The (Very) Earthly Pursuits of Rev. Calvin O. Butts III

Meet the reverend of real estate

The (Very) Earthly Pursuits of Rev. Calvin O. Butts III

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 Abyssinian Baptist Church, spiritual home of Rev. Calvin O. Butts III. Butts is the founder of Abyssinian Development Corporation (ADC), the church’s nonprofit development arm.
Wikipedia
The Abyssinian Baptist Church, spiritual home of Rev. Calvin O. Butts III. Butts is the founder of Abyssinian Development Corporation (ADC), the church’s nonprofit development arm.
Reverend Butts, leader of the church, also runs the ADC.
Wikipedia
Reverend Butts, leader of the church, also runs the ADC.

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.

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60 comments
fafa090
fafa090

NOT A PEEP...

Mr. Rayman,

In its conception and execution, and in the response to it,
your excellent and credible investigative piece on
this Abyss of self-serving exploitation, insider politics and kleptocracy posing as a respectable, even righteous black institution
exposes, once again, how Harlem and most black communities in America are "third world" countries.

All the elements are here:

A history of socioeconomic exclusion and terror
producing a traumatized underclass that
the few who luckily escape it (in body and bounty, not mind)
exploit and step on
in pathetic mimicry and glorification of their oppressor.

And a captured (black) press (a shadow of its historical self).

Take, for instance, the Amsterdam News that,
in the first place, hasn't the commitment and integrity to conduct such an investigation and publish its findings
and, in the second place, hasn't commented a PEEP on your heavy lifting --
a reaction that will no doubt be repeated across
the"black" radio shows, talk shows, so-called leaders and community members
that don't outright shuffle to Butts' defense
like the captured minds here
who not only DO NOT question his support of Pataki/Bloomberg/Coca-Cola/Citibank, etc.
but who (like the dubious 'jamesacewinter') also don't/can't challenge you on the facts
and don't stop to wonder why
Butts and his cronies haven't yet sued you for defamation
if you're so wrong...

Please, keep up the good work.

Many thanks.

phvertex
phvertex

It’s unfortunate that so many people will read the Village Voice article and miss the real story: character assassination. It also seems to this writer that the article was constructed to make Sheen Wright look like she stole something along with Pastor Butts and then had one of the few Black leaders in NYPD Phil Banks fix a criminal act. It’s also unfortunate that many people who read the article will not ask themselves “why all of a sudden did Dr. Butts decide to start committing these alleged criminal acts”, why not 10, 20 years ago, whynow? Now, because real estate is booming and it’s all about the real estate and ultimately the money. Borrowing money on your home, even if only to put in your savings account is good business as is supporting the right candidate for office hoping their winning will be able to coincide with whatever you’re doing. I guess we will all have to wait to see who’s behind Dr. Butts’ character assassination and who Sheena Wright obviously pissed off, while clearly knowing Chief Phil Banks may be PC someday if given an honest opportunity to show his skills. In the meantime the Village Voice with its reduced advertising and smaller market of customers must do what they have to do to survive as a company.I will say this: everyone I know has bought the Village Voice within the last 2 weeks or so.

joysolo
joysolo

So what else is news.  This article is not too transparent.  What is apparent is this article is meant to harm Reverend Butts reputation in some way.  However, ANYONE who has done business particularly mortgage in real estate business with BOA , Citi Bank and Duetsch Banks , all of whom were instrumental in the  /Wall Street melt down of 2008,  has been harmed or at least garner irreparable collateral damage. ADC is no exception.   Wake up people.  An investment in Harlem real estate may be the ONLY way people of color will be able to retain housing  within the village of Harlem!

mobile50
mobile50

the posts of jamesacewinter are tiring.  The responses of the editor are above and beyond what is warranted.  Of course, ministers often have almost  cult like followings of people who are so blinded that they will never be convinced of any wrongdoings.   These same people defended and reelected Charles Rangel - another black "leader".  

renecalvo
renecalvo

I have been a resident and small business owner in Harlem for over a decade and during that time watched ADC pry real estate from the hands of residents while bilking the government for millions. They are hustlers, scam artist and cheats. If that is the so-called "black leadership" of Harlem then we will be well rid of them. Hurrah for The Village Voice. Speak truth to power!

spalmer105
spalmer105

I have been a long time admirer of the Voice and its thoughtful , intelligent reporting. I cannot say how disappointed I am by this thinly veiled attack on African American leadership in New York City.This article is a irresponsible assault on civil society.Shame on you,

spalmer105
spalmer105

I have been a long time admirer of the Voice and its thoughtful , intelligent reporting. I cannot say how disappointed I am by this thinly veiled attack on African American leadership in New York City.This article is a irresponsible assault on civil society.Shame on you,

spalmer105
spalmer105

I have been a long time admirer of the Voice and its thoughtful , intelligent reporting. I cannot say how disappointed I am by this thinly veiled attack on African American leadership in New York City.This article is a irresponsible assault on civil society.Shame on you,

spalmer105
spalmer105

I have been a long time admirer of the Voice and its thoughtful , intelligent reporting. I cannot say how disappointed I am by this thinly veiled attack on African American leadership in New York City.This article is a irresponsible assault on civil society.Shame on you,

jamesacewinter
jamesacewinter

Last year, when the previous Editor in Chief, Tony Ortega, stepped down to write a book about Scientology, and to work on his blog "The Underground Bunker," I thought things would improve at this paper.


Apparently not.

"I plan to reinforce the paper's position as a showcase for progressive — but balanced, disciplined — journalism.." - Will Bourne


There is no discipline, or balance, in this article. Lots of innuendo. Lots of implied actions. Very little proof. Worse, are the unprofessional side tangents about the attractiveness of the article's subjects, and unnecessary forays into their personal lives. I have a hard time believing this would have gotten through the editors at any serious paper.

Glad I get this for free!



jamesacewinter
jamesacewinter

As a long time Village Voice reader, I must say that I am disappointed in the quality of this article. I don't really care about the content.

There is an awful lot of innuendo, but no actual evidence of any of the things that are implied. This is just bad journalism.

Let's start with the captions under the pictures. Under Phillip Banks photograph, you say that he was called by someone, and that an arrest was voided on the same night. The implication is some form of nepotism, yet there is nothing in your article that provides any evidence for this. In fact, the article says there was a domestic violence incident with cross-claims filed by a man and a woman. The woman was let go, and the man (I can only assume as you did not list it) was held. Since I have no idea what transpired (because you don't tell us), and since I have lived long enough to know that men are at a disadvantage in every society except Saudi Arabia when it comes to domestic violence claims, it does not at all seem unique, or suspicious, that she was let go. In fact, I would be surprised if anything else happened. As a reader, I have no reason to believe that interference from a high ranking police officer was necessary for this to happen. Especially, since you don't provide any proof of him interfering.


The second questionable photo is the one with the "attractive 43 year old woman" (why you said this, I do not know - what that had to do with rest of the article, i do not know) Sheena Wright. The caption says she quietly left ADC for the United Way of NYC. After becoming upset with the rest of your article, I typed this woman's name into Google. According to Google, she was on Good Day New York, Fox 5 News, CUNY TV, and ABC News days after starting at United Way. I clicked on these video links and they are all of her talking about starting at United Way, and how she had to jump right into Hurricane Sandy relief work in her first week. I do not know in what world going on Good Day New York to announce your new position is quietly leaving, but somehow that's what's insinuated under her photo.

The third picture, of the vacant lot, is just as strange. You say that the seller sold a property for $2,500 and that now the seller is suing for fraud. I assume the article says the seller was a janitor as a way of telling us he was uneducated and easily taken advantage of. This only makes sense for two seconds until you reread the selling price...$2,500. There are zero people in this world, no matter how uneducated, that think any property in NYC is worth $2,500. There is obviously more to this story, yet there is no information in the body of the article. We are just left, once again, to make assumptions.


This is getting long as it is, so I'll continue this below.

hotinharlem
hotinharlem

i agree with mstillman. there are COUNTLESS stories of ADC negligence all over harlem but they seem to have a powerful pr machine in place despite the fact that they are clearly uninterested in anything other than profit. butts is an opportunist who uses his congregation to advance his development agenda. take some time to research how poorly they maintain their buildings, how many buildings they've developed that are either unfinished or being woefully mismanaged and how many lawsuits have been filed against them by longtime residents...

mstillman
mstillman

Thanks for this article. I live on 123rd st and the block association was arguing with CB10 for ages about ADC and their plans to build a huge out of scale extension to the Ennis Francis Houses that we said they couldn't pay for or manage. But ADC and its political clout ran around the standard ULURP process and started building this huge monstrosity in the middle of our block that is now not being worked on because ADC ran out of funds. 

We are stuck with an unfinished building and ADC keeps hurting Harlem like a bumbling giant.

mstillman
mstillman

Thanks for this article. I live on 123rd st and the block association was arguing with CB10 for ages about ADC and their plans to build a huge out of scale extension to the Ennis Francis Houses that we said they couldn't pay for or manage. But ADC and its political clout ran around the standard ULURP process and started building this huge monstrosity in the middle of our block that is now not being worked on because ADC ran out of funds. 

We are stuck with an unfinished building and ADC keeps hurting Harlem like a bumbling giant.

harlemhealthglobal
harlemhealthglobal

Graham Rayman your Pulitzer prize writing and investigative skills could have been used to show balance in you "Harlem Shake" story featuring Rev. Calvin Butts. You neglected to mention the millions of community members receiving food from the church pantry, scores of folks who moved into affordable apartments and thousands of students receiving a quality education as a direct result of services provided by both the Abyssinian Development Corporation and the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Shame on you for throwing SHADE on a respected member of the Harlem community. Dipping into the private life of Shena Wright served what purpose? That Mr Rayman was a very low blow. I thought they taught you to stick with the facts in journalism. You can do better work. If you really want that Pulitzer write about the DEVELOPMENT of Harlem. Karma is REAL. Peace and Blessings. Ms K Harlem Griot.

 
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