If you take Fifth Avenue Uptown, You will have a pleasant pause at 120th Street, where you will be greeted by an entrance to Marcus Garvey Park ~ Harlem to the West and East Harlem to the East. The Park spans from 120th Street to 124th Street, and from Mt. Morris Park West to Madison Avenue.
This month (January 2023), the non-profit Harlem Grown announced a two-year $1.3M grant from the Mellon Foundation that will support programs, initiatives, and installations on food culture, performing arts, visual arts, and cultural literacy in Marcus Garvey Park. The Marcus Garvey Park Culture, Creativity, and Care Initiative will focus on fostering creativity and care in an essential public space at the heart of New York’s Harlem and Black community.
The Marcus Garvey Park Culture, Creativity, and Care Initiative is a two-year multifaceted activation of the public realm that will center and amplify Harlem’s rich history and culture to diverse community members and visitors. The Mellon Foundation grant will support temporary artist installations, wellness pavilions, public performances, and programming focused on Harlem and its Black, Latinx, and Indigenous histories and cultures. This work will link to Harlem Grown’s existing network of urban farms. Ongoing public space interventions by BIPOC designers — approved and co-created by community-based organizations — will range from pop-up libraries, conversation-driving spaces, food and plant culture events, and activities focused on wellness and care.
Marcus Garvey Park has historically provided space for culture, activism, and engagement during periods of social, political, and environmental transformation resonant in Harlem and beyond.
The architectural firm Brandt : Haferd was chosen to create the pavilion. They are no strangers to this park. In fact their large-scale architectural and sound installation, Caesura: a forum, sat atop the Acropolis in Marcus Garvey Park in 2015.
Stepping back several years, Marcus Garvey Park was considered a place to avoid. In recent years, residents turned that around, creating a vibrant space with a plethora of activities.
If you are in the Park on a Saturday, you are likely to hear the sound of drums coming from the Madison Avenue side near 123rd Street, in a section of the Park known as The Drummers Circle. The local musicians began gathering somewhere around 1969, playing every Saturday afternoon, weather permitting. Forced to leave the original spot where they played near Fifth Avenue, they now have a permanent home on the Madison Avenue side of the Park, complete with signage.
“As we have expanded our farms and educational programming, and grown in our connections to the culture and history of Harlem, we’ve observed underinvestment in public spaces and how gentrification threatens these spaces,” said Tony Hillery, founder and CEO of Harlem Grown. “That’s why this grant is so transformational, and also why attaching this programming to somewhere as historically and culturally significant as Marcus Garvey Park matters deeply. Our work is a community effort and never stops at food; we are thrilled to find new ways to uplift the voices of past and present Harlem and are incredibly grateful for the generosity of the Mellon Foundation.”
The reinvigorating of Marcus Garvey Park got a major boost with the reconstruction and restoration of the badly deteriorating historic Harlem Fire Watchtower.
The Harlem Fire Watchtower was built by Julius H. Kroehl sometime between 1855 and 1857, and designed by James Bogardus at a cost of $2,300. It was located at the highest part of the Acropolis (70 feet above ground, known as Snake Hill) in the center of Marcus Garvey Park (formerly Mount Morris Park), between 120th and 124th Street. The tower alerted all of northern Manhattan of fires ~ three bells for Yorkville; four bells for Bloomingdale, five bells for Harlem, six bells for Manhattanville, and so on.
The ‘Acropolis’ was a ‘Works Project Administration’ (WPA) jobs program, creating stone retaining walls and wide steps going up to the Acropolis from several sides. Mount Morris Park was renamed Marcus Garvey Park in 1973. The Harlem Fire Watchtower was designated a City Landmark in 1967, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.
“Our parks and public spaces are an essential infrastructure for our communities and important platforms for sharing our collective history, heritage, and culture,” said Justin Garrett Moore, program officer for the Humanities in Place program at the Mellon Foundation. “Marcus Garvey Park has a rich legacy that will continue to grow through new resources for community care and meaningful public engagement led by Harlem Grown and local partners through justice-focused arts, food, and cultural heritage activities.”
Community care and meaningful public engagement are what have enhanced the Park with fun, interactive activities like Sing for Hope Pianos, The Children’s Reading Circle, Three Little Free Libraries ~ Even the #NYPhil Bandwagon paid a visit.
The Richard Rodgers Amphitheater on the West side of the Park has been home to Classical Theatre of Harlem, Jazzmobile and the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in addition to countless performances including Questlove’s Summer of Soul in 2021. Creative Courts and Publicolor enlivened the basketball court in 2019.
The Park has a barbecue area, dog run and one of NYC’s few outdoor swimming pools. It is home to the Harlem Little League and several playgrounds for all ages.
Art Lives Here, Studio Museum in Harlem‘s ‘In-Harlem‘ programs, and Marcus Garvey Park Alliance brought countless temporary outdoor art installations over the years, including the currently on view installation, Reuben Sinha: Breathing, and recent Thomas J. Price: Witness sculpture.
Susan Stair‘s Ascending the Mountain brought visitors to the Park up the steps to the Acropolis this past year, while informing about how trees planted in the early part of the 20th century on this mountain of Manhattan Schist, self seeded, creating the urban forest we see today in this Park.
Even Little Amal took a walk through Marcus Garvey Park during her 2022 visit to New York.
Below, one of several installation that were part of a 2018 Studio Museum’s ‘In-Harlem’ program ~ Maren Hassinger: Monuments.
The Mellon Foundation’s Humanities in Place program supports a fuller, more complex telling of American histories and lived experiences by deepening the range of how and where our stories are told and by bringing a wider variety of voices into the public dialogue. The program provides resources for projects, initiatives, and infrastructure to better identify, document, create, and care for our places and supports innovative ideas and actions that design a more just present and future landscape — in community with one another and in society.
Above, Jorge Luis Rodrigues’ Atlas: The Third Millennium on the great lawn, Madison Avenue side near 123rd Street from 2016-2017.
For the visual and performing arts programming, Harlem Grown will collaborate with community partners who can foster a meaningful cultural experience for our community within spaces available for added programming within the park. An RFP for this portion of the initiative will be available in late January. For interested parties in advance of the open RFP or those interested in participating in the design process of the wellness pavilions, please click the link and fill out the form.
Harlem Grown is an independent, non-profit organization whose mission is to inspire youth to lead healthy and ambitious lives through mentorship and hands-on education in urban farming, sustainability, and nutrition. Founded in 2011, we operate local urban farms, increase access to and knowledge of healthy food for Harlem residents, and provide garden-based development programs to Harlem youth.
Take a look inside our visit to Harlem Grown on a cold winter day (January) in 2019.
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is the nation’s largest supporter of the arts and humanities. Since 1969, the Foundation has been guided by its core belief that the humanities and arts are essential to human understanding. The Foundation believes that the arts and humanities are where we express our complex humanity, and that everyone deserves the beauty, transcendence, and freedom that can be found there. Through our grants, we seek to build just communities enriched by meaning and empowered by critical thinking, where ideas and imagination can thrive.
With a Thank You to the Mellon Foundation, we look forward to this injection of new programming.
Marcus Garvey Park is just 1 short block away from the currently under construction National Black Theatre, and a block away from the busy Lenox Avenue and the Mt. Morris Park Historic District. The Park sits squarely between the Subway Stations for the 4-5-6 and 2-3 and several MTA bus lines.
Just a few blocks to the West, the newly renovated entrance to the historic Victoria Theatre, newly constructed Harlem Marriott Renaissance Hotel, Victoria Tower Residences and The Apollo Theater Expansion ~ and a few doors down, the historic Apollo Theater along 125th Street. Harlem and East Harlem are also home to a number of art galleries. More happening in Harlem Here.
If you’re in Harlem, don’t miss Claire Oliver Gallery’s current exhibition, Adebunmi Gbadebo: Remains.