126th Street African Burial Ground Memorial and Mixed-Use Project

  • East 126th Harlem African Burial Ground Project site
  • Rev. Singletary speaking at the info session
  • Interactive board of memorial precedents
  • HABGTF speaking with community
  • Community members looking at informational display boards
Last Updated May 14, 2019

Bringing a new memorial and cultural center to honor the historic Harlem African Burial Ground, along with affordable housing and jobs for the East Harlem community.

Upcoming Events

You are invited to the La Marqueta public market to discover an important part of East Harlem and New York City’s history with the opening of an exhibition showcasing the past, present, and future of the Harlem African Burial Ground. In addition to debuting the new exhibition, this event will feature a panel discussion with some of the foremost thought leaders on memorials, cultural engagement, and public history in New York City. The event will feature complimentary food and beverages from multiple La Marqueta vendors including Elma’s in Harlem, Amuse Bouche, and Sprinkle Splash Sweet Shoppe.

Come join the community to hear more about the burial ground’s history, the creation of a permanent memorial and cultural center, and a discussion on the importance of portraying accurate and inclusive public history.

The event is FREE and open to the public.  All ages are welcome.

To learn more and reserve your ticket, please visit the event registration page!

Date and Time

Wednesday, May 15, 2019, 7 pm EDT; Doors open 6:30 pm EDT

Location

La Marqueta
1590 Park Avenue (entrance at Park Ave & East 115th St.)
New York, NY 10029 (view map)

PLEASE NOTE: Though this is a FREE event, space is limited and therefore tickets are required. Entrance for non-ticket holders is not guaranteed and subject to space availability. Ticket holder's name must match the name on your ticket.

Project Summary

The city block formerly occupied by the MTA’s 126th Street Bus Depot in East Harlem includes an area that was once an African burial ground, dating back to the original Dutch settlement of Nieuw Haarlem in the 17th century. The burial ground was located on the southeastern portion of the 2.7-acre bus depot site, which covers a full city block (see map below). The 126th Street Harlem African Burial Ground Memorial and Mixed-Use Project is a unique initiative to preserve this essential piece of the city's history, while simultaneously addressing needs expressed by the East Harlem community.

Site of the Harlem African burial ground

At the heart of the project is the creation of a living memorial and cultural center that will explain the historical significance of the Harlem African Burial Ground and honor those who were buried there. The project will also include a mixed-use development component with affordable housing, job-creating commercial uses, and community space that supports the East Harlem community.

NYCEDC has worked in partnership with the Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force and Council Member Diana Ayala on a robust, community-based planning process for the redevelopment of the Bus Depot site. The Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force (HABGTF) and Bus Depot Task Force (BDTF) were formed to bring community stakeholders together to determine appropriate uses that would complement the memorial and cultural center. 

History

The 126th Street Bus Depot site has had many uses over the years. It once sat within the Dutch village of Nieuw Haarlem, which was then a sparsely populated agricultural area, far removed from the densely developed settlement of New Amsterdam at the southern tip of Manhattan. Over 350 years ago, the Reformed Low Dutch Church of Harlem and its associated cemeteries were created here, with the first church building near a portion of the bus depot site and the shoreline of the Harlem River. The river was wider at that time and extended through the northeastern corner of the bus depot site. Over time, the shoreline was filled in and the Manhattan street grid was built, establishing the block in its current configuration.

Adjoining the Reformed Low Dutch Church of Harlem was a plot of land identified as the “African Burying Ground at Harlem,” which was actively used until the mid-19th century. The church moved to its current location in 1825 and the burial ground was sold in 1853, thus marking the beginning of a succession of sales, different uses, and adjustments to the burial ground site. It was developed as an amusement park and casino, a barracks for an all-black National Guard unit, a film studio, and finally in the 1930s, as a bus depot. Unfortunately, decades of neglect, construction, and subsurface disruptions resulted in the displacement of the original African Burial Ground.

The MTA is currently in the process of vacating the bus depot and returning the site to the City. Acknowledging the immense historical significance of the site, in 2015 the City, through NYCEDC, began to work in partnership with elected officials and community stakeholders to develop a transformative mixed-use project at the site, centered on a new Harlem African Burial Ground memorial and cultural center to honor the significance of the site and its descendant community.

Current day 126th Street MTA bus depot

Current day E. 126th Street Bus Depot site

Community Involvement

NYCEDC has led a robust community engagement process through a series of meetings with the Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force and the Bus Depot Task Force.

Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force 

In 2009, the Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force was created, co-chaired by Rev. Dr. Patricia A. Singletary, pastor of the Elmendorf Reformed Church, and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

The Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force has been instrumental in guiding historical research about the Harlem African Burial Ground and advocating for the creation of a memorial. In 2011, Community Board 11 designated the Task Force as the organization representing the interests of the historic cemetery. In their own words, the mission of the Task Force is:

Working with the City of New York, the Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force seeks the creation of a vibrant memorial that is fully integrated into the social and economic fabric of East Harlem. The mission of the task force is to ensure that any new development on this sacred site be iconic in design and honor the lives and contributions of enslaved and free African colony and nation builders, their descendants, and indigenous people who inhabited Manhattan before the arrival of Europeans.

This unique waterfront location reveals Harlem’s and New York City's rich history and inspires its social, economic, and spiritual future. Its redevelopment incorporates openness, grace and innovation. Nearby Harlem River Park, Harlem River Drive, Willis Avenue Bridge, Second Avenue Subway, and the larger neighborhood are visually connected through elegant landscaping, architecture, and urban design that highlights this place, embracing residents and visitors alike.

In this sacred memorial place, the spirits of those once forgotten will be remembered: their wisdom will be received and renewed, and their stories will take their rightful place in the rich American narrative.

Read more about the Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force and their work on their website.

While historical records had suggested that the former cemetery had once been located beneath the bus depot, this could not be confirmed without on-site study. In 2015, after the MTA announced it would relocate its operations, archaeologists commissioned by NYCEDC found the disarticulated remains of at least three people, likely of African descent. This historic rediscovery conclusively established that an African burial ground had existed on the site, allowing the City and community to begin planning for a memorial and mixed-use redevelopment.

The remains were consecrated in a ceremony led by Task Force co-chair Reverend Dr. Patricia A. Singletary, and are currently held in safe storage at the Landmarks Preservation Commission archives so that they can be reinterred at the future memorial.

Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force consecration ceremony for the recovered remains

Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force members Sharon Wilkins (left), Reverend Dr. Patricia A. Singletary, and former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito perform consecration ceremony for recovered remains

Consistent with the City’s Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP), additional archaeological work will be conducted by the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPS), supervised by HABGTF.

Learn more about the Phase 1B and its archaeological findings from the video below.

Bus Depot Task Force

In 2015, after the MTA moved much of their operations off-site, the Speaker’s Office convened the 126th Street Bus Depot Task Force, a group of elected officials, City agencies, and community stakeholders including the Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force, to establish goals for redevelopment of the site. These are:

  • Develop a living memorial and cultural center to honor and commemorate the significant social, economic, and cultural history of the cemetery and its descendant community.
  • Create a mixed-use, mixed-income development program.
  • Enhance site connectivity to the neighborhood.
  • Realize a financially feasible program to support project uses.
  • Maximize job creation.

Project Public Open House

In September 2016, over 100 community members attended a project open house to learn about the significance of the historic Harlem African Burial Ground. Guests were encouraged to browse display boards with information in English and Spanish about the past, present, and future of the bus depot site, while contributing their input to the visioning process for its next stage.

In 2017, the Society for Historical Archeology awarded the team of the Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force, AKRF Inc., and NYCEDC as the third place winner of the Mark E. Mack Community Engagement Award for outstanding best practices in community collaboration, engagement, and outreach in historical archeology and heritage preservation work.

Reverend Dr. Singletary addressing the crowd at the 2017 project open houseReverend Dr. Singletary (center-left) speaking at the 2017 project open house

Materials from the Info Session are available for download below:

Public Review Process

On September 27, 2017, the New York City Council voted unanimously to approve a land use application that facilitates the creation of the memorial and redevelopment of the larger Bus Depot site.

Bus Depot Task Force after project ULURP approval

Task Force members Anthony Carrion (left), Jean Ballard Terepka, Sharon Wilkins, Thomas Lunke, Rev. Dr. Singletary, Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Melinda Velez after unanimous City Council approval of the project's land use application

Redevelopment of the 2.7-acre bus depot block will, first and foremost, feature a permanent outdoor memorial on the 0.4-acre footprint where the historic Harlem African Burial Ground was formerly located. Next to the memorial, an indoor cultural center will provide programming related to the history and cultural significance of the burial ground. The future operator of the memorial and the future developer will work together to create a living memorial befitting this sacred space, following the mission and vision laid out by the Burial Ground Task Force. The City of New York will provide capital funding to construct the memorial and cultural center, and the development (described below) will generate a permanent revenue stream to support its operations.

In addition to the memorial and cultural center, the project will also include a mixed-use development component with housing, commercial, and community uses  – a key investment in the future of East Harlem. In accordance with the goals laid out by the Bus Depot Task Force, these uses are expected to include:

  • Approximately 700 homes, with at least half affordable to low-income families earning less than 80 percent of Area Median Income (AMI) and 20 percent for families earning less than 30 percent of AMI.
  • Approximately 315,000 square feet of commercial space, including office and retail uses, empowering East Harlem to attract high-growth industries and create good-paying jobs.
  • 30,000 square feet of community facility space (in addition to the cultural center), with the potential to accommodate a variety of neighborhood-focused programs and services.

Later this year, the City will undertake a public process to select a nonprofit operator for the memorial and cultural center. In recognition of the central importance of the memorial, the operator will be selected before proposalsm are solicited from potential developers. The selected developer will be required to support job training, create a targeted hiring outreach plan, and work with NYCEDC and the community to meet local hiring goals.

Environmental Review

The Final Scope of Work, Notice of Completion, Draft General Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), Final General Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), and all contact information can be downloaded from the project page on the website of the Mayor's Office of Environmental Coordination.

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