Our History Matters.
The Abolitionist House at 857 Riverside Drive is in imminent danger of being demolished.
Please help preserve it as an educational center focused on the Abolitionist movement and the continuing fight for equality and social justice in the United States.
Now, more than ever, we must work together to ensure we understand, teach, and preserve basic rights and freedoms for all.
How It Started:
Sometimes all it takes is a little digging.
Upper Riverside Residents Alliance &
The Harris/Newhouse Home
A small group of Washington Heights neighbors learned that lesson in August 2020, when we formed the Upper Riverside Residents Alliance, unified by our concern for a small wood-frame house at 857 Riverside Drive, and the news that it was about to be bulldozed.
A developer who had purchased the house had applied for a demolition permit and won preliminary approval to replace this two-story, single-family home with a 13-story apartment tower—more than twice as high as any building nearby—jammed with 46 mini condominium units.
A little digging revealed that one of the project’s developers appears regularly on the Public Advocate’s Worst Landlords Watchlist, having racked up an average of nearly 500 open HPD (Department of Housing Preservation and Development) violations in 2019, and 620 in 2020.
We knew from a 1937 photograph by Berenice Abbott that the house, built in the Greek Revival–Italianate style, once boasted a wraparound porch and a cupola, and we hoped it might be restored.
Built in 1851, it was part of a little-known colony of abolitionists in northern Manhattan, then an area of woods and farmland.
Its first owner, Dennis Harris, was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and at the center of a well-documented fugitive slave escape when he lived in lower Manhattan.
After being suspended by his downtown Methodist church for anti-slavery preaching, the minister and entrepreneur moved his family, his business and his abolitionist fervor uptown.
In Washington Heights, he and his friend John Newhouse, who bought the home from Harris and lived there with his family for decades, established abolitionist churches in the area.
They also built and ran a sugar refinery, pier and steamboat line.
Harris had used his downtown refinery to smuggle escaped slaves to freedom.
Historians say the uptown refinery, steamboat and this house, too, so close to the river in a sparsely populated area, were likely used in further Underground Railroad activities.
In Upper Manhattan, where abolitionism is not thought to have flourished, little history — particularly little African-American history — has been recognized and preserved.
The house at
857 Riverside Drive
is the last surviving
remnant of this
in the story
of New York.
Today, the Harris-Newhouse home is a symbol of our community — a tolerant and diverse place that remains one of the few affordable, livable, and relatively low-rise neighborhoods in Manhattan.
The destruction of the Harris-Newhouse home, and its replacement by a 13-story sliver tower, would be a 135-foot-high assault on our community, casting a literal and figurative shadow on the diversity that is our neighborhood’s pride.
It would give the green light to high-rise development all along our stretch of the Hudson River, and eradicate the memory of the brave residents who helped transform the area into the vibrant corner of the city it is today.
So we’re digging in.
AND THIS COMMUNITY
ARE WORTH SAVING.
Brief remarks on
Frederick Douglass’ speech:
“What to the slave
is the Fourth of July”
BY JOSETTE BAILEY
Given that the UURA is in part dedicated to saving 857 Riverside, a home that is known to have played a role in the Underground Railroad, it would seem remiss for our organization not to comment on the irony of Frederick Douglass, born to slavery in 1818, and (escaping from slavery as a young man) having been invited by the Rochester Ladies Auxiliary to give a speech on the Fourth of July.
What were these good ladies thinking?
Did they wish to engage in perverse and cruel irony?
For in truth, for an escaped slave to be asked to comment on the day celebrated by Euro-Americans, as their day of freedom, is to participate in a perverse, and cruel irony, a mockery of what the word and concept of freedom means.
African Americans did not gain their freedom on July 4th, 1776.
They would have to wait until January 1, 1863, for Abraham Lincoln to sign, The Emancipation Proclamation, and given the historical nature of Jim Crow, Segregation, and state sanctioned violence against African Americans, there are many people within the African American community who question still to this day, if we have yet, or will ever gain our freedom.
So, I would pose to you Frederick Douglass’ question, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?”, or for that matter, “What is the Fourth of July to an African American?”
What freedoms, and liberties are African Americans free to enjoy in their own country?
Have you ever considered this question? Is this a question that falls within the moral framework of how you live in the world?
I ask you this now, and I also invite you to support the work we are doing to save 857 Riverside Drive, a home owned by an abolitionist that supported the work of the Underground Railroad.
Enjoy your Fourth of July.
In his speech, Douglass said:
Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic…they loved their country more than their own private interests.
But despite the national rejoicing for Independence Day,
I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.
Toward the end of the address:
Fellow citizens, I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existed of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity a lie.
Cleanup at 857 Riverside Drive
“We noticed that the house was getting a little rough around the edges, particularly as the ownership dispute drags on, so I was able to hire a couple of men from the neighborhood to help clear a lot of the debris from the porches and the front and back yards.
The NYC Sanitation Department also agreed to pick up the debris free of charge.
We’re working with Mr. Wright to keep the house as attractive as we can until we are able to restore it.”
– Peter Green, A founder of Save Riverside
“It was a pleasure to see the 857 Riverside Drive House (Abolitionist House) yard clear of litter and garbage and so beautifully clean.
Many thanks to you and your crew of diligent workers.
Maybe the powers that be will view the house in a different light and agree to restore the house and this important piece of history to its rightful place in our community.”
– A. Lenora Taitt-Magubane
THE MARCH OF PROGRESS HAS NOT BEEN KIND TO CULTURAL LANDMARKS RELEVANT TO PERSONS OF COLOR IN UPPER MANHATTAN.
TO LEARN ABOUT THE HISTORY OF THE ABOLITIONIST HOUSE AND NEIGHBORHOOD,
READ THE PROPOSAL TO EXPAND THE Audubon Park Historic District.
UPPER RIVERSIDE RESIDENTS ALLIANCE
(Save Riverside) is a GRASSROOTS ORGANIZATION DEDICATED TO PRESERVING OUR ARCHITECTURAL, HISTORICAL, & CULTURAL HERITAGE IN WASHINGTON HEIGHTS.
For our Introduction PDF, link to the HDC Audubon Park booklet, and team bios: ABOUT US.
The New York Times article
by John Freeman Gill
READ AND DOWNLOAD