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To Whom Does Harlem Belong?

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Harlem, New York — home to a famed cultural renaissance ... and an age-old debate over gentrification, some of which played out on today's show.

Tony Cox explored both sides of the issue, in conversations with the so-called "Queen of Harlem Real Estate," Willie Suggs, and Nellie Hester Bailey, executive director of the Harlem Tenants Council — a non-profit, social justice organization.

Suggs explained newcomers' migration to Harlem this way: "Nobody that I know wants to live in a slum. If you can bring crime down and eliminate vacant buildings, people will simply feel safer and want to move there," said Suggs.

But Hester Bailey added this cautionary note: "I am not one of those community activists who see development as all bad. ... But people who have stayed there [in Harlem] are being priced out, pushed out and harassed out by landlords who want to see a maximum return on their investment."

Though Suggs admitted the "face [of Harlem] is changing," she says "the culture is not going anywhere," adding, "the culture is even more vibrant because we have people now that have money to contribute to [cultural organizations]."

What do you think? Have you seen gentrification play out where you live? If so, tell us about it.

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Actually, I live in Harlem and publish an active blog (www.uptownflavor.com) that has been following these issues for the past two years. Since I have lived in the neighborhood for 5 years I somewhat stand in the middle, between being a "newcomer" and the old guard. I actually had the intention to move into Manhattan when I first moved to NYC. I could not find anything either affordable or acceptable in my price range so I looked in Brooklyn. After 5 years, I was priced out of my Brooklyn neighborhood and naturally migrated up to the Harlem. At that time the "one-teens" were the only part of Harlem that was changing. I moved to the area just below Hamilton Heights. About 2 years into my lease, the neighborhood had starting to change. Three years later we have new co-ops and condos, a new grocery store, a chain drug store, a chain gym and a Starbucks. In both of my experiences with gentrication, it seems the first wave of "gentrifiers" are non-threatening...students...social workers...teachers, etc. Those are the people who are embraced, accepted or simply ignored. The next wave is when the tensions begin the rise -- they typically have more money and are looking to get the most for their money. The main problem is that the old guard feels like they hung in there during the rough time -- some did it willingly and others through necessity. The newcomers feel like the old guard is part of the problem -- they're lazy, unmotivated, don't want better, etc. Then, there is the group that I fall into. We were neither there during the worst of times, nor are the new accommodations being built for our comfort. That is where the animosity comes into play. The bottom line is that it is political. We are starting to see this in Harlem where the top pols in Harlem are being exposed. Sen. Rangel and Gov. Paterson have recently been exposed for living in rent-stabilized apartments and now it is being revealed that Sen. Rangal has been his hands in the pot with a lot of the real estate companies that are driving the older businesses out. There are so many layers to this issue and the main thing that I want to see is balance. A balance between the old "flavor" of the neighborhood and the necessary goods and services that have been missing for generations. When I first moved to the area there were less than a handful of banks, sub-standard grocers, local drug stores with dusty shelves, and no "amenities" like the new gym and Starbucks. Who is it serving? We can all take part in the "newness," but it makes us really uneasy because we tend to wonder 'how long will this last?'

Sent by D. Bell | 9:55 PM | 7-28-2008

Though I think Willie Suggs has been unfairly demonized ... she should, or anyone, really be happy that 125th Street now mirrors Times Square? Development is fine ... but big-box retail in the heart of Harlem is not the answer.

Sent by Dan Johnson | 1:46 PM | 7-29-2008

Harlem is admired all around the world as a representative of America's contribution to art and culture. And as such it has to be preserved as a proud historic landmark.

I think that the long-time natives should contact historical societies and Anthropologists (plenty in N.Y.) to help limit the amount of new residents, the types of new buildings that can be put up without changing the "historical" record, and preventing changes to parks or historical "gathering places" for music, art etc.

Thus a limits and boundaries can be created to allow new people and improvements (ex. only 30%) but retain Natives of Harlem as an essential part of American history.

Sent by Sarah | 8:47 PM | 7-29-2008

The U.S., and especially New York City, is a free market economy. NO neighborhood is exempt and you certainly can't prohibit new people from moving into a neighborhood. Harlem is being rediscovered because it is convenient to midtown (3 express subway lines), architecturally desirable, and has more parks than other area of Manhattan (Central Park - in the north, Morningside, Mount Morris, St. Nicholas Park, Jackie Robinson Park).

The well regarded universities are also expanding - Columbia U to the North and City College to the South. More students will come and that is GOOD for the city. More dollars spent, more taxes collected.

You will not keep people out of one of the most important cities in the world. Gentrification is needed AND good for New York. This is not a race issue but a class issue. Productive, successful members of society stay, those who cannot, must leave. That is a basic economic tenet. And unless the next president wants to change our nation into a socialist or communist one, gentrification will continue and NYC and Harlem will continue to improve. (Thank God).

Sent by Harlemite | 9:29 AM | 7-30-2008

Sarah, I have heard from a lot of Harlem residents would welcome some government control on limiting the number of new Harlem residents, however this is clearly un-American, in fact historically, certain American neighborhoods have tried to limit who can live where, for example segregation which we know is clearly wrong. This runs deeper in that I see some Harlem residents welcoming freedom but happily wishing restrictions on other groups. Freedom like civil rights are a two way street.

Sent by John | 10:42 AM | 7-30-2008

Bravo John, spot on correct.

Sent by Matt | 12:39 PM | 7-30-2008

Opponents of so-called gentrification should remember that for many people the alternative to moving to relatively lower priced Harlem is to move outside the city to Westchester or outside the state to New Jersey or Connecticut. If the gentrifiers move out of New York City, then the City loses the gentrifiers' 4% income taxes, 4.375% NYC sales taxes, and huge 2% real estate transfer taxes. One gentrifier pays the tax dollars to the City to support the generous government services in NYC such as the public hospital system, abundant parks, and subsidized public transportation. If there are no gentrifiers, then tax rolls dry up, and then government services dry up. This is what happened to New York City in 1975.

Sent by Manhattan Douglass | 3:00 PM | 7-30-2008

While some have vilified Willie Suggs, I hope blacks in Harlem sat up and paid attention to the lesson in Economics and had the curiosity to question history as commonly told. First of all, Harlem is not a historically black neighborhood. Whatever the reason, probably race-based fear, it changed from dutch, irish and jewish neighborhoods to what we now know as a black neighborhood. Along the way it nurtured the black literati, musicians and the like and, one day it started to decline when we as blacks participated in the demise of our culture, our hope and our spirit. We spawned drug dealers and crack heads and discouraged the police from holding us accountable because we made everything about race. Now we have spawned rappers and gang bangers who sell their minstrel shows world-wide, informing some of the most revolting stereotypes and promoting agramatical speech and the hatred and degradation of women.

While we imploded and hung on to our entitlements, the economics continued to shift. On the small island of Manhattan, turn-of-the-century homes became more desirable wherever they could be found and voila, the old timers who ran SROs could sell those dumps for 1.7 million dollars and the gentrifiers have to spend up to 1.5 million to make them habitable - I don't know where Willie got the 300 to 500K number from. These houses are a mess and I know because I had to restore one.

I refused to live here before because it was a gross and dangerous neighborhood. I have now bought high and sunk a fortune into fixing up an old house simply because it is safer and there are more and more people like me, of every color and race.

As a black man I resent the efforts to protect Harlem, a crime ridden ghetto rampant with obesity and poor health as a place for me. I deserve better and so do my children.

Sent by Nuvoharlemite | 9:18 PM | 7-30-2008

Harlem was deliberately made into a slumland. It was a ghetto first. Sure white people lived here, some flew away and now the chickens want to come home to roost. Segregation is not un-American, it is what keeps certain ethnic neighborhoods viable, such as jews in Crownhieghts and Williamsbridge, Italians in Little Italy, now East Indians and Middle Easterners have claimed their territory in Queens. Because we had sellouts, such as Dinkins, Ferrell, Rangel and Paterson, Sr. and now add Dickens along with other minions; those who called Harlem home for most of their lives are out on the street due to milicioius greed and snobbery. Those people I mentioned could care less about the average Harlemite who struggles everyday to keep a roof over their heads, they have nothing but disdain for them. In the 80's when black people wanted to buy those houses, they were turned away. This scenario was setup thirty-fourty or more years ago. Because we believe that politicians are leaders and not PUBLIC SERVANTS, they have gotten away with alot of dirt. They don't believe they are accountable for their actions to anybody but who lines their pockets. America was not historically WHITE, but look what they done did. Do any of you live next door to any Indegenous people? GENTRIFICATION at its worst. OH YEAH, Miss Suggs, where is that culture?

Sent by blackchildoftheuniverse | 5:57 PM | 8-4-2008

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