Like many white people of a certain age, I first visited Harlem by mistake. I took the wrong subway and barely got out of the station: First one guy, then another, tried to shove me down the stairs. Thirty-two years later, walking past the gourmet markets, wine shops, and chain drugstores that are the sine qua non of change, I am struck by the Asians and Caucasians on their way to work, none scurrying with the head-down haste of the unwelcome. Harlem may still be the global capital of the African Diaspora, yet no court could have integrated it as efficiently as the lure of affordable Manhattan real estate. Nowadays, everyone takes the A train.
Architect Bill Ryall moved here 20 years ago, during Harlem’s crack epidemic, when so many buildings had been demolished (or collapsed) that entire blocks were being farmed by Southerners who’d moved up during World War II. Ryall turned 40 in an 1889 Queen Anne row house on West 118th Street that he bought for $42,000: “Forty-two thousand more than it was worth,” he quips, sitting on his stoop in bare feet. “There was this program set up by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. In the ’70s, people here were abandoning properties and not paying taxes, which is how New York ended up owning over 50 percent of Harlem’s real estate.” When the city decided to sell 150 houses at low cost, hoping their renovation would kick-start a renaissance, Ryall seized the chance.
His derelict four-story structure had been cut up into single-room-occupancy apartments. “After we took everything out, all you saw were four brick walls and the ceiling beams,” he recalls. “And I thought, This is a loft.” Rather than restoring the enclosed rooms and stacked side stairs, Ryall “brought the downtown loft aesthetic uptown and put it in a town house,” says his partner, Barry Bergdoll, the Museum of Modern Art’s architecture and design curator. He moved the stairs to the house’s center, “so you experience the full length of the space when you come in,” left the bricks and beams exposed, and finished most floors in painted wood. The entire house—including a basement-level rental apartment—was renovated for $300,000.
“It made living in New York so much better,” Ryall says, though he admits that, concerned about how the community would perceive him, “I dragged my feet at first. Finally I came up early one Saturday morning and interviewed the neighbors. I said”—he laughs—“‘Look at me—can I live here?’ And everyone who was up at that hour said, ‘Please come.’”
When I ask what became of the other 149 properties, Ryall’s sunniness vanishes. “Ten out of 150 got renovated,” he fumes. “And almost all the locals who purchased homes”—a cornerstone of the plan—“ended up defaulting. They spent their life savings buying the houses, then didn’t have the ability to borrow money to fix them up.” Ryall blames the city for misrepresenting renovation costs. “They’d show a picture and say, ‘This house will need electrical and plumbing, you’ll spend $30,000’—well, multiply that by ten! These people lost their savings and their houses”—the latter ending up, once again, off the tax roles.
We ponder this all-too-typical example of urban bureaucracy. “That’s a real New York story,” Ryall says.