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The Harlem Court House on East 121st Street is nothing short of impressive, with its powerful granite base, octagonal clock tower, ornate spiral staircase, and leather-covered oak doors. The ambience of the 1893 building, which houses a cellblock that was the city’s first female detention center, suggests that here justice is taken seriously. That, at least, is the hope of the state court system, which last week revived the building as the Harlem Community Justice Center to hear family, juvenile, and landlord-tenant disputes. It is the city’s third community court, and the only one with a housing component.
But the project, some tenant advocates say, is off base—by about 30 blocks. The center is available only to residents within the 10035 and 10037 zip codes. Litigants within that area—which runs from 116th to 144th streets and from the East River to a jagged western line that skirts Fifth and Lenox avenues and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard—cannot, by and large, use Manhattan’s central courts for housing, youth, or family issues. Critics say the effect of the center is not justice but “ghettoization.”
“This absolutely smacks of racism, especially in this day when all the talk is of a unified court system,” says Ken Rosenfeld, an attorney at the Northern Manhattan Improvement Association in Washington Heights. “These people will not have access to the same judges that everyone else in Manhattan does. It would be much less of a problem if this were a court for a large part of the East Side, but as it is, it keeps poor people of color out of the central courthouse where everyone else goes.” Stephanie Townsend-Bakare, assistant director of the Citywide Task Force on Housing Court, asks, “What is so special about these two zip codes that they have to be segregated out? This is not a matter of helping; it’s taking something away.”
John Feinblatt, executive director of the Center for Court Innovation, the independent research arm of the state court system that opened community courts in midtown and Red Hook, says the Harlem center is meant to enhance, not deprive, the community. “Geography is not what creates uniformity in the administration of justice; the law does that,” says Feinblatt. “Here the law will be dispensed just as elsewhere. We hope this is a branch of housing court that is more accessible to the community.”
The court opened on May 21 for filing papers; litigants will begin appearing in June. Feinblatt says mediation is as much a focus as litigation. Welfare caseworkers will be on-site to aid tenants who owe rent, and landlords can apply for loans to renovate buildings or take maintenance classes through the center.
“It’s good because they’re really looking for a strong educational aspect to prevent things from escalating,” says Kevin Ryan, whose Community Training Resources Center offers classes for landlords with first-time housing code violations. Like the housing court task force, CTRC has been asked to work at the Harlem court, although neither group has been funded for the project. “Most of the owners in our classes are from Harlem, and this is a good opportunity for training right in the community.”
Judge Fern Fisher-Brandveen, administrative judge for Manhattan’s civil court, expects the Harlem center will average 55 housing cases a week—about 18 percent of all housing cases now brought to Manhattan’s main housing court at 111 Centre Street. A single judge will preside, hearing matters of family, youth, and housing law. “The goal is to have a smaller setting where the judge is familiar with the community, the housing stock, and you can resolve things more quickly,” says Fisher-Brandveen. “If a judge knows that a particular block has the worst housing in East Harlem, for instance, and then gets a case of a juvenile problem on that block, he might have some idea of what the kid is dealing with.”
But Rosenfeld says that could compromise fairness. “If I’m representing a tenant and the judge says, ‘Hey, wasn’t your kid before me yesterday on another matter?’ that’s not right. Small-town courts might sound romantic, but there’s nothing great about them.”
Although the judge currently appointed to the court, Rolando Acosta, has a reputation for fairness, advocates worry what will happen when a less equitable judge takes the bench. Indeed, tenants’ main disadvantage in housing court is that most have no lawyer, a fact the Harlem court will not change. Also not addressed are problems like an inadequate number of housing inspectors and attorneys to sue landlords on behalf of the city. Landlords’ law firms are irate at the Harlem plan because they must now staff the uptown court. As it is, landlord-tenant attorneys spend much of their days scurrying between floors at 111 Centre to make appearances in several simultaneous cases.
But the Harlem court has at least one feature that may prove to be an asset for tenants. “Hallway justice,” where tenants are pressured in corridors to sign agreements that unduly favor landlords, is a long-standing problem citywide. The Harlem building has no hallways.
Court officials have also gone to some length to avoid offending litigants. The main courtroom contains two WPA murals, “The Exploitation of Labor” and “The Hoarding of Wealth,” which depict slavery. The murals are now behind a curtain.