Harlem brownstones are attracting new neighbors at record prices. Some worry that gentrification will erode the heritage of this historic black neighborhood.
Harlem brownstones are attracting new neighbors at record prices. Some worry that gentrification will erode the heritage of this historic black neighborhood. iStockPhoto.com/Ben Russell
This mural adorns the wall of a chain clothing store on 125th Street in Harlem.
This mural adorns the wall of a chain clothing store on 125th Street in Harlem. Flickr/Professor Bop
Nellie Hester Bailey, executive director of the Harlem Tenants Council, wants respect for Harlem's history and residents. The banner behind her reads "No Ethnic Cleansing In Harlem."
In uptown Manhattan, there's a face-off going on between longtime residents and newer upstart homeowners. The battle is over the future of Harlem. It's taken years to take hold, but in seconds, you can see the signs.
If you exit the subway on 125th Street in the heart of Harlem, a block to the north is Sylvia's, serving soul food for 40 years, while a block to the south is the Lennox Lounge, a jazz hotspot since the 1930s. Directly across the street are a Starbucks and Staples. There's an Old Navy near the legendary Apollo Theater where James Brown once filled the house.
The changes in this iconic black community have been both positive and painful — and persistent.
One Harlem, Many Meanings
For a successful real estate agent such as Willie Suggs, the gentrification in Harlem is about business.
"It's not cultural," she says. "It's an economic transformation of a neighborhood from one economic class to another and clearly that's been happening in Harlem."
For longtime resident Dolores Early, 72, the word "gentrification" conjures something different.
"Homelessness comes to me, so a very sad situation comes to mind," Early says.
A newer arrival, artist Misha McGlown, sees a positive side of the renewed interest in uptown Manhattan.
"I love the fact that it's been restored to its former beauty. I don't mind most of the development," McGlown says.
Lucille McEwen, president of the Harlem Congregation for Community Improvement, which helps create affordable housing, is practical in her assessment of the changes.
"Sometimes, we say we are victims of our own success in rebuilding the community," she says. "But it's a much better option to be concerned with gentrification than to be concerned with high crime and blight."
Drugs, crime and poverty made for a powerful triple threat that decimated Harlem in the 1970s.
Once-stately brownstones became abandoned, graffiti-ridden dens of illegal activity. Locals who couldn't afford to move or didn't want to leave were living in an area that had few services and an uneasy relationship with police.
In the 1980s, New York City took ownership of many of the ruined homes and gave good deals to those willing to fix them up. The residential real estate market took off in the '90s.
As Suggs gave a tour of a four-floor Victorian brownstone with original ceiling molding, pocket doors and parquet floors, it's clear how much she loves Harlem. She also loves explaining how much money is being spent on newly restored townhouses full of high-end amenities.
Some admire her, while others think she is part of the problem. Suggs sees nothing wrong with the way Harlem is evolving economically.
"Once you've got the people in the neighborhood, then the businesses come," she says. "We wouldn't have had a Starbucks here 10 years ago. Who is going to pay $2.50 for a cup of coffee? Nobody made enough money for a $2.50 cup of coffee."
Suggs sees the Starbucks on 125th Street as a sign of progress.
"Oh, of course. I don't think I should have to get on a subway to go to Macy's and buy my niece a present. Now I just have to take my tushy down to 125th Street. Now we have choices of services," she says. "Now there are cops, nice places to eat. When they were here slugging it through, when the city wasn't caring about them and people couldn't make money off of their blocks."
Suggs says she understands why some residents living here before the Harlem real estate boom may feel disgruntled about the effects that change may have on this historic community.
"I understand, but they also understand," she says.
"When I moved up here in '85 — this was January — and I was out there sweeping my sidewalk and one of my neighbors said, 'Why are you sweeping?' and this is an older black person who'd been here 30 some years. And I said, 'Well because it's dirty.' He said, 'It's just gonna get dirty again.' What is that about?" Suggs says.
"I understand the people believed no matter what they did it was not going to change. So they stopped complaining," she says. "I was told this by several of them. And it took new people coming in — not talking white people — new people said, 'No, I'm not putting up with this crap.'"
That was Harlem B.C. — before Clinton.
In 2001, when the former president chose to locate his office on 125th Street, Harlem's commercial appeal was sealed, according to Suggs. High-end destination restaurants followed.
But with the Wall Street meltdown, it remains to be seen what will happen to the most recent development.
Just three weeks ago, however, the city council gave the go-ahead for commercial re-zoning in East Harlem. Columbia University is beginning to redevelop a 17-acre swath of West Harlem. Local activists worry that Harlem's uniqueness will be paved over.
Nellie Hester Bailey, executive director of the Harlem Tenants Council, wants respect for the area's history and residents.
"Harlem has the right to remain as the historic African-American community. And that it wasn't just a matter of blacks coming to Harlem, but it was a matter of public policy predicated on race and class that created the largest concentration of people of African-American decent in one location in the city of New York," Bailey says.
"And what came out of that was not pity, but rebirth. As they said at the time of the Harlem Renaissance, the New Negro, and that is worth fighting for as part of community and that is the community of historic Harlem."
During the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance was a time of great productivity, creativity and joy in black history. Imagine hearing Ella Fitzgerald sing at the Apollo Theater, or attending a Langston Hughes poetry reading — right in your neighborhood — or having a post-church picnic in one of Harlem's four lush parks.
It was this life that Victoria Haberman, now a Harlem resident, dreamed of as a child growing up in Germany.
"When I was 10 years old, I read a book about New York and I said, 'I'm going to live in Harlem all my life. I love Harlem. That's it and I am living in Harlem,' says Haberman, who is 66. "I'm an uptown girl. ... I love it. I felt better than anywhere in the city."
After 40 years, Haberman has been priced out of her rental apartment. So with Suggs' help, she is looking to buy.
The apartment has a roof deck and all the latest stainless steel kitchen appliances, but that really isn't why Haberman wants to stay in the area.
"The peace. A lot of peace and quiet. It's not so congested as downtown," she says. "I can ride my bike. But it's good. I will keep on looking a little bit. Maybe I can find something less expensive."
A Fight For Low Rent
Low rent is one of the things that keeps Early in her apartment despite its problems. Her husband opens a hall window and reveals a smelly mass of black water and refuse just a few feet from their front door.
"This is a condition that has been here for years," Early says. "But recently they decided not to clean it. I've been complaining about it for over a year."
Her apartment is rent stabilized, but she believes her landlord wants her out.
"Some of the apartments, they're getting $1,500. Some of them, more than that," Early says, adding that she pays $474.02.
Low-income housing is at the top of the list for community leaders who want to embrace the economic growth but protect the people.
McEwen of the Harlem Congregation for Community Improvement led a tour of one of the recently landscaped spaces at Dinkins Gardens, a residence named for David Dinkins, New York City's first black mayor. Dinkins Gardens has 85 units for working low-income people and older teenagers who are no longer in foster care.
"There was actually a major drug supermarket on this location that had multi-levels. And when we first built that building, it took many months, because even the homeless were not interested in moving into this community," McEwen says. "But now, of course, you know that we have million-dollar co-ops nearby. So the community has changed."
'Another Harlem Renaissance'
The tension between the new and old is the subject of an art show called "Evolution: The Changing Face of Harlem."
Its curator, Misha McGlown, says, "One question that we sought to answer was, 'What does Harlem mean to me?' And the answers were so varied. There are so many changes happening in Harlem right now, and a lot of the artists in our organization are part of the change."
Her contribution to the show, a painting of an anonymous black composer seated at a piano, conjures up perhaps the best reason to invest in Harlem.
"Living here, I feel a strong connection as an artist to the artists of the Harlem Renaissance," McGlown says.
"And I actually feel like we have another Harlem Renaissance right now, but maybe we don't know it yet," she says. "So my piece just speaks to that — and the fact that that spirit remains, and that on some level is why we all want to be here."