On the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission agenda in December, 2018, was a discussion on the 1st Spanish United Methodist Church becoming an Individual Landmark. Also known as The People’s Church, the discussion is not for its architectural merit, but for its historic cultural significance, located in the heart of El Barrio, associated with the Young Lords occupation in 1969 and 1970. On Tuesday, December 12, 2018, it was determined that the history of the Young Lords still divides the community, and both the Church and the local Council Member would like more time to allow for more community dialogue. The 1st Spanish United Methodist Church will be removed from the calendar, per time limits established by Section 25-303(1) of the Landmarks Law, and can be considered for designation at a future date.
A chance to learn more about that time in history will be available at a screening of the film, Made in Harlem: Class of ’68, co-presented by the Museum of the City of New York and Maysles Cinema, on March 14, 2019.
The screening is part of the Museum of the City of New York’s Activism on Film series, which delves into stories of social activism in New York City inspired by the museum’s Activist New York exhibition.
The history of the 1st Spanish United Methodist Church is nicely laid-out by NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission is as follows:
The 1st Spanish United Methodist Church, also known as People’s Church, is strongly associated with the activities, platform, and ideology of the Young Lords. Originally established as a gang in Chicago, the Young Lords became a Puerto Rican civil rights and social justice group with a revolution-minded platform modeled on the Black Panther Party. Forming in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, the Young Lords were inspired by the discussions of inequality, self-determination, and cultural pride of the 1950s and 1960s. The New York chapter of the Young Lords, established in the summer of 1969, sought to create change through neighborhood empowerment, improving the conditions and treatment of the over 800,000 Puerto Ricans living in New York City. The Young Lords first project, to clean the streets of East Harlem’s “El Barrio,” highlighted the city’s failure to provide adequate services to the area. To force the city to recognize the problem, the Young Lords mounted the “Garbage Offensive,” blocking the major avenues with piles of uncollected garbage and disrupting traffic throughout Manhattan, which provided the neighborhood with immediate results.
In the winter of 1969 the Young Lords took over the 1st Spanish United Methodist Church, using the space to provide services to the underserved community. For 11 days, the Young Lords ran a breakfast program for children, offered basic health testing, ran a daycare with Spanish language lessons and taught Puerto Rican history, and held adult events with discussion groups and performances at night. On the 8th of January the Young Lords peacefully evacuated the church and were arrested. They subsequently staged a longer occupation of the church from October to December of 1970, working to call attention to alleged police brutality and the poor conditions of New York City jails. While the Young Lords undertook many activities in East Harlem and the Bronx, their actions at 1st Spanish United Methodist allowed their ideas and platform to reach decision makers not only within their direct community, but throughout the city and state.
Although the activities of the Young Lords in New York City were short- lived (they disbanded in 1973), their ideas around political change and Puerto Rican pride were incorporated into the cultural, artistic, and civic organizations already forming within El Barrio and throughout the city.
Today the church looks much as it did during the events of 1969. Originally built in 1880 for the Lexington Avenue Baptist Church, the building burned in 1964, leaving only fragments of the first floor intact. When the church was rebuilt in 1966-67, these fragments – particularly the entrance portals at the corner – were integrated into a modern design.
The 1st Spanish United Methodist Church was built between 1880-81 by the architect Lawrence B. Valk. It was altered in 1966-67, redesigned by an unknown architect. The beloved church is located at 163 East 111th Street, on the corner of Lexington Avenue in El Barrio.
Two recently Landmarked buildings in El Barrio ~ Richard Webber Harlem Packing House and Benjamin Franklin High School.
While you’re there, cross the street to the Hunter East Harlem Gallery for the latest exhibition, and check out the current installation Present Histories: An East Harlem Photo Album by artist Kathleen Granados located in Harlem Art Park, with images presented by East Harlem residents taken from their own scrapbooks. You will find the Art Park next to the historic Courthouse ~ In addition, explore The 100 Gates Project in El Barrio ~ Check out the new exhibition at the historic East 125th Street firehouse, now home to CCCADI.
As a side note, Harlem has lost a fair number of churches over the past several years. A lovely tiny church overlooking Central Park, just east of Adam Clayton Powell, seemed to disappear without a trace. Around the corner on Lenox Avenue and 111th Street, Second Canaan Baptist Church was demolished and replaced with an eight-story development; two churches on 116th Street have faced the wrecking-ball ~ Baptist Temple at 20 West 116th Street and Second Providence Baptist Church at 11 West 116th Street; the beautiful Mount Moriah Baptist Church located on Fifth Avenue between 126th-127th Streets (2050 Fifth Avenue) faced foreclosure and is now a private residence; St. James Methodist Episcopal Church located at 45 East 126th Street is scheduled for demolition, and The Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, the nation’s oldest order of black nuns, has put their 18,000+ building overlooking Marcus Garvey Park, up for sale. These are just a few that caught our eye ~ there are many more, and many more expected.