The story of Harlem is a story of constant change, of how a Dutch colony came to be a suburb for the white elites retreating from the waves of immigration in lower Manhattan and of how that then became the capital of black America and the earliest representation of the American ghetto. While the past is a concept easily lost in New York City, it is an idea that could never be found in Harlem. The only thing that exists in Harlem is the future, for Harlem is the one place where transformations occur endlessly. One might decide to stay in a dance club on 125th Street and fifteen years later, he/she will find him/herself inside a four-story Starbucks building. Nothing seems to stay the same in Harlem, and though some vigorously resist any change, it is simply Harlem’s destiny.
Just sixty years ago, Harlem was a whole different universe. According to Kevin Baker in his article “Jitterbug Days,” “The Harlem of World War II was a vibrant place, a place well-honed by both disappoint and hope, where the music was harder and better than ever” (Baker pars. 10), where “Thursday girls” strode out to smoke-filled beauty shops, where bands battled all night long in the Savoy Ballroom. No one slept at nights, preferring instead to go to Connie’s Inn where Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller brought beautiful jazz music to their ears. With Small’s Paradise presenting the best floor shows in the city, if not in the nation or the world, Harlem was always alive, even at nights, especially at nights. The past for Harlem was when its residents and tourists alike crowded to its famous movie theaters like the Lafayette, the Alhambra, and the Victoria. Those were the days when Harlem was proud to showcase The Regent, which was considered the first truly “deluxe” movie theater in Manhattan.
But that was sixty years ago. The Regent is now a church and the Savoy Ballroom ‘” “the home of the happy feet” ‘” with its 250-foot-long dance floor has been replaced by a housing project and a few stores. Much of Harem’s entertainment districts are gone and so are its “its enormous dance halls, where the big bands played and jitterbugging came into town” (Baker pars. 12). If Louis Armstrong were to visit Harlem today, he will not be able to find Connie’s Inn, where he energetically played his trumpet. Connie’s Inn no longer exists, having been replaced by something that looks like a garage. Small’s Paradise is gone as well, which was the place “where Malcolm met all the hustlers and pimps and burglars he would write about so lovingly in his autobiography” (Baker pars. 14); what used to be Small’s Paradise is now the International House of Pancakes. The entertainment heritage of Harlem, save for Apollo Theater on the 126th Street, have all disappeared. Even Apollo has changed, not only because it is no longer segregated but also because it has been completely renovated and refurbished. Truly, nothing in Harlem has ever stayed the same and judging from the transformation it has undergone in the last ten years, nothing ever will.
The biggest changes in Harlem are prices. Motoko Rich describes this trend in his The New York Times article “For Harlem Homebuyers, Prices Head North.” Rich’s key example is Nicholas Bunning, who in 2000, bought his four-story eight-bedroom brownstone in Harlem for $475,000. Four years later, that “house is gleaming, with hardwood floors ‘” some original, some productions ‘” two new terraces with wrought-iron gates, Italian limestone kitchen counters and networked electronics throughout” (Rich) and it costs a little over $2 million. Three blocks away from Bunning’s house, Corcoran Group’s real estate agent has walked a bolder path, asking $2.95 million for the house, the highest price ever asked for a home in Harlem. More and more brownstones are being renovated and refurbished but at an incredibly high cost. According to real estate data firm, Comps Inc., the highest selling price for a house in Harlem before September 2003 was $999,999. Now the million dollar line has been blurred in Harlem and many renovated houses are selling for prices near the two million dollar mark. In an area where the median income of the residents is not even 1% of such asking price (Harlem’s median income being around $26,000), salary requirements for housing can be as four times as high as the area’s median income. Inflation alone cannot account for the rising prices. The true cause seems to be what many consider a dirty word and that word is “gentrification.”
Gentrification means a process by which an urban area is rendered middle-class, in which a poor, working-class inner-city is improved and made into a more affluent commercial and residential district by the wealthier newcomers. It means more jobs, more opportunities, safer neighborhoods, better public schools, and an immensely increased standard of living. Gregory Carey, a comedian who bought a brownstone on Malcolm X Boulevard in May 2000 agrees with this positive definition of gentrification and states, “Services [in Harlem] have improved a million percent, because there were none” (quoted in Leland). Yet, as the rising housing prices have shown, this progress comes at a cost and for many of the residents, the cost is just too high. As the prices keep rising, many longtime residents fear an existence of a conspiracy that the wealthy newcomers have come to buy out their neighborhoods and in the process, drive them out of their own homes. Maria Marquez, a resident of the gentrifying Logan Square area in Chicago pessimistically says, “we’re gonna get kicked out. It’s a matter of time” (quoted in Hampson). Many longtime residents share Marquez’s fears and that is why they view gentrification disdainfully. After all, what good is improvement in one’s neighborhood if one can’t afford it?
To the supporters of gentrification, people like Marquez are just being paranoid. Rick Hampson’s USA Today article “Gentrification a boost for everyone” presents their rhetoric, especially by citing supporters of gentrification such as Lance Freeman and Jacob Vigdor. Lance Freeman conducted a national study of gentrification and he reported his results in an article in Urban Affairs Review, stating that gentrification has got a bad rep. He argues that there is no substantial correlation between gentrification and displacement of longtime residents from their homes since the percentage of displacement in a gentrifying neighborhood is not significantly different than that of a non-gentrifying neighborhood. In fact, people in gentrifying neighborhoods tend to move less and in the case of New York City, 20% less. Freeman thus states, “Although higher costs sometimes force poor residents to leave gentrifying neighborhoods, other changes ‘” more jobs, safer streets, better trash pickup ‘” encourage them to stay” (quoted in Hampson). Sometimes high prices can push some poor people out of the neighborhood but with less gang bangers on the streets and even less prostitutes on the corners thanks to new businesses and new renovations. The best interests of the poor residents would be to stay in Harlem, even if that means 61% of their income goes to rent and even if that means relying on government subsidies and doubling or tripling up in a room. From Malcolm x boulevard to West 122nd St., not only are the buildings cleaner and more colorful, a Harlem resident now has more dining choices than either Caribbean or soul food. Thus, despite the rising prices, Harlem residents are determined to stay.
Furthermore, many of the supporters of gentrification would consider the residents’ fears of displacement to be unfounded when considering the fact that majority of the homes in Harlem have been empty units to begin with. No one could be displaced from an empty building because no one has lived in it in the first place. Even the fear of a white invasion of a black neighborhood may be nothing more than a paranoid sentiment. In her article “Harlem’s Hedge Against Gentrification,” Lisa Foderaro explores the racial issue of gentrification. She finishes the article with statements made by black residents in Harlem who do not agree that there is a white takeover of Harlem. Foderaro actually shows that gentrification is more of a good thing for black residents than a negative thing. With gentrification now inviting chains to 125th Street (like Starbucks, Old Navy, H&M), many affluent blacks elsewhere have come to sell their homes and come to (some back to) Harlem. White invasion feels like a myth especially since whites only tend to buy historical neighborhoods sought out by affluent blacks (Foderaro, 5).
Still, many of the longtime residents and the tenant activists in Harlem do not buy this optimism. In the Workers World article, Imani Henry writes of the voices in the Harlem community that are strongly opposed to gentrification. The article’s strongest voice is that of Nellie Bailey of the Harlem Tenants Council in New York. Bailey compares Harlem’s gentrification to the displacement caused by the Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. She says that with increasing prices of housing and everything else in Harlem, people will be displaced, not just to cheaper homes but even to homelessness. While Freeman’s argument that there is hardly any correlation between displacement and gentrification may be true, displacement into homelessness is usually not recorded and that may explain an alternative reason as to why there is a weak correlation between gentrification and displacement. On this note Henry writes, “bailey stated that the 2004 Vera Institute for Justice’s study on family homelessness in New York showed that, among other factors, neighborhoods experiencing gentrification like Central Harlem had higher numbers of families becoming homeless” (Henry). Homelessness is certainly a worse fate than displacement and perhaps because of this reason, because it is such a disheartening fate, supporters of gentrification like Freeman have not addressed it.
Another issue Freeman and others do not address is affordability. This is something Rivka Gewirtz Little delves into in her article “The New Harlem.” Little has discovered a recent trend of new housing projects seeking middle-class tenants. Many apartment complexes, as a result, have required minimum annual income to be no less than $45,000 and some requiring $70,000. “I have seen some moderate-income housing that requires tenants to earn $90,000” says Adrienne Holder, a Legal Aid attorney residing in Harlem (quoted in Little). These requirements are ridiculous when seen in the light of the 1999 U.S. Census Bureau data, which reports that the median income in Harlem is around $27,000. Furthermore, only about 32% of the Harlem population earned more than $40,000 a year and no more than 5% of the Harlem population earned more than $75,000 a year. Though this is a 1999 statistic and is now becoming outdated, this information is still significant in showing who can afford what in Harlem. Supporters of the gentrification argue that this disparity is compensated for by federal or state aid or by doubling or tripling up in a room. Little’s research seem to act as a counterargument, stating that not only has there been nearly 200 holdover-eviction cases in the Central Harlem zip codes, as Nellie Bailey suggests, “We have seen a sharp increase in people losing their apartments due to landlord harassment for problems other than non-payment” (quoted in Little). Displacement cannot be dismissed as easily as Freeman has; gentrification seems to be too good of a liar for such a simple dismissal.
Harlem’s fear of gentrification is a deeper than just one of unaffordable housing. Two sources ‘” Josh Ing’s online political blog and David Gonzalez’s article “Citywide; In East Harlem School Closing, Talk of a Class Divide” ‘” gives a case example of gentrification’s effect on private schools once meant for working-class families. The focus is on St. Francis, a private Catholic school that has schooled working-class black and Latino students in Harlem. However, as of this year, the school will be closing and when it reopens, it will have become a private academy that will charge at least $25,000 a year. This change had been planned in Father Muzzin’s Sunday bulletin, which at some point stated, “Some parents have to wake up to the realization that they cannot afford Catholic Education. Period” (quoted in Gonzalez). In his blog, Josh Ing is not hesitant to voice his anger at this news and writes, “I may not be Catholic, but isn’t there something written about helping those who are less fortunate” (Ing). According to Father Muzzin’s bulletin, attracting more diverse groups of people to his school seem to be more of an important matter than helping those who are less fortunate.
Lourdes VelÃ¡squez, a Harlem resident and a parent, has a personal stake on the matter because her daughter attended St. Francis but will not be able to afford such education when the school reopens as a $25,000 academy. She is worried that her daughter may have to commute long distance for her education due to this recent change of events. VelÃ¡squez has reason to believe that this unfortunate change is due to gentrification. While she has witnessed the transformation of Harlem from a poor and working-class neighborhood beset by guns and drugs to a market-rate economy with its high-rise buildings and higher prices at the local groceries, she has discovered that the subway station on Second Avenue is suddenly becoming fixed. “Why do they want to finish the subway now?” she asks rhetorically. She figures the changes are happening because “They just want us out to make room for the new and improved people” (quoted in Gonzalez). Following her line of thinking, things in her community are becoming better for the “new and improved people” who are wealthier and better off. Thus, Harlem is generally improving but especially so for those newcomers who have the capital to have access to all the new improvements.
Beyond all this debating about the true nature of gentrification ‘” whether it’s positive or negative ‘” the bottom line is that gentrification must happen. It must or Harlem will be left as a poor, dirty, and crime-filled ghetto. Supporters and opponents of gentrification both realize this necessity and this is why both private entrepreneurs and public institutions such as local churches are investing millions of dollars to improve the city. All sources ‘” whether having an optimistic or a pessimistic view on gentrification ‘” stress the necessity of gentrification but none has made this point better than Alan Feuer’s article “Stress of Harlem’s Rebirth Shows in School’s Move to a New Building.” Many of the people interviewed in the article are residents of Harlem who realize that gentrification is necessary but differ in ideas about how it should occur. All residents are adamant about one thing and that is that none of the community-builders forget about the people dwelling in Harlem; no one Harlem wants to be sold out. “Some community groups have lost their focus,” states James Lewis, the chairman of the advocacy group for Harlem tenants called Harlem Operation Take Back. He continues, “If you want to branch out into business and moderate-income housing, that’s cool. But don’t forget about the people” (quoted in Feuer). Everyone wants an honest gentrification, one without a masked progress, one that will benefit not only the rich but the poor as well.
Perhaps such a demand is too much to ask especially when considering the fact that progress that has come to African-American communities has always come masked, but nonetheless, one can only hope that rising prices mean an increase in property values and not simply the displacement of the working-class poor for the benefit of the rich. Gentrification with its trends and its unique personalities is continuing to change Harlem and one can only hope that change is for the better. Freeman says that gentrification has gotten a bad reputation but according to Bailey, that reputation is because of the amount of people gentrification has made homeless. Harlem is constantly changing and only time will be able to tell which side was able to predict the truth.
“1999 Income Distribution Data of Area 10031.” United States Census Bureau. 22 April 2007. http://factfinder.census.gov/home/en/datanotes/expsf3.htm.
Baker, Kevin. “Jitterbug Days” The New York Times on the Web. Wired New York Forum. 22 January 2006. 16 April 2007. http://www.wirednewyork.com/forum/showthread.php?t=3117
Feuer, Alan. “Stress of Harlem’s Rebirth Shows in School’s Move to a New Building.” The New York Times on the Web. Wired New York Forum. 2 February 2004. 16 April 2007 http://www.wirednewyork.com/forum/showthread.php?t=3117
Foderaro, Lisa W. “Harlem’s Hedge Against Gentrification.” The New York Times on the Web. 16 August 1987. 24 April 2007. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B0DEED6143FF935A2575BC0A961948260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=1
Gonzalez, David. “Citywide; In East Harlem School Closing, Talk of a Class Divide.” The New York Times on the Web. 10 April 2007. 16 April 2007. http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F10612FA3E5B0C738DDDAD0894DF404482
Hampson, Rick. “Studies: Gentrification a Boost for Everyone.” USA Today. 19 April 2005. 16 April 2007 http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2005-04-19-gentrification_x.htm
Henry, Imani. “Community fights Gentrification in Harlem.” Workers World. 4 December 2005. 16 April 2007 http://www.workers.org/2005/us/harlem-1208/
Ing, Josh. “Gentrification in East Harlem is No Laughing Matter.” Joshing Politics. April 10, 2007. http://joshingpolitics.blogspot.com/2007/04/gentrification-in-east-harlem-is-no.html
Leland, John. “A New Harlem Gentry in Search of Its Latte.” The New York Times. August 7, 2003. Wired New York Forum. http://www.wirednewyork.com/forum/showthread.php?t=3117
Little, Rivka Gewirtz. “The New Harlem: Who’s Behind the Real Estate Gold Rush and Who’s Fighting It?” The Village Voice. 18 ‘” 24 September 2002. 16 April 2007 http://www.villagevoice.com/news/0238,little,38429,1.html
Rich, Motoko. “For Harlem Homebuyers, Price Head North.” The New York Times on the Web. Wired New York Forum. 22 January 2006. 16 April 7007. http://www.wirednewyork.com/forum/showthread.php?t=3117