Hip-Hop Born in a Mitchell-Lama—That’s Now Threatened

In the history of American music, 1520 Sedgwick Ave. in the West Bronx might be as significant a site as 706 Union Ave. in Memphis, the studio where Elvis Presley, B.B. King, and Johnny Cash made their first records. In the 1970s, the building was the home of a teenage Jamaican immigrant DJ named Clive Campbell. Calling himself Kool Herc, he pioneered the record-spinning techniques, finding and repeating the parts with the most intense beats, that when combined with MCs rapping over the music would develop into hip-hop. Herc’s sister’s 1973 birthday party, held in the building’s community room, is sometimes considered the birth of hip-hop.
Also known as General Sedgwick House, 1520 Sedgwick Ave. is a Mitchell-Lama building—and last February, the landlord, Jerome Belson, informed the tenants that he was taking it out of the program. As the 101-unit building was occupied in 1969, current tenants would be protected by rent stabilization—but they could still be hit by “unique and peculiar circumstances” rent increases, and vacant apartments would go for market rate.
Belson, says Dina Levy of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, was once considered one of the best Mitchell-Lama landlords, because he kept his buildings in good shape. But since it became more profitable to rent Mitchell-Lama apartments at market rate, she says, he’s become “a one-man band taking buildings out of the program. He may have been a good guy for 20 years, but now he’s the Grim Reaper.” The six former Mitchell-Lama buildings in Harlem and Roosevelt Island sold as part of a $940 million deal earlier this year (Tenant/Inquilino, May 2007) had been co-owned by Belson.
Much has been made of the way that skyrocketing commercial rents are crippling the city’s music scene—in the last year alone, the Lower East Side has lost four of its main remaining venues, including the legendary rock club CBGB and the jazz/experimental space Tonic—but cheap housing is also essential for sustaining the city’s cultural life. It gives unknown artists and ordinary people the time and space they need to be creative. And it also means that the audiences for artists won’t be decimated because people are struggling so hard to make the rent that they don’t have the time or money to go out.