A four-story cast-iron watchtower sits crumbling atop the hill in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park, fenced off and too dangerous for the public to visit, a relic of a firefighting system long obsolete. Built in 1857, it was designated a New York City landmark in 1967. One of 13 erected in the city, Harlem’s watchtower is the last one standing.
“With each year we lose more material,” said John Krawchuck, director of historic preservation for the Parks Department.
The watchtower must be dismantled and sent to a warehouse for repairs.* As much as 70 percent of the structure may need to be replaced, Krawchuk said. Steel braces were added to help stabilize the structure and it was cleaned and painted in 1994, the last work done to it.
Worse, the hill where the fire watchtower stands, known as the Acropolis, attracts drug addicts and crime.
“This has become a real hangout,” said Linda Galietti, a central Harlem resident, pointing to recently installed security lights and cameras. “We need activities to push out the other elements,” she said. “It’s not comfortable for families.”
Syderia Asberry-Chresfield, president of the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association, is seeing joggers replace criminals on the Acropolis.*
“I just went up to the fire watchtower two years ago and I’ve been a homeowner for over 20 years,” Asberry-Chresfield said. “I was always afraid and I never ventured up.”
To repair the tower and reclaim the Acropolis, residents and local leaders must raise more than $4.5 million. The Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association, along with the Parks Department and the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance, launched a fundraising campaign called “Save the Fire Watchtower” last month, drawing more than 60 supporters to the top of the Acropolis for jazz, champagne and cheese. It’s the kind of use park activists want to see more of.
To date, the association, which plans to gather small community donations first, has raised $3,000 from local residents. “If they feel any ownership towards the project then they will help us see the project through,” Asberry-Chresfield said.
Laurent Delly, vice-president of the association, was discussing the project at the fundraiser when a woman placed a $20 bill in his hand. “Beautiful,” he said. “This is a real grassroots effort!”
“We don’t want this to stay another 5 to 10 years without refurbishment,” Delly said.
“It’s important not to give up hope,” said Krawchuck, who was the Parks Department’s project manager for renovations of the Washington Square Arch on Fifth Avenue. It took 12 years to raise the money for that.
“If we can get our politicians involved, then we can actually get lump sum amounts from the government to help move this project along,” said Asberry-Chresfield. “And if we can do that, I think we can probably get it done within the next three or four years.”
Several elected officials turned out for the fundraiser. “The value of your homes will go up as a result of this project,” said Leslie Wyche, spokesperson for City Council Member Inez Dickens. Wyche joined State Sen. Bill Perkins and Parks and Recreation Commissioner William Castro in declaring support for the watchtower. They stopped short of promising money, but hinted that help might arrive once the community raises money on its own.
Last year, park activists celebrated the completion of an even more ambitious project at Marcus Garvey, the $7 million renovation of the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater, largely funded with $4 million from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and $1.2 million from the Manhattan borough president’s office and the City Council. A refurbished watchtower and Acropolis would complete the park’s transformation.
Conditions are cyclical, said Carla Mcintosh, a lifelong Harlem resident. She played in the park as a child and remembers her grandmother warning her about purse snatchers. The 1980’s were especially dangerous, she said.
“You used to have bodies in the park every week back in the day. We’ve come a long way,” said Bill Stokely, who lives in a brownstone nearby. He thinks gentrification is driving the renovation efforts.
Central Harlem’s population grew by almost 10 percent between 2000 and 2010, but the black population declined by 9,544. At the same time, the white population grew in central Harlem south and in East Harlem south by 9,200 people, according to CUNY’s Center for Urban Research.
“It took the community to change for something to get rolling,” Stokely said. “This project is going to be built because it’s going to increase property values.”
But Asberry-Chresfield argues that property values are already high because the area around the park is designated a historic district.
Angel Ayon, a preservation architect who fell in love with the watchtower, assessed the structure for his Columbia University thesis in 2002. He constructed a timeline mapping major events in its history, compiled old maps and photos, and produced a website.
The tower should be saved for its historical value, its unique architecture and for what it represents, Ayon said. Volunteers once stood at the top looking for signs of smoke. Often they were war veterans who could do little but sit for long periods and look out for their neighbors.
“People were volunteers and there for each other,” Ayon said. “I think that people continue to care for each other, and I’d like to think that people continue to care for that tower.”
The article originally stated that the Harlem Fire Watchtower will be sent to Maryland for restoration, but the repair destination has not been set.
The article also originally stated that Asberry-Chresfield “envisions” joggers climbing the Acropolis. She actually said that joggers have already replaced criminals.