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Harlem Community Court
By: Tania Antero
The first time I went to the Harlem Court House I was scheduled for an interview at 9:00 AM. Of course, I arrived at ten minutes after eight. Not wanting to seem as anxious as I was, I decided to take a walk and survey the neighborhood. The historic Harlem Court House is nestled within a vibrant, diverse residential and commercial community. Located on 121st Street between Lexington and Third Avenues, the building quietly blends right into its neighborhood. If you are not observant, you might miss the courthouse altogether. Many of the people in the neighborhood and some of the litigants have told us they never realized this was a courthouse. Seemingly obscure and out of view, once you enter this recessed building its magnificence richly welcomes you. Your brain does a double take and says, “Wait, let’s take another look.” Built in the 1890’s, it is acknowledged as a New York City landmark. The gabled roof, red brick, stone and terra cotta structure has an octagon tower topped with a two-faced clock. Facing north and east, the tower clock proudly declares to the multi-cultural neighborhood it is still in mint condition by keeping track of every minute. To keep it ticking, someone has to walk up the tower and wind its mechanism by hand once a week. The Romanesque Revival five story edifice with Victorian Gothic overtones, designed by Thom & Wilson (1891 - 1893), was originally erected to house the New York City Police Magistrate Court, the Ninth District Court and a temporary detention facility. Once inside the lobby, a semi-circular staircase garnished with elegant and exquisite banisters brandishing the scales of justice, follow the octagon tower to the fourth floor. From the top floor, you can look all the way down to the first floor lobby and if you don’t suffer from vertigo, it is quite a sensation. The grandeur of the third floor courtroom greets you the moment you walk in with its over 30 foot vaulted ceiling. The room contains two 24’ by 6’ magnificent murals painted by the Austrian born artist, David Karfunkle in the mid 1930’s as part of President Roosevelt’s WPA (Work Projects Administration) New Deal promise. The mural on the eastern wall, entitled Exploitation of Labor, is oil directly on plaster while the one on the western wall, known as Hoarding of Wealth, is oil on canvas. I have often wondered if the artist was conveying a message by selecting these medias to paint his vision. Both murals depict scenes intermingling different historical periods, some of which include the controversial presence of slaves and corporal punishment.
Sadly, these murals are now hidden behind curtains as they are water damaged, chipped and/or peeling. They are in dire need of costly restoration. Much of the public and many of my co-workers look forward to the day when the murals are restored and enjoyed by all. If you wish to enjoy more of the splendor and sparkle of our historic Harlem Court House, you’ll just have to come and visit. (Hint: Give us just the smallest compliment about the building and you’re bound to get us to give you a personal tour.) So, besides the grandeur and the greatness of the building, what’s the real spice of working at the Harlem Court House? It’s the people. Everyone assigned to work here, volunteered to be here. This truly changes the atmosphere and attitude of the workday. Having worked at five different courts in three different counties, I can truly state that this - by far - is the best working OCA environment. There is an amicable and congenial rapport among staff that transcends from the judge, to the administration, the officers, the office support staff and to the public. We recognize each other regardless of our “lines” or “titles” and support one another towards the common goal of assisting the litigants in accomplishing their legal needs. We also enjoy sharing “good mornings”, birthday luncheons, barbecues with all the fixings, surprise pre-wedding parties, food from home, Krispy Kreme and buffalo wings breakfasts, after work restaurant dining, “Cinco de Mayo” Mexican theme dishes and winter get together weekends in the mountains. This is just a taste of who and what is the Harlem Court House. Perhaps another time you’ll be introduced to something that is very dear to our hearts… where we eat! We even have a one gavel, two gavel, and three gavel rating system. Wow! Step aside “Restaurants’ Row”, Harlem’s strutting its stuff! Until then, this is Tania Antero letting you know, “Harlem’s the place to be!”
Tania Antero is a Spanish Court Interpreter assigned to the Harlem Community Court.
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