How to listen
Thank you for joining me for this audio walking tour exploring Harlem through the lens of climate justice, Afrofuturism, Black feminist ecological thought and abolition.
To begin the tour, click on the first thumbnail photo in the image gallery below that is labeled “Pathways to Earthseed”.
Once you enter the tour, you will be introduced to your resident Afrofuturist, Dominique Thomas.
- You can play each stop’s audio track that will show up in your browser. There is also a transcript of each of the audio tracks that you will find.
- You can navigate between the different stops on the tour by tapping next on your screen or by clicking on the different thumbnails.
- A link to the Google Map is here or you can download this PDF for a printable map of the tour.
Welcome to the Pathways to Earthseed audio walking tour. Join Dominique as she takes you on a journey through the complexities of Harlem. When you wish to continue to the next stop, locate North River Wastewater treatment plant on the google map and/or on the printable PDF.
Hey! My name is Dominique. I am a community organizer and Afrofurist. I love being able to connect with my physical environment and nature. Walking for me is a time to connect to the past, present and future. It gives us the time to interrogate our surroundings and think about our impact on our community.
This walk will take you through Harlem and will explore the past, what we see in the present and what we can imagine for the future. As you embark on this tour, I want you to think about how climate change has changed the physical space of Harlem and what will be required for Harlem to persist in spite of the climate crisis. We will be exploring topics of structural racism, gentrification, Afrofuturism and abolition. We will analyze what are the intersections of this work and how we can use visioning to develop a fluid model of power in this community.
Harlem is a space of rich history and deep cultural relevance. This tour was created as an offering of care for Harlemnites. In the realm of Afrofuturism, time is not linear, but cyclical. Think about what it means to have no beginning and no ending. There will be a total of 8 stops on this tour. All of which are located in Harlem. This tour can be done alone or in a group. With all that in mind, time to go through the many Pathways to Earthseed.
STOP #1: North River Wastewater Treatment Plant (Hudson River Greenway, New York, NY 10031
Riverbank State Park is one of my favorite places in Harlem. I love it so much because it’s one of the places I feel closest to nature. Seeing people enjoying the outdoors, whether that is having a cookout on Juneteenth or running laps around the track, this is community. Close your eyes, what do you hear? In the midst of all this beauty, nature enthusiasts are accosted by the pungent smell of rotting eggs. You may ask where this is coming from? The culprit would be the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant which is located in the park. The North River Wastewater Treatment Plant treats raw sewage from the Westside of Manhattan and emits hydrogen-sulfide, formaldehyde and a host of other toxic chemicals.
Unsurprisingly, the plant was planned to be constructed along the Hudson near 72nd street in a predominantly white neighborhood. This community said no and the project was later moved to Harlem, a predominantly Black neighborhood. WeACT was founded as a result of community organizing and struggle to highlight and mitigate the effects of environmental injustice and health disparities due to places like the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant. Unironically, this treatment plant existed before the park. It was decided to build a park after knowing about the detrimental effects of these emissions on people’s health. I’m not sure how much a green space makes sense when you are breathing in harmful emissions.Questions
STOP #2: Mother Clara Hale Bus Depot (721 Malcolm X Blvd, New York, NY 10039)
As you walk around Harlem on the famous 145th, right before crossing the bridge to the Bronx, you will find a bus depot. They are loud, they are dirty, emitting pollutants into the air causing road pollution. What is concerning is its placement is an area with “high-density residential buildings (in some cases, just a few feet away), schools, daycares, and centers for the elderly literally across the street” as stated by authors Corey Chao and Celine Lecaze.Every day the residents of Harlem breathe this harmful air in, not only from the buses, but from both major highways located on either side of Harlem. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality in their Near Roadway Air Pollution and Health states that the major pollutants that come from cars, buses, trucks and other motor vehicles are particulate matter (PM), carbon monoxide (CO), benzene etc. Further they emit compounds that can lead to the formation of other pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ozone (O3). They go on to say and I quote: “ People who live, work or attend school near major roads appear to have an increased incidence and severity of health problems associated with air pollution exposures related to roadway traffic including higher rates of asthma onset and aggravation, cardiovascular disease, impaired lung development in children, pre-term and low-birthweight infants, childhood leukemia, and premature death.” I don’t know about you, but just walk around Harlem and you will see cars, trucks, buses and other vehicles idling and driving around. The streets are robust with vehicles.
In 2022, the Inflation Reduction Act was passed to deal with impacts of the climate crisis. However, there is a missed opportunity for investment in mass surface public transportation. If there were to be these direct investments, it would create an avenue to “accelerate electrification of public transit and improve transportation access specifically for underserved communities.”
To continue to the next stop on the tour, locate Striver’s Row (W 138th and W 139th Street, New York, NY 10030) on this Google map.
STOP #3: Striver’s Row (W 138th and W 139th Street, New York, NY 10030)
Identical brown bricked houses line the streets between W 138th and W139th. When I look at these houses it is like going through a portal and being transported to another era. This is a historical landmark. Outside of this status, there is rich historical relevance of having a standing archive of Black spaces that have persisted. This reminds me of other Black spaces that serve as a living archive of Black culture and Black life in the past, present and future. I think about Weeksville in Brooklyn. I think about Hayti in North Carolina.Striver’s Row during the height of the Harlem Renaissance was a gathering space for Black artists, business people,intellectuals and performers to develop what it meant to be Black in the 1900s. I imagine people coming and going, creating and debating and building pieces of the “new Black identity” of the time. I wonder how they thought about the placebaseness of the ideas they had and if that would be relevant to other Black people across the diaspora. I wonder what type of organizing happened in this space and what new ideas were birthed.
To continue to the next stop on the tour, locate The Abyssinian Baptist Church (132 W 138th St, New York, NY 10030) on this Google map.
STOP #4 Abyssinian Baptist Church (132 W 138th St, New York, NY 10030)
Religion has always been a big part of many Black people’s experience. Churches both in the past and present have served as a space to develop a sense of community and shared values. They have also been sites of organizing and change work for Black communities. This is no different than Harlem.Although Abyssyian has been in existence since the early 1800s it has not always been located in Harlem. If you follow its journey in Manhattan to its current location, you will recognize it has slowly migrated north in step with the growth and movement of Black populations in Harlem. It was a fixture during the Harlem Renaissance and continues to be a space for Black culture, organizing and community. If you happen to stroll by it on any given day, you will see hoards of people both from the neighborhood and those abroad wishing to step into the space.
To continue to the next stop on the tour, locate Lafayette Theater (Corner of W 132nd and Malcolm X Blvd.) on this Google map.
STOP #5: Lafayette Theater (Corner of W 132nd and Malcolm X Blvd.)
We’re going back to the past to explore another location of historical relevance that more people have never heard of. I have lived in Harlem for 8 years and I didn’t know of its existence. Of course, I am talking about the one and only Lafayette Theater. Lafayette was an artist’s haven and affectionately called “The House Beautiful”. In 1913, it was the first major theater to desegregate and given its popularity and performances created a demand for other groups of people (in addition to Black people) to come uptown. This was a great way to pour back into the community and invest in Black artists.As a theater lover, I can just imagine sitting down to see a performance of Voodoo Macbeth, played by an all-Black cast. It was a cultural bubble and a space that jump started many actors careers. It closed its doors in 1951 and was demolished in 2013. Currently an apartment building is in its old location.
To continue to the next stop on the tour, locate Apollo Theater (253 W 125th St, New York, NY 10027) on this Google map.
STOP #6: Apollo Theater (253 W 125th St, New York, NY 10027)
This needs no introduction. The Apollo is world famous for not only being a site of rich Black culture, but also a space where so many people performed on stage and rubbed the “Good Luck Stump” to make their dreams come true. The Apollo didn’t always start out this way. It was originally a burlesque theater that enforced a strict “Whites Only” policy despite having a growing Black and immigrant population. This makes me think about how structural racism that uses places as a means of exclusion causes wounds.
I was fortunate enough to attend Amateur Night in 2022 with my mama who was visiting for her birthday. The theater was bumping and roaring laughter and joy could have blown the roof off. This space and others like it show me the creativity and persistence of Black people. We can take something that was meant to harm us and turn it into something joyous and positive.It is worth mentioning that Apollo is located on one of the most famous streets in NYC 125th commercial hub. As you walk down the street, you notice a number of national retailers and in the shadows are the smaller mom and pop storefronts. Gentrification is a sneaky entity. With the raising costs of rent, many people are being pushed out of this neighborhood for people who can afford the increases. Not only that, but many of these large retailers are notorious for “fast fashion” which has negative impacts on the neighborhood and environment.
STOP #7: Asthma Central (W 123rd between Adam Clayton Powell and Malcolm X Blvd.)
Earlier I spoke about WeACT and how they were started because of air pollution and emissions that were (and still are) harming those living in Harlem. We know that poor air quality and air pollution is correlated with an increase in respiratory illnesses.Central Harlem has the largest rate of asthma in adults. Asthma is a detrimental and chronic illness that can be debilitating depending on the severity. A study found that air pollution was correlated with asthma in children. Air pollution is usually the result of air pollutants due to emissions. Emissions can have grave health and climate impacts. I often think about what these types of health impacts do to people. I have asthma and have to carry my inhaler everywhere I go. But it’s not just air pollution it is also due to poor housing conditions that have mold and/or pests which can trigger an asthma attack which can land people in the emergency department and also lead to death.
To continue to the next stop on the tour, locate East Harlem (W 116th and the surrounding areas) on this Google map or this printable PDF map.
STOP #8: East Harlem (E 116th and the surrounding areas)
East Harlem, also affectionately known as Spanish Harlem or El Barrio, is a place of cultural fusion. As you walk the streets you can see the influence of both Black and Hispanic cultures. One thing you will notice during the summer is the extreme heat. East Harlem has one of the lowest levels of tree canopy and air conditioning which makes community members susceptible to the heat. You will find a very different story if you travel to say the Upper East Side which is some blocks south and is predominately higher income and white. Having a lack of green spaces in this area makes it an “urban heat island”.It is important to remember that the climate crisis is upon us and this means an increase in temperature and other detrimental weather events. Not only is it uncomfortable and sticky, it can also be deadly. In 2022, there were 370 heat-related deaths with the majority of those concentrated in the elderly and young in lower-income and predominantly Black and Hispanic communities. It’s not just heat either. East Harlem due to its proximity to the East River is more susceptible to flooding.
This is the end of the walking tour, feel free to explore other parts of Harlem.
This is the end of the Pathways to Earthseed walking tour. I hope you learned more about the rich history of Harlem and what is at stake of being lost both in terms of people and physically. I hope the questions were thought provoking and you took the space to think about what is required to ensure the people here persist despite environmental racism, the climate crisis, gentrification, white supremacy and the list goes on. Harlem was deemed a site during the 1930s as unsuitable for growth and development. We still see the remnants of those racist policies in our housing. Food for thought: isn't it ironic that a site that was deemed “hazardous” was able to create a cultural mecca that has inspired other Black spaces across the diaspora and has become lucrative in more than a monetary sense? Isn’t it also ironic that this same space has become a “hot commodity” where developers now want to price out those who have persisted to ensure the face of Harlem changes all in the name of “revitalization”? What can be done about this? Maybe Afrofuturism is the key…