Jubilation: Scaffolding Finally Torn Down after 21 Years at Landmarked Building on UWS

The 109-year-old landmarked building at 409 Edgecombe Ave. had the dubious honor of being encased by the longest standing sidewalk shed in the city. The scaffolding was finally torn down by the city on Dec. 22. Neighborhood residents rejoiced.

| 05 Jan 2024 | 09:33

After standing for 21 years, the dark green sidewalk shed wrapped around 409 Edgecombe Avenue in the Sugar Hill Historic District in Harlem, was finally removed December 22nd. At the time of its removal, it was the longest standing scaffolding structure in New York City turning what was once one of the most fashionable addresses in Harlem into a neighborhood eyesore.

Neighborhood residents were jubilant that they could finally see the 109-year-old landmarked building that had been hidden behind scaffolding for over two decades. Charles Yarbrough, a black man of 87 years old wearing a beanie with the African continent colored red-green-black has lived at 409 for 30 years. “I’m very happy, it was unsightly for our building.... any building,” he says about the removal.

When asked why he thinks the sidewalk shed took so long to be taken down, he answered: “It’s a matter of money and sense.” The Harlem gentleman may be a vanishing breed of New Yorker. He told the West Side Spirit that he moved to the city 65 years ago from Blackstone, VA, to escape segregation. He served in the US Air Force during the Korean War, was a post office worker, a cab driver, and marched on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

His joy was shared by others in the neighborhood. “I think it’s great! I live right over there...” said Elysha, pointing downtown.

Bryan, a father of a young boy, and resident of 409 for the past four years said he feels “very happy” that the scaffolding is gone. Unlike Yarbrough who remembers the building’s more stately past, Bryan said he had never viewed the building when it was not wrapped in scaffolding.

The dismantling culminated a long running battle by city officials to reduce longstanding sidewalk sheds, which are designed to be a temporary structure to protect people from falling debris or structural defects. Too often, the sheds are left up for prolonged stretches because some building owners find it is cheaper to leave them up then to make the costly repairs to a structure.

The structure was one of several that were signaled out in a blistering report by Consumers Union released on December 12 on the woebegone state of sidewalk sheds across the city and reported exclusively by Straus News. Ten days later, Mayor Eric Adams held a press conference on the site to celebrate the scaffolding’s removal.

Adams, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, and a group of Council Members including Keith Powers and Shaun Abreu have all pushed plans to clear the city of scaffolding. At the time that Adams announced a “Get Sheds Down” initiative last July, there were 9,000 sidewalk sheds in the city, covering over 400 miles. More than 1,000 sheds had been up for more than three years.

Adams and the DOB said that 500 sheds covering about 11 miles of sidewalk, have been removed since July.

“For 21 years, residents of Harlem sacrificed public space and the beauty of a historical landmark because property managers repeatedly failed to do their job,” said Adams at a Dec. 22 press conference. “Today, we deliver 409 Edgecombe Avenue back into the hands of the Sugar Hill community and remain focused on continuing to safely remove the eyesores that are ugly sidewalk sheds and scaffolding across the five boroughs.”

The 109 year old building on Edgecombe Ave. was the worst offender. In 2019 the city filed criminal charges against the building’s management company that five years later finally culminated in the scaffolding’s removal.

The landmarked building was once home to leading figures of the black community including W.E.B. Dubois, Thurgood Marshall who would go on to become the first Black Supreme Court Justice, and two NAACP leaders, Walter White and Roy Wilkins.

The three thirteen story towers, constructed in 1917 by famed architectural firm of Schwarz & Gross, dominates the neighborhood of Sugar Hill, sitting atop a cliff that looms over its shorter neighbors. Right under its nose sits the hillside Jackie Robinson park, with a playground and pool. Even the taller brown, NYCHA projects, new landmarks of the neighborhood today, are outshined by the classic architecture of, what Langston Hughes, a frequent visitor of 409 Edgecombe Ave called “one of Harlem’s most fashionable addresses”.

Until 1927 residency was reserved for whites only. Once the doors opened to blacks it was show time for 409. Reports tell of all-night parties for the highest class of Black New Yorkers that were held at the same time as NAACP and women’s rights meetings. Thinkers came to think and converse there, performers came to entertain, and artists created.

According to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the never-ending party came to a close in ‘42 when black investor Augustine A Austin bought the building, which was inherited by his son Orrin who defaulted on the mortgage. The towers passed through the hands of different owners until it was claimed by the city itself in 1979, after which it was turned into a co-op.

In 2003, 409 Edgecombe’s then 90 year-old exterior was in need of a renovation, so a contractor was hired and a scaffolding was erected. Unfortunately, right before the job was done this most fashionable of addresses was struck by a bolt of lightning. The building survived but absorbed some new and serious structural cracks. The building’s board president told WNYC in 2018 that the New York Department of Buildings wouldn’t allow the scaffolding to be dismantled until the cracks were mended but the building had no money left.

This back and forth lasted 21 years.

The battle may not be officially over. On January 3rd, a city inspector once again examined the building on Edgecombe Ave but declined to comment on what it was he inspected.