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Art, Architecture, and Activism at Askwith Forum

After years of planning and collaboration among artists, activists, and architects, a green educational and cultural arts mixed-use development will open next year on the boundary of Harlem’s historic Sugar Hill. The Sugar Hill Project, as it is called, is also unique in that it combines an early childhood education center and children’s museum in the 124-unit residential building that will house formerly homeless and low-income families.

At last week’s Askwith Forum, "Art, Architecture, and Activism: The Sugar Hill Project," key players in the development – Ellen Baxter of Broadway Housing Communities; artist, writer, and educator Faith Ringgold; and architect David Adjaye – spoke about integral components in designing this community. Lecturer Steve Seidel, who advised on the project, introduced and commended the speakers in what he called a development that is a “blending of brilliance” and has the potential to “change the way” America thinks about housing for the homeless and low-income.

“I’ve learned it is possible to create the alternative,” said Baxter, activist and executive director of Broadway Housing Communities.

In 2008, Broadway Housing acquired a large development site on the northern boundary of West Harlem’s historic Sugar Hill District to launch its seventh project. The nonprofit raised $74 million to develop the Sugar Hill Project. Baxter worked with Ringgold – a Harlem native – who proposed adding a children’s museum of art and storytelling to the development.

“’A real museum? We don’t know how to do that,’” Baxter said she thought at the time. “I didn’t know anything about creating a museum…. Faith was very clear we aren’t talking about a community center but a true museum of art for children.”

She sought the help of Ringgold and Seidel among others to guide the creation of the museum, which calls for approximately 15,000 square feet of space to show Harlem-made or -inspired artwork. In addition to galleries, workshops, a library, and courtyard spaces, this museum will include pieces by children, in concert with works from renowned artists, to deeply connect young museum-goers to the value of their own artistic exploration. A licensed early education childhood center and an afterschool program will also host museum-based early childhood education.

For Baxter and many in Harlem, this is a dream come true. When Baxter moved to New York City in the 1980s, she was surprised to find so many people living on the streets. A glimpse of a photograph showing 1,450 men on the drill floor of Washington Square reiterated that something needed to be done. “That image drove me to establish permanent places [for the homeless] to live,” Baxter said. However, Baxter didn’t want to segregate the homeless but create apartments in the center of communities. For years, she worked to establish several apartment units for homeless and low-income families. By the late 90s, Broadway Housing Communities began to incorporate art and arts education into its supportive housing model.

“What we’ve learned from the beginning is that to really address deep poverty and homelessness, it requires rebuilding the community,” Baxter said. “You start with housing – the foundation of stability and permanence – quality housing, first class accommodations … you must have access to educational opportunities and focusing on the youngest the children to be the center of that community growth and of course, art is the vehicle that binds it together. The Sugar Hill Project has been an evolution in our thinking.”

Every detail of the Sugar Hill Project considered art and education. Adjaye, principal of Adjaye Associates, said it was an easy decision to sign on to the project, considering the rich history of the Harlem neighborhood. He spent a lot of time studying the area in order to design a building that would reflect the ethnography of the neighborhood.

At the forum, Adjaye shared plans of the project and showed how the concrete panels throughout mimic a rose pattern and special attention was paid to make sure the children and residents have access to their surroundings in Harlem.

Vera Grant, executive director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, read prepared remarks from Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who could not attend the event. “The Sugar Hill Project promises to restore Harlem to its historic place as nurturer, sustainer of objectivity and genius,” Gates wrote, noting that W.E.B. Du Bois was just one of the many prominent residents of the neighborhood.

“It brings expressive possibilities and arts in to the living dreaming that Harlem has always been. Life and stories of art will come together in this one historic place – Sugar Hill – I cannot wait to be there,” Gates wrote.

In closing, Seidel awarded Ringgold with the second Thelma E. Goldberg Arts in Education Award, which recognizes extraordinary contributions to education and art. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma was the recipient of the Goldberg award last year.