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The Harlem Renaissance Ballroom and Casino, an art deco behemoth on the corner of 138th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, opened in 1923. With terrazzo tile, gleaming casement windows, and neon signs advertising "FUN" and "DANCING," it was the city's showcase for African-American celebrations and cultural events for decades, and the home court for the barnstorming Harlem Rens all-black pro basketball team in the 1920s and '30s.
The ballroom was closed in 1979. It was boarded up and lay fallow until the Abyssinian Development Corporation took over the property in 1991. Founded by the politically powerful Reverend Calvin O. Butts III, the longtime lead pastor of the 205-year-old Abyssinian Baptist Church on West 138th Street, ADC is Abyssinian's nonprofit community-redevelopment arm. In the early days after ADC took over the Renaissance's mortgage, Butts talked about restoring the ballroom and bringing back a gleaming entertainment venue to the very heart of Harlem.
The Abyssinian Baptist Church was founded in 1808 by parishioners who left the segregated First Baptist Church. Just after the turn of the 20th century, Adam Clayton Powell Sr. became pastor. His son, also named Adam Clayton Powell, took over in 1937, and went on to serve 26 years in Congress. He was succeeded in the church by Samuel Proctor, and then, in 1989, by Calvin Butts.
The son of a cook and a welfare worker who grew up in Queens, Butts, now 64, is nothing if not ambitious. In addition to his role at Abyssinian, he is the president of SUNY–Old Westbury and the former chair or vice chair of the boards of United Way of New York City, the Harlem YMCA, and the now-defunct North General Hospital; sits on two state development boards; and holds honorary degrees from eight colleges.
Butts founded ADC the year he arrived at the church as a way to address the large number of abandoned and decaying properties in a neighborhood crippled by drugs, crime, and a lack of investment. The organization's mission statement says it "addresses complex, interconnected challenges facing the Harlem community, increases availability of quality housing to people of diverse incomes, enhances the delivery of social services, fosters economic revitalization, and enhances educational opportunities for youth."
It also buys, develops, and sells significant pieces of real estate. During a span of time that included a dramatic rise in local property values, ADC became one of Harlem's signature institutions, a nonprofit that says it has invested some $800 million in residential and commercial real estate; building or renovating hundreds of units of housing; partnering in retail shops and a supermarket along 125th Street; and founding a charter high school, a middle school, an elementary school, and a Head Start program. From a single paid employee in 1989, the staff had swelled by 2011 to 140 people.
With his history of promoting the rebirth of Harlem, it was surprising, then, when Butts himself went down to the city Landmarks Commission in 2004 and successfully opposed a plan to preserve the historic Renaissance Ballroom building. And then in 2006, the ADC came out with a plan to demolish the structure altogether and erect a 19-story apartment building with 116 condos and 90 parking spaces. Twenty percent of the apartments were to be set aside for low to moderate income residents, as part of what's known as the 80/20 model, which is extremely favorable to developers because of the associated government subsidies and tax breaks. The "Renny," meanwhile, would be remembered with a plaque.
"The thing that's shocking to me is that here is a uniquely African-American landmark—an important element of Harlem history—and it's been diminished in an irreparable way," says Michael Henry Adams, a Harlem historian and author. "The architectural heritage of Harlem has been neglected for years and years. Something close to 40 percent of Greenwich Village has landmark protection, but just 3 percent of Harlem. Most tragic of all is that this is being participated in by African-American leaders who don't consider the value of commemorating what was archived here by protecting buildings that embodied our accomplishments."
Today, however, that tower exists only on paper. Beyond a partial demolition, the parcel still sits dormant, and insiders say that a lot of money was frittered away in the planning. "It's another one of those stories that ended up in a fishtail," a current ADC employee says.
Indeed, like its derailed ballroom project, ADC is looking shaky, despite regular and generous infusions from government and private entities. Tax returns suggest the organization is nearly out of cash. Other high profile projects have also been shelved. And on April 1, former ADC president and CEO Sheena Wright, who now serves as president and CEO of United Way NYC, was subpoenaed by federal prosecutors to discuss ADC's sale of a brownstone to a wealthy member of the church.
From the church pulpit, like the Powells before him, the always crisply attired Butts has talked his way into a role as one of Harlem's key political power brokers—a position that is not without its benefits. In 1998, Butts endorsed the Republican incumbent governor, George Pataki. The following year, Pataki appointed him president of SUNY–Old Westbury, where he continues to earn $200,000 a year. And while he was a harsh critic of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, once calling him a "racist," Butts not only endorsed the Republican Michael Bloomberg, but has said hardly a word against his policies. Bloomberg's City Hall has lavished $68.6 million in government money on the organization, according to the city comptroller's office. The mayor himself has made repeated charitable donations to ADC, and once sat down at a fundraiser and wrote out a $1 million check on the spot. After Senator Hillary Clinton secured $1.5 million in earmarks for ADC, Butts endorsed her for president.