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Oral History: Ayo Harrington’s East Village

Village Preservation shares our oral history collection with the public, highlighting some of the people and stories that make Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo such unique and vibrant neighborhoods. Each includes the experiences and insights of leaders or long-time participants in the arts, culture, preservation, business, or civic life.

Ayo Harrington has been involved in social justice issues most of her life. With a strong focus on people of African descent, her involvement began with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and attending the former Malcolm X Liberation University. She has served on and led numerous boards, task forces, committees and parent, tenant and block associations. She has the experience and skill to organize effective, issue-oriented campaigns that have benefitted the community in which she lives and New York City. 

Ayo Harrington grew up in Suffield, Connecticut, in a farmhouse her grandfather built in the part of town that became designated for Black families, that had developed over time into a close community. She traces her family history back five generations to an enslaved ancestor called Ady Alexander, and outlines her grandfather’s move north to Connecticut to work in the tobacco industry as part of the Great Migration.

Harrington’s Oral History is detailed and frank. Of where she grew up, she says: 

We lived on one street. It’s not like a New York City street. It’s a street that goes on for miles, curved around, ended at Main Street… You could not get more of New England than those things in that type of town. But when my grandfather moved there, all the Black people pretty much lived on the same street and in the same area… And the designated place that they gave us to live was the street that I grew up in. I grew up in a house that my grandfather built when he married my grandmother, where my mother and her siblings grew up, and all moved away except my mother. So my siblings and I grew up there with my mother.

As a young girl in the early 1960s, she attended various public schools, and, as a teenager, moved to the East Village to live with her older sister, who was active in radical Black organizing happening at the time. Harrington likewise became involved in organizing, volunteering with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and attending the Malcolm X Liberation University in North Carolina. She sees the education she received in Black radical spaces as the foundation of her commitment to social justice.

Malcolm X Liberation University (or MXLU) was an experimental educational institution inspired by the Black Power and Pan-Africanist movements

She was involved hands-on in reclaiming abandoned buildings as housing, including her own home in Alphabet City, which she completed in 1989; she describes having permanent, stable, and affordable housing as a rarity, especially for a Black person living in New York City, and especially for a new mother.

Harrington says found a group of people who were renovating abandoned buildings on their own, to live in them collectively, and she joined in:

“…I was a mother and as such, needed to have housing for my son here in the neighborhood that, for the most part, I grew up in, philosophically and otherwise, in Alphabet City. I was in an illegal sublet. I didn’t know I was in an illegal sublet. I didn’t really know a lot at that time about the different structures of housing… I saw these people, these women one day looking kind of raggedly and shabby, and looking like they were somewhat on a construction site, but not really construction-ready. And I went up to them and asked them what they were doing. They were telling me they were working on the building on the corner of 10th Street and Avenue C, and that they were renovating it… And I learned about this homesteading effort.”

She also advocated for the establishment of land trusts to enable housing ownership for herself and the others who had collectively reclaimed and rehabilitated their residential buildings. They also led numerous efforts to transform abandoned lots into community gardens, including Orchard Alley.

In the oral history, she said:

So that movement was going on at the same time and it was all about land, right? All about land. So the land of living, the land of public green spaces, and all over this neighborhood… And as a result, just skipping past everything, we now have in this community––although we had more––we have fifty-three community gardens located within CD3 [Community District No. 3]. There was a coalition that connects them as well called LUNGS, which stands for Loisaida United Neighborhood Gardens. I am a founding member of LUNGS, and I am on the board of LUNGS.

After the birth of her son, Harrington also became aware of the disparities in the New York City public education system, which echoed her own experiences with public education as a child. She became involved with parents’ rights issues, ultimately taking on various leadership roles that provided resources to parents, and particularly parents of color. 

Harrington also played a key role in the creation and protection of the African Burial Ground, ensuring the federal government’s compliance with regard to education, research, and memorialization at the burial site. She also went on to do outreach about the prison system, becoming a founding producer of On the Count: The Prison and Criminal Justice Report on WBAI Radio. 

Harrington also talks in her oral history about being the co-chair of LESReady!, a disaster preparedness and long-term recovery organization that emerged in response to Superstorm Sandy, and is currently responding to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The details she has to share, and the observations, are well worth exploring for yourself here.

This is one of over 60 oral histories we’ve conducted which you can find in our collection, with prominent preservationists, activists, planners, artists, community, and business leaders. Some others you can find include Jane Jacobs, Rick Kelly, Mimi Sheraton, Ralph Lee, Fred Bass, Peter Ruta, Richard Meier, Merce Cunningham, Matt Umanov, David Amram, Verna Small, Marlis Mober, Jonas Mekas, Margot Gayle, Wolf Kahn, Lorcan Otway, Frances Goldin, Chino Garcia, Penny Arcade, and James Polshek, among many others. Explore them all HERE

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