Text/Remarks at NLS/7 June 2008                                                                          Stephen Rustow

Peg suggested that I say a few words about the school and its place in this part of Manhattan.  I’m hardly a specialist in any of the social or historical considerations that might justify such an assignment but a curious set of coincidences, both personal and professional, has brought me back to this neighborhood after a long time away, and, on the strength of that I said I’d be happy to try.  I live on 110th street, albeit at the other end; and I’ve been designing a new museum on a site just around the corner, so I’ve had the occasion recently to think about this area and how it is now and was then.

I think NLS was always in this place but not entirely of it. Few of us actually lived near enough to feel an immediate connection to the neighborhood.  And yet I think the place marked the school in any number of subtle but important ways.  First of all it’s on an edge; like so many of the most wonderful places in the city the school was next to some rupture or open expanse in the relentless grid that organizes the island and this gave it a privileged vantage point looking out on the city, over the park, toward downtown, but at a certain remove and I think all of us sensed that as we ate our lunches in the cafeteria. 

Then, turning north, it was on the edge of Harlem; NY as a whole was tenser and grittier in those days and Harlem reflected that.  It was a bit more dangerous too, not as dangerous as it would become in the 70s and 80s but certainly more than it is now. I remember in 66 or 67 the NYT reported that the police dept had designated 111th street between Madison and Fifth as the toughest block in all 5 boroughs. So in the sixties it reflected a particular kind of conviction, or at least ambivalence, to send kids to school in ‘that part of town’ in heavy quotes, and I think most of us sensed that too. There were downtown schools that wouldn’t let their basketball teams come up here to play (which was probably a blessing given what I remember of the strength of our team).  But Harlem made itself felt in lots of other, smaller and positive ways as well: getting a muffin and coffee at Tina’s three doors down, or hanging out there before going home in the afternoon, was certainly not quite the same ambience as whatever soda shops Dalton or Collegiate students frequented.  And on those occasional late spring afternoons when the bravest among us cut classes to go up to the matinee at the Apollo, well, it can’t have been quite the same connection to place that slipping out to a mid-town movie theater provided.  So Harlem was a part of the place even if NLS was never entirely at home in Harlem.

And gradually of course, in the years immediately after we all left, the neighborhood and that ambivalence in ‘sending’ kids here eventually caught up with the school and NLS concluded that it had to move to continue to be the school it wanted to be.  And this building began its curious transition to a very different kind of institution.

Harlem has of course changed enormously since then: one sees it first in all the street names. 110th and 5th, which was always shorthand for the school address, is now Duke Ellington Circle. The subway stop that used to be at 110th and Lenox is now officially Central Park North at Malcolm X Blvd.  A bit further west the same cross street is Cathedral Parkway, actually an old name that had fallen from usage but is now popular again, especially among realtors.  7th Avenue has been renamed Adam Clayton Powell Blvd to honor the Harlem congressman who was fighting his own censure in ‘68. And all this renaming speaks to an effort among competing interests to define what this neighborhood is, means and intends to become. The residential towers just east of here didn’t exist in the sixties and would have been unthinkable, even as subsidized housing projects.  The scores of rehab’ed row houses throughout Harlem, many of them gutted in the aftermath of the riots of 64 and 68, are now for the most part lived in by the people who own them  -- that would also have seemed impossible back then.  More immediately, the condo down the block at Malcolm X and CPN, the one that sold the penthouse unit for a reported 8-million dollars, that was simply unimaginable forty years ago, but the pressures to convert other buildings along this street, even this one, in hopes of similar deals are furiously strong just now, despite all the recent downturns.  110th street is now ‘park views’ and ‘excellent transportation’.  It’s even rumored that the Marqueta – the old Hispanic push-cart market under the elevated Park Avenue train tracks is in the sights of the owners of Chelsea Market for refurbishing as an up-scale food emporium.

Obviously not all that change is for the better; with gentrification many working class families who’ve managed somehow to hold on over several generations are finding it harder to do so.  The population of Harlem is changing. In some ways it’s become more like NLS in the sixties: it’s younger, more professionals, academics and people involved in the arts, and it’s whiter, although there are still many black and brown faces, but they are as likely to come from Senegal and Cote D’Ivoire or Mexico and Ecuador.  In that sense Harlem is a community with a far greater heterogeneity than forty years ago.

There are some curious echoes in the historic tensions between Harlem and its institutional neighbors: forty years ago Columbia University squared off against Harlem in the great fight over the gym in Morningside Park, and lost.  Well Columbia is again squared off with Harlem over development north of 125th and Broadway, and although the end-game isn’t quite clear yet, even those leading the protests concede that it will finish in some kind of accommodation.  And there are other institutions which have embraced Harlem: for one, the museum I’ve been working on, a museum for African Art (designed to tell the story of the cultures of a whole continent as well their diaspora), an institution that sees itself in urban terms as a hinge between museum mile and 125th street, and is slowly taking shape around the corner.

So one question in all this is whether an NLS could exist again, today, in Harlem or elsewhere in another changed neighborhood, in a way that still embodies something of what brought us all here forty years ago.  I think the answer is yes, but with one profound difference: today that school would be public, not private, and I say that as the father of two girls who’ve grown up in public schools.  It is public, not private schools that over the last two decades have become the locus of diversity and innovation. Indeed Harlem is the center of the charter schools movement in NY, focusing on inventive curricula, small classes, strong parental engagement; not all successes, but efforts full of conviction and energy. And that is perhaps the most remarkable change of all, that the values, and some of the same ambivalence or naïve idealism that used to be contained in these walls, has slowly but surely found a place throughout this neighborhood and the educational system of the city itself.