Keeping Harlem Affordable For Blacks As wealthy newcomers continue to call Harlem home, some are worried that the soaring housing market is pushing out long-time residents and changing the community's culture. For more, NPR's Tony Cox talks with Nellie Hester Bailey, executive director of the Harlem Tenants Council.
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Keeping Harlem Affordable For Blacks

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Keeping Harlem Affordable For Blacks

Keeping Harlem Affordable For Blacks

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TONY COX, host:

Now for a different perspective, we've got Nelly Hester Bailey. She is the executive director of the Harlem Tenants Council, a nonprofit social justice organization. Nellie, welcome to you.

Ms. NELLIE HESTER BAILEY (Executive Director, Harlem Tenants Council(: Thank you.

COX: I don't know how much of the comments from Willie you were able to hear, but just what is your initial reaction to her description of what is taking place in Harlem?

Ms. BAILEY: Well, first of all, I think that gentrification brings about the inevitable cultural clashes, and certainly we have seen that play out in Harlem in rather heated and adversarial situations. One in particular that has made headline news not only throughout this country but throughout the world is that of the drummers who have gathered traditionally for over four or five decades in the Marcus Garvey Park, which is located at 124th just off Fifth Avenue. And Fifth Avenue and, of course, 125th constitutes part of the commercial thoroughfare of 125th Street, which is now the subject of a massive rezoning program that will alter not only Harlem's physical landscape, but also dramatically impact its socioeconomic makeup as well as its ethnic make-up.

And getting back to the drummers very quickly, they have gathered in the park traditionally each Sunday and they drum, and other musicians join in, and they do it from about one until about sunset. Well, there is a new luxury condo directly across from the park, and some of the new owners complained, quote, of the noise, unquote, caused by these drummers. So they called the police, there were a number of confrontations with the drummers. The elected officials stepped in. The compromise was the drummers would move away from the - away, as far away as possible.

COX: Let me stop you, let me stop you there just to say I understand what you're describing, but I want to make sure we get in some of the other points.

Ms. BAILEY: Yes.

COX: Because while that is an example of a cultural clash that you have clearly outlined, at the same time, you can see, can you not, that there has been development along 125th Street, and that a number of the properties in Harlem have been upgraded. Is that a good thing or not a good thing?

Ms. BAILEY: Of course, it's a good thing. Let me be very clear. I am not one of those, you know, community activists who see development as all bad. That's not our position at all. Of course people want amenities in their neighborhoods, as in any other neighborhoods. The bottom line issue for the people who have stayed there during the worst of times is that they are being priced out, pushed out and harassed out by landlords who want to see a maximum result of their investment in the real estate industry.

We have seen this in the predatory lending in which joint venture groups have purchased major developments in Harlem, 1800 units such as Delano Village - recently the subject of an article by the New York Times - in which the landlords are looking - the developers are looking for a return of 30 to 40 percent on their investment. Certainly no less than 20 percent which means that they have to drive out a number of tenants. Delano Village is important because it represents a stable, middle-class, moderate income blacks in Harlem, and they too are under assault, as are poor and working-class tenants in Harlem.

COX: Well let me ask this then. Is it possible - is it possible for a neighborhood to gentrify and still maintain its diversity?

Ms. BAILEY: Well, I do think that it's possible. We haven't seen it, which brings us unfortunately to an issue and a topic that is unavoidable. That is the complicity of the elected officials in the gentrification process that overwhelmingly favors corporate interests. That is what we are seeing in Harlem with respect to the commercial market, which has - market - which has had a tremendous impact on the residential market.

And secondly, we can not look at Harlem out of the context of the economic woes and the economic crisis of New York City itself. The city is facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. So to talk and laud all of these - the streets literally paved with gold, as it might be for some real estate agent, is not the reality of Harlem - the economic woes of Harlem, nor of New York City, nor of New York State.

COX: Is it a - is it possible to view this in terms of Harlem having once been white? Became black and Hispanic, and now returning to some extent to white again, although, according to Willie Suggs, who we spoke with just before you, it's her opinion that it will never be more than 30 percent white just because it's Harlem, and that so many people there are tenants and that they are protected with rents and with other provisions by the city.

Ms. BAILEY: That may be the case, but - I don't have foresight in the future, that could very well be the case. But what we do know now is that there has been a precipitous decline in Harlem's black population. And that decline has taken place over the past two decades, and the main issue has been one of affordability as it is in other inner-city areas - inner-cities across the country. Harlem just mirrors that.

Let me return to one point that you made in terms of certain historical facts. About Harlem never having been a black community, or even built by blacks. Well I beg to differ with that. And Ms. Suggs really does not have a grasp on her history. We know from the 1600s that the Dutch arrived in Harlem with slaves who helped to build Harlem. That is from the 1600s because we know about the Harlem Reform Church of the 1600s. And just recently, because of the 125th Street rezoning - a major public policy issue that will change the physical landscape of Harlem - we have in one of the public-mandated environmental impact statement the acknowledgment of an African burial ground which is at 125th Street east of Second Avenue from the 1600s.

So blacks have always had a presence in Harlem. They built Harlem, and so their investment - the historical investment - of blacks in Harlem certainly did not begin with the great migration or the Harlem Renaissance. Blacks' presence in Harlem, their - the building of Harlem certainly precedes that and into the 1600s.

COX: Here's my final question. I have less than a minute for your answer. When a neighborhood gentrifies and it becomes more mixed racially and class-wise, is this more about race or about class?

Ms. BAILEY: It is both about race and class. I think - and very interestingly, the - one can and should view the comments of Ms. Suggs with respect to the class divides that exist within the African-American community itself. And she represents the upper echelon of that class. And it - her point of view, or her perspective, in terms of who Harlem is for, who deserves to live there, who should live there, is vastly different from that of other - vastly different from that of other low-income, poor and moderate-income families and residents in Harlem, who in fact are barely making it. Her reality reflects that of the upper echelon of Harlem's black elite, not that of Harlem's working class. And that reality is quite different.

COX: We're going to have to leave our conversation there. I do appreciate your coming on. Nellie, thank you very much. Nellie Hester Bailey is the executive director of the Harlem Tenants' Council, a non-profit social organization. She joined us from our New York studios.

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