Growing Pains Come To Harlem New York City's famed black neighborhood wrestles with what the current round of gentrification means for its identity. Some residents are concerned that what once made Harlem special will soon be lost through new economic growth.
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Growing Pains Come To Harlem

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Growing Pains Come To Harlem

Growing Pains Come To Harlem

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As you exit the subway at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue in the heart of Harlem, a block to the north is Sylvia's, serving soul food for 40 years. A block to the south is the Lenox Lounge, a jazz hotspot since the 1930s. And directly across the street is Starbucks and Staples. There's an Old Navy near the legendary Apollo Theater where James Brown filled the house. The changes in this iconic African-American community have been both positive and painful and persistent.

Unidentified Woman #1: That house is drop-dead gorgeous. They paid $1.5 million for the privilege of putting another $700,000 into it.

STEWART: For a successful real estate agent, Harlem gentrification is about business.

Unidentified Woman #2. It's not cultural. It's an economic transformation of a neighborhood from one economic class to another, and clearly that's been happening in Harlem.

STEWART: When I say the word gentrification, what comes to mind for you?

Ms. DOLORES EARLY: Homelessness comes to me, so a very sad situation comes to mind.

STEWART: That's a 72-year-old long-time resident. A newer arrival, an artist, sees a positive side of the renewed interest in uptown Manhattan.

Ms. MISHA MCGOWEN: I love the fact that it has been restored to its former beauty. I don't mind most of the development.

STEWART: The president of an organization that helps create affordable housing is practical in her assessment of the changes.

Ms. LUCILLE MCEWEN: (President, Harlem Congregation for Community Improvement): Sometimes, we say we're victims of our own success in rebuilding the community. But it's a much better option to be concerned with gentrification than to be concerned with high crime and blight.

STEWART: Drugs, crime, poverty - a powerful trio that decimated Harlem in the '70s. Once stately brownstones became abandoned, bombed out, graffiti-ridden dens of illegal activity. Locals who couldn't afford to or didn't want to leave lived in an area with few services and an uneasy relationship with police. In the 1980s, New York City took ownership of many of the homes in ruin and offered good deals to those willing to fix them up. The residential real estate market took off in the '90s.

Ms. WILLIE SUGGS (Realtor): This is the master bedroom. There was a master bedroom and a mistress bedroom.

STEWART: While showing us a four-floor Victorian brownstone with the original ceiling molding, pocket doors and parquet floors, it was clear realtor Willie Suggs loves Harlem. She also loves explaining how much money is being spent on newly restored townhouses full of high-end amenities. Some admire her. Others think she is part of the problem. Suggs sees nothing wrong with the way Harlem is evolving economically.

Ms. SUGGS: Once you've got the people in the neighborhood, then the businesses, thank you God, they would come. 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 to pay $2.50 for a cup of coffee.

STEWART: So, in your mind, seeing a Starbucks in the corner of 125th Street, that's a sign of progress.

Ms. SUGGS: Oh, of course. I don't think I should have to get on the subway and go to Macy's to buy my niece a present. Now I just have to take my tushy down to 125th Street. We have choices of services. You understand how people who lived here before the real estate became so valuable would feel disgruntled that now there are services here. Now there are cops, and now there are nice places to eat. When they were here slugging it through, the city wasn't caring about them and people couldn't make money off of their blocks. I understand but they also understand.

When I moved up here in '85, this was January. And I was out there sweeping my sidewalk, one of my neighbors said, why are you sweeping? And this is an older black person who'd been here for 30-some years. And I said, well, I'm sweeping because it's dirty. He said, well, it's just going to get dirty again.

What is that about? I understand that people believed that no matter what they did it was not going to change. So they stopped complaining. I was told this by several of them. And it took new people coming in, not - I'm not talking white people here, new people who said, no, I'm not putting up with this crap.

STEWART: That was Harlem, B.C. - before Clinton. In 2001, when the former president chose to make his office on 125th Street, Harlem's commercial appeal was sealed, according to Suggs. High-end destination restaurants followed. What will happen to the most recent development as the result of the Wall Street meltdown remains to be seen. However, just three weeks ago, the city council gave the go-ahead for commercial re-zoning in East Harlem. Columbia University is beginning to develop a 17-acre swath of West Harlem. Local activists worry that the uniqueness and history of Harlem will be paved over.

Nellie Hester Bailey, executive director of the Harlem Tenants Council, wants respect for Harlem's history and its residents.

Ms. NELLIE HESTER BAILEY (Executive Director, Harlem Tenants Council): 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 descent in one location in the city of New York. And what came out of that was not pity but a rebirth. And 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.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: During the 1920s, a Harlem Renaissance was a time of great productivity, creativity and joy in African-American history. Imagine hearing Ella Fitzgerald sing at the Apollo Theater or attending a poetry reading of Langston Hughes right in your neighborhood or having a picnic after church in one of Harlem's lush parks. It was this life that current Harlem resident Victoria Haberman dreamed of as a child in Germany.

Ms. VICTORIA HABERMAN: 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. See, I'm an uptown girl. And everybody was, oh, you went to Harlem you're going to - I said, I love it. Everybody - I felt better than anywhere in the city.

STEWART: Now 66, she has been priced out of her rental apartment, so she is looking to buy after 40 years.

Ms. HABERMAN: Any way that you would go down?

Ms. SUGGS: I have to make - well, yeah, there's always a way it can go down. There is always a way. I already saved you $9,000. You don't have to pay the closing cost, so...

STEWART: The apartment has a roof deck and all the latest stainless-steel kitchen appliances, but that isn't really why Victoria wants to stay here. What have you enjoyed about living in Harlem?

Ms. HABERMAN: The peace. A lot of peace and quiet. It's not so congested as downtown. I can ride my bike. But it's good. I will keep on looking a little bit. Maybe I can find something less expensive.

STEWART: Low rent is one of the things that keeps 72-year-old Dolores Early fighting for her home, even though there are problems. When we visited, her husband opened a hall window and revealed a smelly mass of black water and refuse, feet from their front door.

Ms. EARLY: This is a condition that has been here for years, but recently they decided not to clean it. I've been complaining about it for over a year.

STEWART: Mrs. Early, whose apartment is rent-stabilized, believes her landlord wants her out.

Ms. EARLY: Some of the apartments here, they are getting $1,500, some of them more than that. This lady right here, she was paying $1015 for four rooms. I pay $474.02.

STEWART: Low-income housing is a top priority for community leaders who want to embrace the economic growth but protect the people.

Ms. MCEWEN: Hi, I'm Lucille McEwen. I'm president of Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement. I'm a native Harlemite who has been working in my community for many years. I was going to take you around to Dinkins Gardens, which is one of our buildings that we recently completed.

STEWART: Named for New York City's first African-American mayor, David Dinkins, the residence has 85 units for employed low-income people and late teens who have aged out of foster care. Ms. McEwen is proud of some of the building's environmentally-friendly features on its roof, as well as the view.

Ms. MCEWEN: You might want to walk over here and take your last look at Yankee Stadium.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: She continued to describe the neighborhood.

Ms. MCEWEN: 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 to get it rented because the homeless were even not interested in moving into this community. But now, of course, you know that we have, you know, million-dollar co-ops nearby. So the community has changed.

STEWART: The tension between the new and old is real. For example, over the summer a local tradition of African drumming in a park led to noise complaints to police from new condominium owners. These kinds of challenges are the subject of an art show uptown, "Evolution: The Changing Face of Harlem." Misha McGowan is the curator.

Ms. MCGOWAN: One of the questions that we sought to answer was, what does Harlem mean to me? And the answers were so varied and there's so many changes happening in Harlem right now, and a lot of the artists who are in our organization are also a part of the change.

STEWART: Her contribution is a painting of an anonymous tuxedo-clad African-American composer seated at a piano. It brings up perhaps the best reason one could decide to invest in Harlem.

Ms. MCGOWAN: Living here, I feel a strong connection as an artist with the artists of the Harlem Renaissance. And I actually feel like we have another Harlem Renaissance right now, but maybe we don't know it yet. 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.

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