It’s hard to describe the current state of Harlem’s P.S. 186 without falling into the dreaded verbal black hole of flowery rhetoric that plagues urban exploration writing. I can’t count how many times I’ve read the phrase “reclaimed by nature” in regards to a “concrete jungle” or “lost city.” Whenever I encounter that type of language, it fills me with vicarious embarrassment. It’s the same feeling I get when I tell people I’m a cartoonist and they say, “oh, you mean, like Cathy?” and I’m like, “haha, no, not at all,” but inside I’m like “fuck my life right now.” So I’m not going to attempt to describe P.S. 186 beyond perfunctory observations, the photos will have to suffice.
P.S. 186 opened in 1903 in West Harlem. Five stories high and 100,000 square feet, the elementary school operated for 72 years. It closed in 1975 amidst safety concerns as the top floors began to crumble and reports of robberies and attacks increased. Here’s the building during its functional years:
And here’s how it looks today c/o Googlemaps. I forgot to get an exterior shot and even though Harlem is just a few miles from where I live, a few miles in NYC isn’t just a ‘pop over and snap a photo’ pit stop, it’s three trains and a whole afternoon, so I’m phoning this one in.
According to an archived New York Times article, the school principal stated that “the most urgent problems at the school…[were] security and fire hazards.” The building’s H shape (as you can see below c/o googlemaps) created cul-de-sacs in which “hundreds of children and teachers would be trapped” in the event of a fire.
The fire department required 13 doors to remain open, which led to the public using the building as a short cut to the neighboring street, which increased crime inside the school. Parents reported being robbed at knifepoint and a teachers aid was raped at gunpoint inside a classroom. Jesus. The worst thing that ever happened at the public school I went to was in second grade when Gabriel P. told me that sex was “getting naked and bumping butts.”
In 1972, the National Economic Growth and Reconstruction Organization (NEGRO) stated it was going to remove students from the school due to safety concerns. The NYT reported that “60 members of the black self-help organization…moved into the school and shut down the top three floors of the five story building.” Although the principal claimed to have no knowledge of the organization’s plans, he claimed he was “surprised, but very much elated,” as they were “placing the school under citizen’s arrest.” The article doesn’t go into detail about why the principal was pleased, but assuming things worked back then how they do now, it’s very difficult for educational administrations to get anything done without lots of paperwork and majority approval, so having an external group take immediate action is a convenient way around that problem that doesn’t reflect on the administration’s legal process.
P.S 186 class of 1942- school courtyard then and now:
NEGRO’s actions caused a temporary evacuation of the remaining students while the fire department conducted a safety search. The department claimed they saw no immediate concerns, but NEGRO cited multiple fire hazards as well as health concerns (aka rats.) In 1975, with a budget for a new school finally approved, P.S. 186 closed and was slated for demolition. (That never happened though, and the school still stands today, under much debate.)
In 1986, the school was sold for $215,000 to the Boys & Girls Club of Harlem. According to the NYT, the sales contract stipulated that “85 percent of the usable floor area was to be dedicated to nonprofit community use, and development of the property was to be substantially completed within three years.” Those plans never developed and the neighborhood has argued over what to do with the property ever since. Some residents want it preserved as a historical site and some want it torn down for affordable housing and a new school. Idealistically, I’d like to see it saved, but pragmatically, open real estate in NYC is rare and considering the city’s overcrowded public schools and the general demand for affordable housing, the latter proposal makes the most sense. The facade of the building might be salvageable but the inside would have to be completely torn out and reconstructed, which unfortunately would come with a heftier price tag than demolition.
Now that we’ve got that covered, let’s go through the building as it is today. I’ll start in the basement, which, like most building basements, is a mishmash of old machinery and electrical junk.
Above is a tubular boiler, it looked like this when in use:
The darkroom floor is littered with old bottles and the shelf has grown an impressive mass of whatever nightmare the combination of chemical reactions, mold and time have given birth to.
If I ever die of some mysterious lung infection that “hasn’t been seen in hundreds of years, and never before in a human,” feel free to show my exploring photos to the doctor.
The first (ground) floor is boarded up pretty well with cinderblocks and wood, allowing only bits of natural light in here and there. Chunks of ceiling have fallen down and chalkboards are either missing, peeling or cracking. (Or full of graffiti, as you’ll see later, but vandals didn’t really bother with the first floor.)
A fire destroyed parts of the first floor and although not really visible under natural light, a collapsed ceiling and piles of desks and chairs blocked this stairway to the second floor.
There were no stairs at my elementary school and I was always jealous because on Saved by the Bell, there were stairs right by the lockers and people were always running up and down them so dramatically, or hangin’ out with one leg propped higher than the other and just looking SO COOL.
…because there are no curtains, shades or glass in any of the windows anymore.
The second floor consists of mostly hallways and classrooms, all of which have at least one open wall of windows and have been exposed to the elements for almost 40 years now.
The trees and saplings that have taken root in the classrooms have made the wood floors too sketchy to walk on, although most of the debris on the ground are from fallen windowsills and ceiling.
These books, stacked on the top shelf, were titled “Adventures Now and Then,” which, come to think of it, would have been a great name for this blog. “People and Progress” would have been good too… IF IT WAS OPPOSITE DAY.
Some more stairs and a mop that totally wasn’t there until I put it there. Whenever you see something artfully arranged in a photo of an abandoned place, 80% of the time it’s been set up that way by explorer/photographers. Sorry to blow up anyone’s spot with that lil’ revelation that no one cares about.
The auditorium on the fourth floor.
Big hunk of ceiling atop the middle rows of chairs:
Considering these chairs are wood, they’re in surprisingly good condition. Unsurprisingly, covered in bird poop.
And finally we’ve reached the top floor where the gymnasium is located. I was going to say something about how you’d have to be a complete moron to walk out on this floor (as I’ve seen in other photos) because the wood is rotted and full of holes, but then I considered the overall moronic nature of exploring abandoned places, and, well, touche.
When I posted the tree photo below on instagram, someone left this comment: “A clear struggle of life reaching for the light (heaven) but only reaching the looking glass reflecting the inevitable decay and death.” WOOF, ammiright? I’m such a dick.
A full set of photos can be seen in the P.S. 186 Flickr set.
Disclaimer: If any information on this post is incorrect, if you have more info or would otherwise like to tell me something, feel free to contact me.