There have been promises of a shiny hotel, a big office tower and a prominent commercial corridor. But in one bleak little pocket of Harlem, things have had a way of coming undone.
So it is that below the thick arch of elevated railroad tracks and the rumble of Metro-North trains, the area around 126th Street and Park Avenue still resembles a giant, beat-up storage shed. For years, the rows of lots have resisted change, with their mix of U-Haul trucks for rent, vacant space tagged with graffiti and two separate but similar lots featuring mountains of wood and metal junk.
It has been this way for so long that the blighted landscape goes largely unnoticed. Students stroll past in uniforms and backpacks. Commuters with headphones hustle to the renovated train station a block south. Bowed men return from their drug-rehabilitation sessions or mornings spent looking for work.
All are unaware that a faint sign of change has emerged.
Five vacant lots on the block — four on the west side of Park Avenue, one on the south side of 126th Street — were sold in August for a total of $1.35 million. Real estate brokers attribute the low price to the area’s zoning — which restricts property to automotive and heavy commercial uses. Another possible reason is the physical layout: the lots, which cover more than 8,000 square feet, are separated by the two junk-filled yards.
And in at least one of those yards, there awaits a durable neighbor.
Outside one yard hangs a sign carved with its address. Another faded sign talks about “suburbanites hogging Harlem,” the words in capital letters. Tattered shower curtains and splintered wood line the chain-link fence, serving as walls affording some sense of privacy for the man within. A larger board serves as a makeshift door.
An old, dilapidated house trailer sits inside, talk radio blaring from it. No one answers a knock on the door. But the occupant is well known.
“That’s Maruba,” said James Smith, 28, smoking a cigarette around the corner outside his apartment building. “I’ve seen him there all my life.”
There had been a building on the lot before Mr. Maruba took up residence, Mr. Smith said. (City records show a demolition application in 1995.) After the building came down, Mr. Maruba became a regular presence. The longtime owner of the property, Erling Rohde, whom Mr. Smith remembered as Rudy, was known for lending a hand to down-and-out neighbors.
Mr. Rohde, who died in December 2002, once described himself as a “professional bum” and “scavenger,” but was also known as a community agitator. He posted politically charged signs on the abandoned buildings that once stood on the block, visible to the Metro-North commuters above.
Similarly themed messages remain. And outside the lot where Mr. Maruba lives, at 1844 Park Avenue, flowers in milk crates, some overtaken by weeds, line the chain-link fence. About a dozen feet or so to the north in another lot, a plump dog guards the larger of the two junk-filled yards, along with two other dogs. A giant weed drapes over the fence.
City records list the owner of the two lots as the estate of Erling Rohde. The administrator is Mr. Rohde’s niece; attempts to reach her were unsuccessful.
Mr. Maruba can sometimes be seen watering his plants in daylight hours, Mr. Smith said. But he usually comes out at night, around midnight, to tend to the dogs. He feeds them stewed chicken and brings them inside the trailer when the weather turns cold.
“I don’t knock it,” said Mr. Smith, wearing a tattered sweatshirt, jeans and a scraggly beard. “That’s his life. He don’t want much.”
A developer, Mr. Smith said he had heard, recently offered Mr. Maruba $80,000 and an apartment to move. He turned it down. Who would take care of his dogs?
“As long as the dogs are good,” Mr. Smith said, “he’ll go anywhere.”
The seller of the five lots, BNS Real Estate, had hoped that the same economic forces that were remaking 125th Street would eventually extend to this small stretch of Harlem.
“We thought we would get some retail type of use in that area,” said Brad Barr, a principal of the company. “But none of that happened.” Instead, over the eight years BNS owned the lots, Mr. Barr said, it was confronted by increased property taxes, code violations, zoning restrictions and stalled development nearby.
“All you need is for that first piece to happen,” Mr. Barr added.
The buyer, Artimus Construction, also recently purchased the old Corn Exchange Bank building, which sits, mostly demolished, on the northwest corner of 125th Street and Park Avenue. There are plans to restore the building to its former grandeur, making it a six-story office building with an attractive storefront. Some people speculate that the five lots might be used by Artimus for employees’ cars, at least for a time.
There has been a big rezoning push by Community Board 11 to allow different uses, the board’s district manager, George Sarkissian, said, and “some developers are trying to get a foothold” before city officials act.
“The big question,” Mr. Sarkissian said, “is what kind of rezoning can we do, and how can we reincentivize affordable housing.”
Artimus officials did not return calls seeking comment. The broker who handled the sale of the five vacant lots, Victor Sozio of Ariel Property Advisors, said he could not confirm that Artimus had offered Mr. Maruba money to move.
For some, the sale of the lots crystallizes the current tension in Harlem, old stubbornly making way for new.
“They’re supposed to be building a high-rise,” said Joyce Walker, a short, matronly woman standing outside the United New Church of Christ near the vacant lots. Above her, the church’s sign offers a message for the soul, and for some perhaps, a gentrifying Harlem: “To be almost saved is to be totally lost.”
For years, Ms. Walker has lived in one of the brownstones on East 126th Street and served as an usher at her church. “It used to be bad,” she said of her neighborhood. “But it’s not like that now. It’s changing.”
Mr. Smith considers himself well positioned for a remade Harlem. He recalled a time when the city practically gave away the rundown brownstones on his block of East 127th Street, selling them for a dollar. But no one who lived there, he said, bought them because no one had the means to fix them up.
Years later, he said, his apartment building, where he lives with his family, went co-op. A few doors down from Mr. Smith’s building is a rooming house with white siding and a broken window. Nearby, a heavyset man carries a bass into a rundown walk-up. Toward the end of the block is a bed-and-breakfast. And a town house recently sold for $650,000.
“This is a Grade-A borough,” Mr. Smith said. “But they’re building it for the elite.”
Alfred Duncan, a plumber in dirty work boots, has lived on the block for some 30 years, 10 spent in the rooming house. He is looking to move soon, he said. He sees Harlem through two seminal events: the devastation of crack cocaine and the steady return of a more moneyed class.
“Now it’s all white people,” said Mr. Smith, gray-haired, with kind, tired eyes.
It was almost 6 p.m. as the sun cast shadows over the vacant lots. Cars clogged Park Avenue above 125th Street. Pedestrians power-walked to and from the train.
Before he headed inside, Mr. Duncan surmised that “change is a good thing.” But he allowed that it can also be bittersweet.
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