How the "Jewel of Harlem" Became UnlivableBreaking News
tags: African American history, New York, housing, urban history, Harlem, Cooperative Housing
Eula May McNair, age 82, sits on her couch, sifting through yellowed newspaper clippings; Polaroid prints of her days touring Europe with The Tiffanies, a three-woman singing group; and certificates awarded to her daughters, whom she brags about with motherly ease. She picks up a photo: “Me and my husband down at the Copacabana,” Eula says, smiling. “Everybody thought I was a movie star. Ain’t that something?”
These photos are the ones that survived the three floods Eula has endured in the last two years alone. She’s lived in Harlem’s Esplanade Gardens for about four decades—raising children and grandchildren and hosting what she termed several lively parties.
Opened in 1967, Esplanade Gardens’ co-op apartments were birthed out of the Mitchell-Lama housing program—a 1950s equity initiative to increase home ownership among middle-income New Yorkers. Across the city, the program was seen as a way for Black families to acquire intergenerational wealth and gnaw away at centuries-long inequality in housing.
Then it started falling apart. On that same nostalgia-filled, cold February morning, Eula walked me through each room in her top-floor apartment, pointing to walls that were torn down, pipes that had burst, and floors that were patched with duct tape. “This whole place is not good,” she said, “and it’s making people sick.”
Eula is one of dozens of Esplanade residents I’ve met with similar experiences. They say their living experiences have diminished rapidly over the past few years, when upkeep of Esplanade Gardens was taken over by Metro Management Development, Inc., a real estate company that manages over 35,000 apartments around New York City and Long Island, including several Mitchell-Lama buildings. Metro took over from Prestige Management, under whose stewardship there were also documented cases of complaints at Esplanade. On Metro’s website, the company boasts, “We strive to insure that every property we manage and every client we represent receives our finest efforts.” (Metro Management did not respond to multiple messages left with its office.)
The residents I spoke to tell another story, one of a mammoth, multimillion-dollar renovation project taken on by new management that has upended lives. One that began as an attempt to revamp and improve the complex but has culminated in a housing crisis.