Roots of an American Subculture

Tenants Call on Hip Hop History to Preserve Bronx Building's Character.

A Harlem YMCA exhibit recently explored the history of hip hop, which began in the Bronx in 1973.

Credit: YMCA

If a party in Woodstock, N.Y., defined an era, another party in the Bronx four years later planted the seeds of a new one.

On Aug. 11, 1973, Clive Campbell and his sister, Cindy, hosted a party in their high-rise at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. Clive, also known as DJ Kool Herc, mixed and matched records on turn tables as guests in a cramped community room danced the night away. The party swelled, moved into the street, and lasted well into the next morning. That evening, the art form of hip hop, the cultural and musical phenomenon that has permeated virtually every corner of the world, was born.

"It was just a party, intended to be something positive in the community," says Cindy Campbell.

Now the tenants of the 100-unit apartment building where it all began are calling upon this unique history to keep the owner from selling the low-income housing unit to a private investor. The complex was built in 1969 as part of the state-funded Mitchell-Lama program, which created 115,000 units of affordable housing in New York City. But after 20 years in the program, BSR Management, the current owner, is allowed to opt out of the subsidy program and raise rental fees.

The tenants argue that if the building is recognized as a significant historical landmark, its affordable housing status should be preserved. They have enlisted the help of housing advocacy groups like the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board and Tenants and Neighbors, and a full-fledged preservation effort is under way. The two groups joined with Cindy Campbell's group Hip Hop Preserve to form the Save 1520 Sedgwick Ave. Coalition. (The community room where it all began has been closed for renovations for a year.)

"The tenants are totally engaged and committed, and we have a great ally in the hip hop community," says Dina Levy, the board's director of organizing and policy.

The campaign got a huge boost last July, when the State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Preservation sent out a letter approving the tenants' appeal to name the site eligible for the national and state registers.

"It's such a phenomenon now, and here are the roots of it," says Peter Shaver of the State Historic Preservation Office. Shaver helped determine that the building is indeed eligible for the National Register. Although it doesn't meet the criteria of being at least 50 years old, it's eligible because it was deemed "exceptionally important."

Without the owner's consent, however, the building can't be nominated or listed on the National Register. While being named eligible doesn't give 1520 any official landmark status, it may protect it because the government isn't allowed to change the character of a site determined eligible for the National Register.

"The question becomes whether or not protection granted from being eligible for the National Register applies to the building's Mitchell-Lama status. We believe it does," Levy says. "It is our assertion that the city or state cannot approve the buyout because that would change the character of the building."

Right now, the coalition is working with lawyers to draft a legal argument founded on that assertion.

Aside from the housing advocacy groups, elected officials are joining the campaign as well, most notably U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and state Rep. Jose Serrano (D). Both appeared in front of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue on July 23 for a press conference to bring publicity to the affordable housing crisis and to officially declare the site as the birthplace of hip hop.

"Congressman Serrano and Sen. Schumer are both extremely supportive and willing to do whatever is necessary," Levy says. According to Levy, Serrano has already lost 2,000 units of affordable housing in his district and is "acutely aware of the problem."

Serrano and Sen. Schumer are supporting the tenants' plea to have Mayor Michael Bloomberg issue a moratorium on the buyouts of all Mitchell-Lama housing units until a better strategy for dealing with affordable housing is developed.

The coalition is also shopping the building around to so-called "preservation purchasers," so that if the buyout is not rejected, there will be some potential buyers that could pay as much as a private investor but promise to keep rents low. "It creates pressure to do the right thing," Levy says.

The "preservation purchasers" would be competing with Mark Karasick, the private investor that BSR Management has targeted to sell the property to in Feb. 2008. Levy says that Karasick and some of the other big investors in the city are buying up affordable housing units all over Harlem, Coney Island, and the Bronx.

"It's hard to be certain what their intent is, but they're probably not in it to keep affordable housing," Levy says.

Neither BSR Management nor Karasick could be reached for this story.

Amy Chan, the Mitchell-Lama organizer for Tenants and Neighbors, hopes that the publicity generated by 1520 Sedgwick Ave. will benefit the struggle to retain low-income housing units.

"I think it has educated people about the affordable housing crisis that is going on in the city," Chan says. "Affordable housing gives way to communities, and communities give us important moments," says Chan, who suggested that without low-income housing there may never have been a DJ Kool Herc.

Clive and Cindy Campbell have been advocates of affordable housing for a long time and have brought a lot of the hip hop community behind the cause.

"Of course we are for affordable housing; we lived in Sedgwick for seven years," Cindy Campbell says. "The hip hop community is coming together, and we are going to make this happen."

The hip hop preservation strategy seems to have caught on already, as another low-income housing unit in the Bronx has asked the State Historic Preservation Office to visit because it has its own claim to hip hop fame. "There are some other hip hop sites that will need to be recognized," Shaver says. After all, he says, "Hip hop is now aging."  

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