New York's Finest Black Suburb
African American Neighborhood Landmarked
By Elizabeth McNamara | Online Only | Feb. 14, 2011
The place that Jackie Robinson, Ella Fitzgerald, and James Brown called home is now officially historic.
Earlier this month, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously to make the predominately African American neighborhood of Addisleigh Park its 102nd historic district.
Photos courtesy New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
Located in southeastern Queens, the triangular-shaped district of more than 400 single-family residences was once home to such 20th-century luminaries as W.E.B. DuBois, jazz pianist William "Count" Basie, and Lena Horne. Addisleigh Park was also home to baseball legend Roy Campanella and boxer Joe Louis.
"Addisleigh Park is the perfect marriage of cultural history and quality architecture," says Landmarks Commission Chairman Robert Tierney. "The neighborhood's sense of place is quite apparent when you walk around and talk with people on the street."
The area had been on the radar for landmark status as early as 1990, according to Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, but it wasn't until the neighborhood civic organization invited him to speak about preservation in 2007 that the designation was seriously considered.
"What I found was there was a certain community identity and pride, but a lack of hard knowledge," Bankoff says. "It seemed like a good project because people would say, 'Did James Brown live here, or was that Milt Hilton or Jackie Robinson?'”
So the Historic Districts Council embarked on a study to determine who lived where, and when. In summer 2008 the Historic Districts Council received grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Northeast Office and the Preservation League of New York State, and research began that fall.
Discovering who had lived in which house proved difficult, Bankoff says, because property records were disorganized and filed away in different places. "We had to compare old maps and roads," he says. "So we decided to identify the 60 most famous houses." Today the council's web site boasts a "Map of the Stars" that plots the homes of more than 25 Addisleigh Park celebrities.
Once largely farmland, the area was developed at the turn of the 20th century and planned according to the principles of the English garden suburb movement. Most of Addisleigh Park's distinctive Colonial Revival, English Tudor Revival, and Arts and Crafts houses were constructed between 1910 and 1930.
Developers initially limited the sale of houses to white buyers. Restrictive covenants introduced in the 1930s and 40s by some homeowners attempted to bar sales to African Americans. "It was unpleasant, as it was a case of a number of narrow-minded neighbors trying to fight what they saw as an invasion of unwanted people in their area," Bankoff says.
Also on Feb. 1, the Landmarks Commission designated a church and three cottages in the Sandy Ground section of Staten Island, settled by freed African Americans in the 1830s. Barred from making a living in Maryland, black oystermen fled to Sandy Ground, where they could not only work but own property.
In the late 1940s, racial tensions came to a boil when neighbors filed suit against owners who had sold houses to African Americans. A judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, but noted that several African Americans already lived in the neighborhood.
In 1948, however, these restrictions were struck down in Shelley v. Kraemer, the United States Supreme Court decision that held racially restrictive covenants in violation of the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
"Pretty soon after the [Supreme Court] decision, an enormous wave of African Americans settled in Addisleigh Park," Bankoff says.
By 1952, an article in the magazine Our World said the neighborhood was home to "the richest and most gifted" African Americans. Today Addisleigh Park is about 90 percent black.
"It's really your classic suburban neighborhood, with well-appointed lawns and a variety of houses," says Bankoff. "These [famous] people, they wanted to play jazz in the city, but they also wanted this life—the yard and the pool to raise families," he says. "Go visit and walk down the street, and people will yell out at you wanting to tell you story after story about their neighborhood."
Following the Feb. 1 vote, there is a 120-day ratification process by the City Planning Commission and City Council to ensure the designation is consistent with zoning. After another 60 days, the landmark status of Addisleigh Park likely will be affirmed by the City Council.
"It's always rewarding when a community's pride makes its way all the way to the Landmarks Commission," Robert Tierney says. "Because landmark status is not to be feared, but embraced."
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