How a Harlem Skyrise Got Hijacked—and Forgotten

How a Harlem Skyrise Got Hijacked—and Forgotten

How a Harlem Skyrise Got Hijacked—and Forgotten

The fate of June Jordan’s visionary reimagining of Harlem, like the “progressive” design for IS 201, shows that when it comes to Utopias, the key question is always: “Whose?”

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In 1964, following the unrest in Harlem roused by the police murder of James Powell, age 15, the poet June Jordan received an invitation to write for Esquire. Perhaps the invitation reached her in a manner that would feel familiar to some during our time. That is, perhaps she had been invited to explain.

But Jordan elected not to account for the conditions that had led to the boy’s death that July, or for the subsequent six days of violent protests, wherein steel-helmeted members of New York City’s Tactical Patrol Force descended on Harlem by the busload. They confronted peaceful crowds of up to 1,000 marchers as well as less decorous assemblies who greeted the police with their own tactical operations: bottles and debris hurled from the rooftops. All were met with the uniform dispersal strategy of shots fired into crowds.

Rather than explain any of that, Jordan responded with a dream. She proposed a collaboration with the architect R. Buckminster Fuller: a radical/visionary redesign of Harlem to create an environment where such events were not possible. The poet undertook this project while newly separated from her husband, having sent her young child to live with relatives because her poverty could not sustain them both. Her dream of a transformed Harlem was composed at a moment when her personal precarity met the larger crisis. Years later, she called the project “a beginning,” and perhaps it is helpful to hold on to that feeling when contemplating the resulting design. Its most striking feature was 15 conical towers, 100 stories high, intended to house 500,000 people, insistently lifting Harlem and its population to the skies: upward, forward, and out of history.

Those same towers would furnish a complicated network of roadways, walkways, a rainwater-harvesting system connected to the city’s reservoirs, government buildings, shops, and cultural centers. Each apartment would be substantially larger than in typical public housing, boasting balconies and parking spaces—“every window would have a view.” New highways would connect Harlem to its surroundings, conveying people in and out of the neighborhood and opening up what had been cut off by borders literal and imaginary. It was a design that yearned for expansion and connection—but also a total obliteration of what had come before. “Partial healing is not enough,” Jordan wrote in a text accompanying the proposal, “a half century of despair requires exorcism.” When the article was published in April 1965, Jordan’s byline appeared (under her married name, June Meyer), but the collaborative design—though the collaboration was at her instigation—was attributed to Fuller alone. The title she had chosen for the piece, “A Skyrise for Harlem,” was changed to “Instant Slum Clearance.” Jordan’s text offered specifics indicating that she and Fuller “fully expected its enactment”: a construction time line of three years, prefabricated elements to be delivered by helicopter, a budget financed by private investment. But the illustrations, as Jordan later noted with some despair, were captioned as “utopian details.”

The same month Jordan and Fuller’s dream of a “reconstructed Harlem” was published in Esquire’s pages, entering the history of the unbuilt, another project in the neighborhood was nearing completion. Intermediate School 201 was designed before the riots, which were themselves preceded by a February 1964 school boycott in which over 400,000 students declined to attend school to protest their segregated education. One flyer rallying them to the cause showed a Black boy staring through the broken shards of a mullioned window with the caption: “I don’t have a good integrated school.” Integration was understood as the force that would elevate their lives—because the best indicator of better opportunities was the presence of white people. So when the plans for IS 201 were published, they immediately caused a furor. The school would be situated at the confluence of Black Harlem and El Barrio, its eastern face abutting the elevated train traffic of the Park Avenue viaduct. Tenements, decrepit brownstones, a warehouse, and at least one church were demolished to make way for the new school: instant slum clearance indeed. But the rest remained. Black parents knew what this location meant. It was too deep in the ghetto to ever be integrated; white people would not send their children there.

As Marta Gutman details in a chapter of Educating Harlem: A Century of Schooling and Resistance in a Black Community, authorities responded with a logic that continues to govern the still-unresolved problem of unequal education available to poor, Black, and brown children. The city assured Black parents that the white bodies supposedly so necessary as vectors of excellence and justification for investment would be lured to the “showcase school” by its comforts and innovations. The school would have flexible-space, open-plan classrooms and would be the first in the city to be air-conditioned. These amenities, along with innovative teaching, would be the prize for white families daring a descent into what Time magazine called “Darkest East Harlem.” Such improvements were not for the sake of the existing community alone. (A similar idea operates in Jordan and Fuller’s Skyrise project, which by its visionary design planned to attract and accommodate “an additional quarter-million residents, everyone willing to participate in the integrated transformation of a ghetto.”)

The New York Times noted how, in pursuit of white students, the city sent “10,000 four-page ‘invitations’ to pupils in the schools of the Northwest Bronx and Queens. The leaflets stressed the educational opportunities available at the new school and offered special bus service to and from East Harlem.” A total of 10 white families reportedly signed up for school tours, including one headed by Bruno Piscitello, who told the paper, “‘I wouldn’t be doing this for integration’…as his wife nodded in agreement.” Instead, he would enroll his daughter only if the school in Harlem was better than the one in their neighborhood. If they did come, it would not be as participants in an experiment of transformation, but as a kind of resource extraction.

By then, a version of this self-interest had also begun to alter the aspirations of the neighborhood parents, who threatened and then carried out another boycott. Now, instead of agitating for the dream of integration, their efforts were governed by realpolitik. Geography being destiny, the location of IS 201 determined that it would be segregated. Therefore, parents and activists argued, let it offer “quality segregated education” under community control. As the Harlem-based sociologist and organizer Preston Wilcox asserted in 1966, “If one can believe that a predominantly ‘de facto segregated’ white school can be a ‘good school,’ then, one must believe that a ‘de facto segregated’ and predominantly Negro and Puerto Rican school can also be a ‘good school.’”

This struggle, first articulated by parents, soon found supporters—or as The New York Times described it, “Militant Negroes Move to Aid Group in Harlem.” There was Stokely Carmichael, still of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, having just declared for Black Power; a young Louis Farrakhan, ascendant just after the elimination of Malcolm X. Ella Collins, the sister of the slain leader, then attempting to guide the remnants of his Organization of Afro-American Unity, also lent her support: “We must create for ourselves and plan our own destinies.”

When that fight was won, at least temporarily, the school opened in April 1967—a year later than originally planned—after a three-week boycott, picketing, and prolonged negotiations. But in the midst of the struggle over what kind of school it would be, parents and activists began to notice the matter of the building itself—the work of New Orleans–based architects Curtis & Davis, imagined without any input from the local community.

At a cost of $5 million, it was then the most expensive school in New York’s system, and won prizes and praise for its design. But some parents and activists—including members of the Harlem Parents Committee, already organizing in the neighborhood for a decade, and other groups formed in the midst of the IS 201 struggle for school control—saw this architecture as an affront. Wilcox called it “a palliative for anger.” The facility was said to support students’ ability to concentrate, boasting ideal climate control, consistent lighting, and ease of maintenance. Each of these qualities was the result of a single feature: The classrooms had no windows. (Recall the broken window in the school boycott flyer—according to the Board of Education, broken windows were among the greatest expenses in maintaining school properties.) The windowless structure dampened the rumble of the elevated train and also, the Times noted approvingly, “shut out noise, dirt and distraction” from the “squalid slums outside.” The designers’ remit was predicated on the belief that students’ ability to concentrate required them to dissociate from the places they called home. The school’s exterior, sheathed by brick screening, was repeatedly described in a positive appraisal by Architectural Forum as a shield. While every room in Jordan and Fuller’s towers would be graced with its own view of a Harlem reimagined after the riots’ destruction, a political cartoon in the Amsterdam News derided “the windowless school”: “I think the idea of building it without windows was so the parents couldn’t look in and see it was segregated and the kids couldn’t look out to see it was Harlem!” And the building—again, designed before the riots—seemed prepared for future sieges. Seeking a design fix for the problem of the noisy elevated train, the architects were able to subvert a code requiring light in school buildings by having the structure qualify as a fallout shelter.

Years later, when I lived in Harlem, I sometimes passed that way, and IS 201 did not seem out of place. This was not a positive achievement. The building—in those days it housed the school of the Boys Choir of Harlem—seemed naturalized with its adjacent landscape, the one it had been designed to exclude. It was already old, and in my memory it was always covered in scaffolding and ringed by a tall chain-link fence, like something undergoing reconstruction. I did not know, or think to inquire, about its history. So I was unaware of the picket lines and controversy, or the brief, aborted experiment in community control. I did not know about the 12-inch walls and floors designed to withstand nuclear war. But the forbidding brick façade—shield—communicated something about what Jordan had been trying to avoid when she wrote to Fuller in the midst of their design collaboration, urging curvilinear features “to overcome physical patterns of inevitability; the sense of inexorable routes, the impossibility of a differentiated approach, of surprise.”

Despite their different origins, the Jordan-Fuller collaboration and the Harlem school fiasco raise similar questions. Neither design, not the built or the unbuilt, achieved its end. While it is easier to decry the school as a failed experiment imposed on the community and undone by its assumptions, it is not hard to imagine Jordan and Fuller’s Skyrise meeting a reception at least as bewildered and possibly becoming every bit as reviled. Neighbors referred to IS 201 as “the prison,” “the warehouse,” “the fortress,” and “Fort Necessity.” Other undoubtedly colorful local nicknames might have been earned by Skyrise, depending on what unforeseen problems the design created or solved. In recent years Jordan and Fuller’s collaboration has been resurrected and celebrated by scholars as a lost instance of black feminist architecture and, rightfully, an achievement of Jordan’s speculative imagination. But both operate in architecture’s heroic, and thus truly utopic, mode.

Jordan rightly invoked the imaginative leap necessary to transform Harlem, but this was framed as “a proposal to rescue a quarter-million lives by completely transforming their environment.” The notion of an architectural rescue mission may be where Fuller’s imprint is most visible. In early 1966—just before the struggle began over IS 201, its design and control, and how these would combine to determine what kind of future was possible in Harlem—Fuller was quoted in The New Yorker making claims that might have been used to justify those windowless classrooms: “You can’t reform man, and you can’t improve his situation where he is.” Fuller further described his theory of change with the language of conquistadors and corsairs: “The tiny minority that went to sea, for example…immediately found [themselves] outside the law.” This “outlaw area” was the place where technology was developed and change was possible. If Harlem were an such an area, then Preston Wilcox’s harsh assessment of IS 201—that it was “a monument to absentee-decision-making, colonialism”—may have been equally applied to Skyrise, even if it was codesigned by Jordan, a native daughter of the neighborhood.

Maybe neither is more utopian—or dystopian—than the other. One reached skyward, the other burrowed underground and oriented inward. But of both, it is worth asking: Whose utopia is it?

Interestingly, the two projects shared a design element. Jordan writes of the innovation, developed with Fuller, to build the new towers on columns above existing tenements. This way they’d avoid the displacement summed up in the Harlem aphorism “Urban renewal equals Negro removal.” Instead, residents would stay in their homes during the construction process and then move up, into the new towers, which would begin 10 stories above street level. Only when the ascent was complete would the old buildings be razed, the empty space below becoming public park space and roads.

IS 201 also hovers above street level, elevated on tapered concrete columns or piloti that earned it another of its nicknames: a “tomb on stilts.” In Educating Harlem, Gutman wrote that these were among the design’s allusions to “classical European, African, and Native American” influences, but another observer, writing in 1973, called them an “inspiring example of modern American riot architecture.” What the architects thought would be a covered schoolyard was instead sought out as shelter for Harlemites who lived out of doors, its shadows inviting in the deprivation the building attempted to shut out—neatly contradicting Fuller’s notion that every use could be determined by design. Surely the 100-story towers of Skyrise would have created as much shadow as shade.

Darryl Williams, who was among the first students to attend IS 201, has posted a short documentary on YouTube in which he attempts to make sense of the time he spent there, wondering if “people knew that IS 201 was built out of struggle.” To a soundtrack of Gil-Scott Heron, he drives through the neighborhood, interviewing his fellows from the schoolyard and the block, boys who had played together in those streets before the school was erected and are now almost old men. Williams’s own impressions of the school are salutary. He attended during the brief period when the local-control experiment was allowed to unfold, so he recalls the community groups whose after-school activities flourished in the building, pressing inward from across Harlem with “Jazzmobile, Each One Teach One, Malcolm-King College, Night Center, self-defense classes, and talent shows.” He has a precise memory of the building’s 56 concrete pillars, as if the number itself were a cipher whose meaning is known only to the initiated. His film ends insisting that the value of the school be brought to light, “because its history remains in the dark.”

When Sir Thomas More set out to imagine “not only a future but a destiny” that was “consciously and deliberately designed” (to describe his treatise in terms borrowed from Jordan and Fuller), the tradition of creating an ideal world to oppose an imperfect one was not new. But he needed a new word. Jordan considered “utopia” an epithet slandering her dream of New Harlem precisely because it denoted impossibility and therefore continued inaction. But More’s vision was aligned with the greatest action of his time, the voyages of “discovery” and the subsequent projection of European power onto the lives, destinies, and possibilities of all other peoples of the world. This is not a coincidence. More’s text—and the spate of tracts that followed the publication of Utopia in 1516—were written into the expanded imaginary opened up by conquest. The “new” territories were spaces where it could be imagined there were no people. Or, if there were people, they could be civilized and perfected—or, should they resist, vanquished and exterminated.

It is easy to recognize in More and those who followed him not only the blueprints of an unbuilt world but also, in some cases, the world that came and maybe the world that is coming. More’s Utopia—that happy place, or no place—was socialist while also a slave society; Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, offered a proto-feminist entry with The Blazing World, ruled by an empress and “so well ordered that it could not be mended; for it was governed without secret and deceiving Policy; neither was there any ambitious factions, malicious detractions, civil dissentions, or home-bred quarrels.” Sir Francis Bacon, in his unfinished The New Atlantis, described an island that flourishes after the rest of the world is destroyed by rising seas.

Each was dreamed up not only as a deliberate design of a new world but because of a world that no longer existed, a world—following the Jamaican philosopher Sylvia Wynter—whose people and their vision of how or what the world might be had been destroyed by European encounter. The relationship between utopian thought and conquest is that of Borges’s “map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.”

But if More’s neologism lodged in Western tradition as mere idealization, Vasco Quiroga, the Bishop of Michoacán, read Utopia as a builder would read a blueprint, determined to make it “the Magna Carta of European civilization in the New World.” Utopia was the plan Quiroga would follow when attempting to smooth over the inconveniences arising in 1530 when the Purhépecha began to rebel after the execution of their leader, Tzíntzicha Tangáxoan II. Opposed to enslaving Indigenous people, preferring rather to pacify them by indoctrination and instruction, Quiroga proposed to fix the problem of the indios scattered throughout the countryside (where they were likely in retreat, recuperating from violent reprisals). They would be brought to live in cities, “that the natives may have enough for themselves and for those whom they must support; that they may be sufficiently well kept and that they may be properly converted, as they should be.” This would be achieved through deliberate design: a six-hour workday, property held in common, and all corrupting luxuries eschewed. Quiroga’s plan called for reordering patterns of living with mathematical precision. The natives would be gathered into hospital-towns, which he called Republicas de Indios: “a city of six thousand families—each family composed of from ten to sixteen couples—would be ruled, regulated, and governed as though it were a single family.”

The “Indian Utopia” founded by Vasco Quiroga persists, his good works still celebrated today. A Mexican tourist website describes the legacy of Tato Vasco, as the bishop is fondly remembered, whose program of training is classed as an enduring success in the villages of Santa Fe de Mexico, Santa Fe de la Laguna, and Santa Fe del Río. As if the production of tourist handicraft was the destiny of a people who had fought against their obliteration, travelers are instructed to visit “Paracho for guitars, Tzintzuntzán for pottery, Santa Clara for copper products and Nurío for woven woolen goods.” The website does not record the prophetic vision of a Purhépecha woman who predicted an apocalyptic punishment meted out by an offended goddess, announcing European arrival, the coming rip in time, and the end of the known world:

Break all those jugs for it shall not be from here on, as it has been up to now when we were very prosperous. Break all the wine tubs everywhere, leave off the sacrifice of men and bring no more offerings with you because from now on it is not to be that way. No more kettle drums are to be sounded, split them asunder. There will be no more temples or fireplaces, nor will any more smoke rise, everything shall become a desert because other men are coming to earth. They will spare no end of the earth, to the Left Hand [west] and to the Right [east], and everywhere all the way to the edge of the sea and beyond.

Perhaps, then, the point is not whether utopia can be recovered to organize a new politics—a utopia of the grassroots—but how much the world we live in is already someone’s utopia. How are we to be delivered from it, by it, when we are still in it? Sylvia Wynter has scoffed at the compromised position of a scientific community that created climate change now attempting to respond to it. Recognizing the longue durée spanning from the early modern age of discovery to ecological collapse, you could say of the new utopians, as Wynter did, “The proposals that they’re going to give for change are going to be devastating!”

I was young and responsible for no one’s survival but my own when I decided my book Harlem Is Nowhere would be the first volume of a trilogy studying Black utopias. The settings—Harlem, Haiti, and the Black Belt of the American South—were of my choosing; though they were not places I belonged to by origin, I felt my origins tied up with them. The phrase “Black utopia” had been supplied by a mentor when I told him about those places, and it was with an irony that I did not question but was not exactly my own.

Occasionally I am asked to explain her, the one whose dream this was, by people who hear me name those places and think that, like the 10,000 invited to attend school in Darkest East Harlem, they cannot possibly be utopias because they would not like to go there. Plenty have been bold enough to tell me that those places are dystopic. At some point it became plain that I was operating with a different working definition of utopia than the (white) people asking me for clarification. It was not the Blazing World of Margaret Cavendish, a place “so well ordered that it could not be mended.” I had come to think of utopia as a location of the unbuilt, the not-yet, a place of unachieved dreams.

I realize now this was just one of a group of words for which I had private, alternative definitions, owing to the mother tongue I had learned in my native country, the family of origin. I was a teenager, soon to discover on my mother’s bookshelves June Jordan’s Civil Wars, with its essay on the Skyrise for Harlem, when a teacher questioned the way I sneered dismissively whenever the word “politics” crossed my lips. I was speaking the dialect of my parents, who by the time of my birth had mostly left politics behind—though they were still very young. Politics made fatherless daughters, for though mine resided at home, I knew he lived in the Revolution. My definition of utopia had been formed growing up in a world measured against the unachieved, where time was told by an event—a revolution?—that had not happened, or had not happened yet, where dreams (and people) were thwarted, and the substance of these things was available to me only as an aura I experienced as a small girl leafing through political tracts stuffed in boxes in closets, bearing an unaired, nostril-burning scent I came to associate with the early 1970s. That was utopia, this not-yet of the past that was also still ongoing.

This conditionality, besides a flexibility of tenses, caused me to avoid some territories I recognized as home but would not enter: no campus sit-ins, protest marches, or even petitions; never a raised fist. I did not disagree with such measures, but when I was young I had an aversion to anything that appeared to me as reenactments of my parents’ time in the Revolution. They had met as members of something that, until a few years ago, I knew only as “The Organization.” There was a discontinuity between these two varieties of future: the one my peers claimed to be moving toward and that of my parents’ not-yet. Unable to reconcile these futures, for years I avoided anything that could be understood as a movement, until a time when moving, with others, became what I was doing in the present tense.

This, and the fact that I am older now—responsible for the survival of someone besides myself—is why, when reading histories of the not-yet, I remain less interested in heroic contours. Instead, I search for the people who did not join the picket lines or the boycotts—the ones meant to be kept out by the windowless classrooms. Mostly they are not in history, though occasionally they slip through. In Assata, the autobiography of Assata Shakur, I hung on to the story of the necessarily unnamed sister who “always referred to [Shakur and her] comrades as ‘you militants.’ She was a militant too, but at the moment she was not active, not out on Front Street, as she called it”—and therefore could provide undetectable harbor to usher Assata underground. When watching a documentary about the Black Panthers, I wondered why much more wasn’t said about the families abandoned when the Panthers bunked in collective apartments, beds piled up in the rooms of makeshift headquarters—survival pending revolution. I wondered about the ones left behind and how they managed to survive. It was their struggle, but not their politics, so their stories are deemed subordinate; they will not be admitted to the utopia of the grassroots.

The shape of such lives may be deduced largely from the fact that some managed to continue. Not dreaming because always awake, keeping themselves and someone else alive. I do not think of this as hope—which is, perhaps, also heroic. And I worry about what this means for any self-concepts of radicality I may still retain, for it feels like a path to gradualism—repeating in my head is Nina Simone’s voice from “Mississippi Goddam”: “They keep on saying, ‘Go slow.’” But to contemplate mere survival may be necessary during an era when we can’t know if we’ll have the time or the ability to live as we might wish—at any speed or by any design.

I needed a new word. Then I came upon the work of the Chippewa writer Gerald Vizenor, who speaks of Native “survivance” as the persistence of stories, insisting on a Native presence in time if not in history, as peoples if not in politics. In this survivance, maybe there is a means to continue, against what the Purhépecha knew was coming to rule “the edge of the sea and beyond.” And thus, perhaps, positioned to continue against the rising of the sea itself.

In early june last year, my father said something i still haven’t worked out completely. He told me that what we are living through now—a world ablaze with a pandemic, wildfires in California where he lives, and the so-called racial reckoning that was happening, is happening, has already happened, or has not happened yet—felt familiar. It all reminded him of 1968: irresistible forces transforming everything, all at once and unpredictably. My father was too young to see action that year of the Revolution, but he had absorbed the chaos and promise and hurtling change. What he said next surprised me, though I responded with silence. His conclusion was that, in light of the current happenings, all that was left to do was “to hunker down and take care of your people.”

This was not the vision of politics I had expected from him. I was alone in lockdown with my son, his grandson (a miracle of a phrase I did not expect ever to pronounce because of the language spoken in my native country). I listened to my father as I stood in the quiet green backyard of the rural-ish exurb where I’ve lived since taking my son from the city. We had arrived here a few months before the pandemic and the uprisings, so for a long time I had the feeling of experiencing a near-miss. In the evenings I followed the news of updated death tolls and learned which cities were under curfew, using headphones so my son would not hear. It was a future I had not prepared for, a location in which my world had become much smaller, and some of my dreams further away, because I was trying to find the best way for us to survive.

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