I HAVE lived in Harlem for half my life — 30 years. I have seen it in all its complexities: a cultural nexus of black America, the landing place for Senegalese immigrants and Southern transplants, a home for people fleeing oppression and seeking opportunity. Harlem is the birthplace of so much poetry and music and beauty, but in the eyes of many who have never set foot here, it has long been a swamp of pain and suffering.
It is also changing, rapidly. A few years ago I was on Eighth Avenue, also known as Frederick Douglass Boulevard, picketing a fund-raiser for a politician who was pushing for denser mixed-use zoning along 125th Street, the “Main Street” of my sprawling neighborhood. Harlem has seen an influx of tourists, developers and stroller-pushing young families, described in the media as “urban pioneers,” attracted by city tax abatements. New high-end housing and hip restaurants have also played their part. So have various public improvements, like new landscaping and yoga studios. In general all this activity has helped spruce the place up. Not surprisingly, on that day a few passers-by shot us ugly looks, as if to say, “Why can’t you accept a good thing?”
In Harlem, The Frederick Douglass Memorial statue, by Gabriel Koren at 110th Street and Central Park North. The lighter building in the background is the new luxury building, One Morningside Park. While a portion of the apartments are supposed to be allocated as “affordable housing,” two bedroom condominiums there are listed starting at 2.5 million dollars.
But even then, a few boys passing by on their bikes understood what was at stake. As we chanted, “Save Harlem now!” one of them inquired, “Why are y’all yelling that?” We explained that the city was encouraging housing on the historic, retail-centered 125th Street, as well as taller buildings. Housing’s good, in theory, but because the median income in Harlem is less than $37,000 a year, many of these new apartments would be too expensive for those of us who already live here.
Hearing this, making a quick calculation, one boy in glasses shot back at his companions, “You see, I told you they didn’t plant those trees for us.”
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It was painful to realize how even a kid could see in every new building, every historic renovation, every boutique clothing shop — indeed in every tree and every flower in every park improvement — not a life-enhancing benefit, but a harbinger of his own displacement.
In fact, it’s already happening. Rents are rising; historic buildings are coming down. The Renaissance, where Duke Ellington performed, and the Childs Memorial Temple Church of God in Christ, where Malcolm X’s funeral was held, have all been demolished. Night life fixtures like Smalls’ Paradise and Lenox Lounge are gone.
A few ask, isn’t this a good thing — or, at least, the price of a good thing? “You and all the others had better get over your grieving, we need Whole Foods,” said my friend and fellow Harlem resident James Fenton, the noted English writer.
But this is the problem with gentrification — what James, with all due respect, doesn’t get, but what that boy on Eighth Avenue did. For so many privileged New Yorkers, like James, Whole Foods is just the corner store. But among the black and working-class residents of Harlem, who have withstood red-lining and neglect, it might as well be Fortnum and Mason. To us, our Harlem is being remade, upgraded and transformed, just for them, for wealthier white people.
There is something about black neighborhoods, or at least poor black neighborhoods, that seem to make them irresistible to gentrification. Just look at U Street in Washington or Tremé in New Orleans. “Everywhere I travel in the U.S. and even in Brixton, in London, a place as culturally vibrant as Harlem, wherever people of color live, we and the landmarks that embody our presence, unprotected, piece by piece, are being replaced,” said Valerie Jo Bradley, who helped found the preservation advocacy group Save Harlem Now!
This isn’t a new story. As the historian Kevin McGruder explains in “Race and Real Estate: Conflict and Cooperation in Harlem, 1890–1920,” an assessment of how Harlem came to be America’s “black Mecca,” African-Americans began moving north in large numbers into the area in the early 20th century after Macy’s, Penn Station and the theater district replaced what had been black neighborhoods farther south.
The extension of the subway to 145th Street gave black leaders an opportunity, within the nation’s leading metropolis, to set up an autonomous black city. Black churches strategically relocated here, and prime residential properties were bought for settlement by black residents. In the early 1920s followers of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, promoting political and economic independence, built a complex of shops, a theater and dance hall they called the Renaissance Theater and Casino. It quickly became a centerpiece of the neighborhood. (It was demolished in 2015.) With slavery scarcely a generation behind, the audaciousness of this plan was staggering.
By 1930 hundreds of thousands of blacks (and not a few whites) lived in Harlem. And yet, even then, residents understood that the black hold on Harlem was tenuous. That same year the author James Weldon Johnson asked in “Black Manhattan,” his classic account of Harlem’s early years, “The question inevitably arises: Will the Negroes of Harlem be able to hold it?”
After all, Harlem is a broad, flat section of northern Manhattan, poised just above Central Park with easy access to high-end jobs farther south and La Guardia Airport to the east. It is a mix of stately Victorian rowhouses and miles of apartment houses, the former ripe for adaptation, the latter for destruction and replacement by gleaming glass-cube condos. As Horace Carter, the founder of the Emanuel Pieterson Historical Society, insisted to me, “I tell you, they have a plan. Harlem is too well placed. The white man is ready to take it back.” It’s possible to remember a short time ago when this warning seemed pathetically alarmist.
Today the pace of change is bracing, as is the insolence of the newcomers. A local real-estate speculator who specializes in flipping buildings in the shrinking Little Senegal section of Harlem told me that new tenants complained, “We’re not paying that much money to have black people living in our building!”
That’s what happens in the rentals, he said. But, he added, “What really upsets them is having blacks freeloading in noneviction co-op conversions. Blacks are paying $800 a month for the same four-bedroom, two-bath unit the newcomers bought for $2 million. Whites pay $2,000 just for maintenance! It’s not the blacks, but their poverty that’s resented. They ask me, ‘How come they didn’t buy this building when it cost nothing?’ ”
These are just some of the myths newcomers like to tell themselves, that gentrification isn’t about race, but about wealth and social class. But especially in Harlem, is this not a distinction without a difference? It’s not just that blacks happen to occupy the lower ranks of America’s wealth tables. It’s that the economy and our political system, even as they promise equality, are stacked against us: From America’s beginning, slave labor funded the affluence of those who counted as citizens. Political reform has not yet brought economic parity. The median white household is worth around $141,000 today, but a typical black household’s wealth is only $11,000.
Interestingly, not all gentrifiers are comfortable with the change they’re bringing. “I couldn’t afford it, and I’m relieved,” Rene Gatling, who moved to Harlem in 2009 but left in 2014 for Connecticut, told me. But it wasn’t just price that persuaded her to leave. “Suddenly I thought, Why is there no anger, no push back? Our being here is pushing people out.”
Blacks who relocated here when Harlem was still affordable have been disillusioned, too. When I told Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, who wrote the elegiac book “Harlem Is Nowhere,” about the group Save Harlem Now! just the name made her respond, “It’s too late.” She said that she and her young son were moving out. “It costs too much.”
Still Harlem endures as a community with high hopes, and in 2013, we felt sure we had found a champion. Bill de Blasio ran as the mayor for everyone, which we figured had to include Harlem. Black voters were crucial to his victory, and we thought we were covered and cared for. He even has a likable son, as liable to get stopped by the police as ours might.
We were wrong. The man we saw as “our mayor” may talk about housing affordability, but his vision is far from the rent control and public housing that President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia once supported, and that made New York affordable for generations. Instead, he has pushed for private development and identified unprotected, landmark-quality buildings as targets. He and the City Council have effectively swept aside contextual zoning limits, which curb development that might change the very essence of a neighborhood, in Harlem and Inwood, farther north. At best, his plan seems to be to develop at all speed and costs, optimistic that the tax revenues and good graces of the real estate barons allow for a few affordable apartments to be stuffed in later.
And so even under “our mayor,” the dislocation of minorities continues apace. Gentrification in Harlem might well be likened to the progress of the British Raj, where the most that “civilizing” interlopers could muster was a patronizing interest in token elements of local culture. Thus: Yes to the hip Afro-fusion restaurant, but complaints to 311 over Sundae Sermon dances, barbecues and ball games in parks or church choir rehearsals.
These are people who, in saying “I don’t see color,” treat the neighborhood like a blank slate. They have no idea how insulting they are being, denying us our heritage and our stake in Harlem’s future. And, far from government intervention to keep us in our homes, houses of worship and schools, to protect buildings emblematic of black history, we see policies like destructive zoning, with false “trickle down” affordability, changes that incentivize yet more gentrification, sure to transfigure our Harlem forever.
But when we friends gather at a restaurant like Cheri for a convivial romp hosted by the owner, Alain, or on a Friday, at the Rooster, presided over by the D.J. Stormin Norman, we are every color, every race, every age, identity and class. In the moment, laughing, drinking and dancing together, it seems marvelous. This Harlem, this is what New York is supposed to look like, to be like. Only, most of us know that our fun times together are doomed.
Michael Henry Adams conducts tours in Harlem and is the author of “Harlem: Lost and Found, an Architectural and Social History, 1765-1915” and the forthcoming “Homo Harlem: Lesbian and Gay Life in the African- American Cultural Capital, 1915-1995.”
Your Images of Harlem: Despite gentrification, Harlem endures as a community with high hopes. What does the neighborhood mean to you? Post on Instagram using #MyHarlemNYT
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A version of this op-ed appears in print on May 29, 2016, on page SR1 of the New York edition with the headline: The End of Black Harlem.