The Future of the Harlem African Burial Ground

After years of research, prayer, and advocacy, an architectural design was put forth to give solidity to the ideas of love, remembrance, and community. The following images depict a holistic vision for the Harlem African Burial Ground: one that is both local and global. Local in that the project must address the needs and concerns of East Harlem residents in terms of providing affordable housing, employment opportunities, and public space. Honoring those interred and commemorating centuries of sacred history is not simply about remembering the past but about advancing the common good and building a strong community here and now.  


In furtherance of its local aspirations, the global vision for the Harlem African Burial Ground sees it as an international destination. If it is carefully conceived, the project will attract visitors from around the world and become a premier educational and cultural New York institution. These drawings represent a vision conceived by the collective work and imagination of the task force. And while this design does not represent what will ultimately be constructed on the site it does embody the ideals of what can be.



As depicted in the adjacent sketch, the proposed design consists essentially of two movements: a processional walkway providing accessibility from Second Avenue and a curving armature of open space that links the historical footprint of the Harlem African Burial Ground with both the new Harlem River Park Esplanade and the waters of the Harlem River. The slideshow below illustrates the process for the design step by step. 

The 126th Street Bus Depot as it currently stands. 



On the existing site plan, the 126th Street Bus Depot occupies the entire block. This sprawling facility, now decommissioned, is an impediment to future development and proper remembrance.


In the proposed site plan, the removal of the bus depot allows the ancillary street fronting Second Avenue to be de-mapped; thus, the block can be extended. A processional walkway, honoring both the history of the site and the names of those interred, starts along Second Avenue and culminates in the original footprint of the Harlem African Burial Ground. The site plan is comprised of two central elements: an uninterrupted sight line from Second Avenue and a connection between the original cemetery footprint and the new main entrance of the Harlem River Park Esplanade.



Descending the steps from Second Avenue, the visitor occupies a sacred space removed from the activities at ground level. Beneath the memorial bridge lies the centerpiece of this walkway, the names of the interred carved in black granite. These names flank an extraordinary light display that casts the water ripples of the pool unto the underside of the bridge, creating an ethereal quality that speaks to the undying spirit and the promise of new life.

At night, the processional walkway becomes a place of gathering. The steps act as an informal amphitheater that 

looks upon a small stage area. In accordance with the mission of the memorial to both educate and commemorate the walkway provides the community with opportunities to hear presentations and talks by guest speakers as well as watch movies and documentaries pertinent to the site’s history and larger issues concerning the legacy of slavery and colonization. The slideshow below presents renderings of scenes from the processional walkway.



Preserving the original cemetery footprint has an important didactic function. Allowing visitors to physically inhabit this sacred space and examine its historic boundaries creates a powerful connection to the past. In addition, the footprint is a remnant of the original village of Harlem and speaks to the extent of the city’s transformation throughout the centuries. The footprint is preserved as open space for the community and is bordered by communal gardens.

At night, fiber optic cables emanating from light boxes at the periphery of the cemetery footprint create points of light intended to embody the soul of every person interred. This 

subtle display of light shows a quiet reverence for the dead. Adjacent to the outdoor space is the education & cultural center. Its continuous glass wall is comprised of intelligent glass which can change from a transparent to an opaque surface at the flick of a switch. When the glass becomes opaque images can be projected onto it to create interesting light displays as well as  announcements of current or upcoming exhibitions. 


The slideshow below presents renderings of scenes on this historical burial ground footprint.


A presentation document that contains, in addition to the above design content, both a historical and site analysis of East Harlem.