YOU could almost see the ghosts among the new furniture and modern recessed lighting. It was a few days before the staff at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, at 135th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem, finished hanging two exhibitions and stripping the paper off the doors at its bigger, brighter new entrance. Amid the sounds of hammers and drills, they prepared for tomorrow's public celebration of the center's two-year, $11 million renovation.
The Schomburg is as much a monument to an idea as it is a building. So those ghosts, workaday and luminous, inhabit a space of many incarnations, tracing its roots back to the 135th Street New York Public Library branch that opened there in 1905. Predominantly Jewish then, Harlem was mostly black by 1924. Over the years, Alex Haley researched "Roots" at the Schomburg; James Baldwin and Gordon Parks both found it a refuge; a young Ossie Davis honed his craft there.
By the time it officially became the Schomburg in 1972, taking its name from Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, the Puerto Rican-born black bibliophile who donated his collection, it was a one-stop connection with the global black experience. Its wonders include a rare recording of a Marcus Garvey speech, documents signed by Toussaint L'Ouverture, a signed first edition of Phillis Wheatley's poetry, daguerreotypes of African-Americans from the 1830s, Benjamin Banneker's almanacs. Its exhibitions have tracked black migration and displayed the contents of Malcolm X's pocket when he was gunned down at the Audubon Ballroom.
"The center has increasingly become one of the cultural anchors of the greater Harlem community, one of the top three tourist destinations, along with the Apollo and the Studio Museum in Harlem," said Howard Dodson, the Schomburg director. "The kind of change that's taking place in Harlem is of political, social and historical interest to the center, and we'll be here to document it. We are not going anywhere."
As the Schomburg unveils its facelift, Harlem itself is also undergoing one of its periodic renaissances. There's new real estate development, new stores and restaurants, new places to imbibe culture. The association with Harlem has been the constant for the Schomburg trove of more than five million items: art, manuscripts, films, photographs. The center has been a place for community meetings and for local politicians, for schoolchildren and eminent researchers like the historian John Hope Franklin.
Thelma Golden, the director and chief curator of the Studio Museum, is among those who see the renovated Schomburg as an emblem of a Harlem at the top of its game. Hundreds of thousands of tourists pour into Harlem annually to shop in the stores on 125th Street, sit in the pews of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church or revel in the serendipity of finding new cafes or dowager buildings.
"The Schomburg stands as a bearer of the idea that our history and culture are important," said Ms. Golden, who is African-American. "The renovation will reinvent the sense of the institution as living, breathing space. All the cultural institutions in Harlem are going through a period of incredible growth, and it's not just about physical renovation."
A walk through Harlem makes vivid its embrace of many worlds. There are the tiny African braiding shops, mom-and-pop restaurants with an African or Caribbean flavor, as well as Citarella and Starbucks amid the cacophony of 125th Street, the area's commercial spine. It is dotted with stores like Old Navy, as well as the Apollo and the Studio Museum. The streets are cleaner and safer than they have been in years.
With its hilly topography and low-slung buildings framing the sky, these days Harlem is also a beehive of brownstone renovation and new construction. A few blocks from the Schomburg, condominiums are going up on either side of the street. Take a side street and you may glimpse decrepit apartment buildings or well-tended row houses shrouded in quiet.
The new incarnation of the Schomburg Center, designed by the firm Dattner Architects, has more open spaces, light wood and glass, and is intended to be both more inviting and more distinctive than the old building. The center is part of the New York Public Library; the renovation was primarily financed by the city, with additional state support.
The other day Mr. Dodson ticked off his plans for the center's new resources, which include the latest technology. They include working with the Overtown community in Miami to develop an African diaspora heritage trail and helping officials in Liberia and South Africa to develop archives.
Closer to home, the Schomburg is involved with the African Burial Ground project. In 1991 workers excavating the foundation for a new building uncovered human remains, which turned out to be from the site where historians say 15,000 slaves were buried from 1640 to 1795 on nearly seven acres near what is now City Hall Park and the Municipal Building. President Bush has proclaimed part of the space a national monument. On May 19 the papers donated by the family of Malcolm X will go on display at the Schomburg.
The celebration tomorrow is from noon to 6 p.m. It will include a performance by the Hamalali Wayunagu Garifuna Dance Company, a screening of "Ethnic Notions" by Marlon Riggs, a staged reading, face painting and a special presentation by the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center.
Two exhibitions will be on view through Oct. 28: "Stereotypes vs. Humantypes: Images of Blacks in the 19th and 20th Centuries" and "Black Art: Treasures From the Schomburg."
The "Stereotypes" exhibition is meant to show the prevalence of caricatured images of blacks for most of the early 19th and early 20 centuries. It uses items like sheet music, posters, advertisements and postcards to show how words like "darktown" and "coon" were casual companions to depictions of blacks with distorted features.
Some of the items are on loan from the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich.
"A small amount of this is from the South," Mr. Dodson noted. "A significant amount of the stereotypical ads come from New York."
The propaganda is contrasted with real-life black images from that period: couples in their wedding finery, 1920s bathing beauties, formal banquets.
"Black Treasures" is an eclectic display that includes the 1868 marble and bronze "Portrait of Ira Aldridge as Othello," by Pietro Calvi, as well as the 1969 collage "Black Manhattan," by Romare Bearden, and dozens of other work by Elizabeth Catlett, Augusta Savage, Jacob Lawrence, Benny Andrews, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Horace Pippin, Faith Ringgold and others.
For some, this new renovation calls to mind the buzz around the Schomburg's dedication of the fortresslike, five-story red-brick building on Sept. 28, 1980.
"Our job was to take a building with terrific bones and a great history and turn it into something new, something spectacular that represents the community," Richard Dattner, the architect, said. 'The whole philosophy of library design has changed dramatically, with libraries becoming the portals to the Internet as well as the traditional collections of books and archives. Libraries have become community centers and homes away from home. Now there's a screen looking out that broadcasts 'come in' to the neighborhood."
While the old building had no easily visible central entrance, the new lobby has a glass-curtain wall (with six video projectors) visible from Malcolm X Boulevard. There is a prominent stainless-steel sign with the center's name above the front door.
Space was found for a center for the Scholars-in-Residence Program, which since 1986 has been host to 108 scholars studying the African and African diasporan experience. The new center has offices with privacy louvers circling a lounge enclosed with glass and maple trim.
"We had built a little goldfish bowl for them," said Diana Lachatanere, curator of the manuscripts, archives and rare books division, and manager of the Scholars-in-Residence Program. "For the first time they have their own office, their own equipment."
Martha Biondi, an associate professor of African American Studies and History at Northwestern University, fondly recalled discovering the Schomburg in the early '80s, when she was an undergraduate at Barnard.
"You'd be in the archive all day and go into the auditorium and see Belafonte or Ossie Davis or listen to jazz or see a local politician," said Dr. Biondi, who was also a scholar in residence.
The old reading room — now visible from the exhibition gallery above — has been reconfigured to reveal a soaring ceiling topped with an acoustic wood panel. The room is decorated with Aaron Douglas's four signature 1934 murals titled "Aspects of Negro Life." The Latimer/Edison Gallery has been moved to a new entry-level space to connect the lobby and the reading room visually. Anigre, a lustrous, light brown hardwood, is used in the renovated public spaces, which also received new green slate floors.
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg would surely be amazed by the new Harlem and the new center. His portrait hangs in the lobby, a reminder of the power of a dream. Born in a working-class neighborhood in Santurce, P.R., in 1874, Schomburg was the son of an unwed black midwife or laundress and an unidentified father who was probably of Puerto-Rican and German heritage. After moving to New York in 1891, he befriended political and social leaders and the stars of the Harlem Renaissance, and helped found Las Dos Antillas, an anticolonialist organization. He married three times (he was widowed twice) and had eight children.
While working as a messenger for a Wall Street bank and then supervising its Caribbean and Latin American mail section, he began collecting. He found books, magazines, art and other items that, combined, showed the multifaceted splendor of black culture.
In 1926 Mr. Schomburg donated his collection of more than 10,000 objects to the new Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints at the 135th Street Branch Library. After retiring from his bank job in 1929, he was briefly a curator of the Negro Collection at Fisk University in Nashville. He returned to New York in 1932 to be curator of his own collection until his death in 1938.
Mr. Schomburg's story is largely unknown and fascinates visitors, said Carmen Matthew, a docent and volunteer coordinator who works in the Schomburg. A retired principal of a Queens elementary school, she has learned more history working there than in all her years in school, she said. Her first exhibition as a volunteer was "African Zion" in 1994, about Ethiopia and religious art.
The Schomburg's visibility can help arts organizations in Harlem keep their footing as their funds dwindle and the neighborhood changes, said Patricia Cruz, executive director of Harlem Stage/Aaron Davis Hall Inc.
"I cannot imagine Harlem being understood without the Schomburg," Ms. Cruz said. "I think they'll have an even bigger role to play as institutions like the Jazzmobile, the Apollo, the National Black Theater, the Boys Choir, the Harlem School for the Arts and the Dance Theater of Harlem come together to advocate for their well-being.
"It's sometimes been hard for people in other communities to recognize the importance of the institutions," Ms. Cruz said. Harlem has long struggled to overcome a reputation in some quarters as unsafe; now some people wonder aloud whether poor people are being pushed out of the neighborhood and whether Harlem will retain its strong connection with black culture.
As new talent flocks to Harlem, cultural stalwarts are staying put, and old places are getting new uses. Harlem Stage uses Aaron Davis Hall and the Gatehouse, a new performing arts space at 135th Street and Convent Avenue. It is an 1890 castlelike building once used to distribute water to New York City and the first new space of its kind in Harlem in 20 years. The interior of the Apollo is being renovated. Albert Maysles is opening a film center.
Bill T. Jones, the choreographer, also plans to be on 125th Street with a multiarts center. "I'd like it to be a cultural center, a place the community would be interested in," he said, "a place my friends from around the world can come perform, teach and hold workshops. We hope people would flow between there and Lincoln Center. Harlem is potentially the most cosmopolitan urban area in the United States."
Mr. Dodson said he agreed.
"While part of the transformation includes a change in the number of people who are not of African descent, that culture has found its fame and notoriety here," he said, "and that culture will be the foundation of its fame in the 21st century."
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