Retain and Explain?

On my way to watch the England game in Manhattan yesterday, I noticed this massive brownstone in the Murray Hill area, a couple of blocks south of Grand Central Station – and the plaque on its wall (with apologies for picture quality).

It tells us the palazzo was designed by the noted (and notorious!) NYC architect, Stanford White, for one James Hampden Robb, “cotton broker”. I’ve tried a quick bit of online research about Mr Robb, but that reference can really only mean one thing. He and his family made their fortune from slavery and the proceeds helped pay for 23 Park Avenue.

I’m reluctant to even use the words “culture war” because it feels too much like accepting the false premise of reactionary forces on both sides of the Atlantic. But it’s an issue that’s quite personally sensitive at the moment, about which I hope to be able to write more soon (sorry to tease). However, seeing this building and its plaque did make me think again about the whole question of retaining and explaining, something I wrote about in the US context a couple of years ago (here).

Should 23 Park Avenue be torn down? I don’t think so. But at least, there should be some kind of corrective to the deliberately fact-hiding plaque. Ideally, the building should be converted to some more social-use, or an appropriate amount of money from the no-doubt huge family endowment should be paid to build permanent homes for some of the 60,000 New Yorkers who don’t have one.

There’s another important thing to note here, which refers to my previous posts about cooperative housing in NYC. The word “co-op” immediately conveys a sense of inclusivity. But 23 Park Avenue (which the plaque tells us is run as a cooperative, as are some of the most expensive apartment blocks in the city) is a vivid reminder that it can also be a device of exclusion.

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