harlem esplanade

The idea behind my thesis is to empower Harlem’s voice by introducing a new system of canals, connecting upper Manhattan and Harlem together by housing units as anchors. This will enable a catalyst for future change for the neighborhood and implement a stronger dialogue between Harlem and Greater Manhattan.

honors architecture thesis

Manhattan grew beginning in the 1600s, starting near present day Battery Park and developing north, leaving Harlem one of the last areas to be fully developed. Additionally, in the 1800s, midtown and upper Manhattan were at an economic standstill and the innovative design of Central Park by Olmsted & Vaux promised to overturn the economy in the neighborhoods adjacent to it. In the years after construction, all the neighborhoods improved; crime and unemployment dropped while education and income rose, except for in Harlem.

Looking at the design of Central Park, the north end was originally designed to be fully landscaped, with fountains and specific axes, but instead, the area was left untouched. The Great Hill, the highest point of Central Park, was left unleveled, and the Harlem Meer, essentially a swamp, was left, creating a hard line separating Harlem from Central Park, as Harlemites still currently only make up for 8% of the visits into the park despite being directly adjacent to it. As a result, I believe the lack of design for the north end of Central Park was the catalyst for the separation and isolation of Harlem from Greater Manhattan, leading to its eventual oppression.

Statistics Adjacent to Central Park
Population & Race Demographics

The 1920s was the peak of African American culture in America during the Harlem Renaissance, enabled by prohibition. In the 1930s, the Great Depression hit, wiping out most of that culture. In the 1950s and 60s, race riots occurred, pegging Harlem as a dangerous area. And finally in the 90s and 2000s, gentrification began, further removing Harlem from its previous culture and roots.

Additionally, through my research, I discovered a series of underground tributaries connected to an above ground estuary that once led into the Harlem River, cutting through Harlem. When the construction of central Park began, this river was covered and the system is now used as a stormwater drainage system. In 2012, during Hurricane Sandy, these sewers overflowed and flooded parts of Harlem.

Growth of Manhattan

As a result of the lack of design of north Central Park and the covered tributaries, I propose to reveal canals throughout Harlem, creating a conduit of connections between housing units, stitching together East Harlem and Upper Manhattan.

These water ways will contain a variety of landscaped areas, terraces, a prohibition era venue, and will effectively reduce flooding in Harlem.

These canals are revealed throughout the neighborhood by the expansion of existing pipes that are currently underground, being used as stormwater drainage.

By removing the double shell of these pipes and expanding the surface area into stepped containers, the surface area and square footage for water collection is increased, preventing flooding into the streets.

Proposed Map and Site Extents
Central Park Site Conditions
Site Analysis

This action not only creates a controlled flooding system, but creates a series of terraced promenades throughout the city, where locals and tourists can encounter a variety of new installations and explore Harlem. At the end of a walk from Central Park to Marcus Garvey Park, a step well venue, reminiscent of prohibition era venues, is located within the park, creating a dynamic space used for traditional Harlem Renaissance activities relating to theater, music, community building, or local art. Where three blocks of 104th Street are lifted, the terraces become even larger in scale, enabling built-in elements to create an exciting river walk through Harlem’s retail area. With the changing of the seasons and alteration of climate, these new installations are dynamic; the water level changes daily, offering new experiences and different conditions for each visit. Near housing units and apartments, terraced overflow pools are placed adjacent to the more shallow terraces, preventing further flood damage to residential properties, as we saw during Hurricane Sandy.

Overall, the revelation of the underground tributaries as present day canals to create a stitching element, a dynamic venue, a terraced river walk, and a flood control system will empower Harlem culturally by creating a dialogue between the neighborhood and Greater Manhattan and reclaiming their cultural voice. The design will draw in both locals and tourists, eventually creating a catalyst for future change in Harlem, in ever-changing New York City.