mail message and other incidents he believed were forms of harassment, but he said he was told by a detective that there was little the police could do. Last week, the Police Department’s press office did not respond to a request for additional information about the matter.

(The resident with the e-mail address from which the message was sent did not return calls seeking comment. Other residents said he told people that he had not sent the message, and that his computer had been hacked into).

State Senator Bill Perkins, who represents the area and has tried to mediate the dispute, said many of the co-op’s residents were new to Harlem and unaccustomed to the neighborhood’s vigorous — and often loud — street life.

“I think it is part of the change drama in Harlem, which manifests itself in a number of ways,” Mr. Perkins said. “This is part of folk learning to live together.”


Unknown said...

How come white folks always feel like they can just take over something that is not theirs. now yall move over here and we gotta stop African tradition. F yall! It's time to take a firm stance and let them folks know that they gotta deal with it or go back where they came from. It's the same white supremacist mindset that has been the detriment of our people, our culture, and our traditions for hundreds of years. They can't have everything..!

BernieD said...

Those white folks have two choices:
A. Go downstairs and join the party
B. Move to Brooklyn or Queens, assuming they cannot afford rents in Manhattan south of 96th st

proudofmyheritage said...


Tony Flood said...

Arguably, "white folks" are simply in the process of reclaiming what was once "theirs," given that the Park goes back to 1839 and the relatively brief Black historical phase of Harlem is just that: a phase that is passing out of existence before our eyes . . . following many once-all-white neighborhoods (a fact no one in polite society may lament). In fact, tax dollars maintain the Park and, Professor Wise's rationalizing notwithstanding, no taxpayer has a right, in the name of cultural "color," to disturb the peace of their fellow taxpayers. (I'm assuming the drummers pay taxes.) Even if the drummers won the lottery and bought the Park from the City, they would have no more right to disturb the peace than you or I.