The New Harlem

Who's Behind the Real Estate Gold Rush and Who's Fighting It?

For those whose parents exchanged their first smile in a Lenox Avenue church or who learned the art of political debate on blazing afternoons on 125th Street, strolling through Harlem in the '70s was like watching your mother publicly stripped. Blocks of once elegant buildings that had been abandoned overpowered the oases of life that were churches, beauty shops, and liquor stores. In the decade after the riots in the '60s, more than 100,000 Harlemites fled to the suburbs. Landlords walked away from buildings that weren't producing profits. The city took ownership of more than 65 percent of the buildings in the community. Miles of land stood vacant. Where Malcolm X's speeches once echoed through these streets, his words now seemed more like whispers buried in the concrete.

Flip the calendar forward 30 years. August, 2002: Several Harlem pols—State Senator David A. Paterson, Councilmember Bill Perkins, and Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright—stand proudly at the ribbon-cutting ceremony of 30 new town homes dubbed "affordable housing." The developments, having received nearly $900,000 in city subsidies and support from Abyssinian Baptist Church, sell in a flash for between $300,000 and $600,000—a far cry from affordability for most residents in Central Harlem, where the median income is $26,000 year.

What happened over those two decades is an urban planner's dream: booming housing and business markets that are mostly the result of the steadfast work of a tight-knit group of planners, professionals, and politicians who took action after too many bad years. And contrary to popular opinion, the change has not necessarily translated into a white invasion, though that population has increased. The long-term gentrification that has been going on in Harlem is predominantly an influx of the black middle class—professionals from all over the country who want to be part of this "Second Renaissance."

Nellie Bailey, of the Harlem Tenants Council, one of the activists fighting displacement of low-income residents
photo: Robert Hale
Nellie Bailey, of the Harlem Tenants Council, one of the activists fighting displacement of low-income residents

Yet many longtime residents are outraged by rents and real estate values that have gone higher than they, or their children, can manage. That outrage has manifested in a rally, a town hall meeting that attracted an angry crowd of 700, and the formation of a housing task force this past summer alone. Fueling the fury is the belief among some that the Harlem political machine—that same tight-knit group that turned Harlem around—did not protect this community from major developers and big business. There is the obvious example of 125th Street, which has come to resemble some alter ego of a middle-American mall and was created largely by subsidies from the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone (UMEZ), an economic incentive organization spearheaded in part by Congressman Charles Rangel. But more vexing to the collective consciousness of this community is the new and expensive housing construction by big-name developers—many of whom received either dirt-cheap land or subsidies from the city.

At a June town hall meeting at the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, audience members heckled forum speakers, including representatives from banks, UMEZ, the city's Housing Preservation Department (HPD), and the public housing authority. One elderly woman, whose voice was stronger than the fragile fist she threw in the air, screamed: "Where the hell are the politicians?" Though the forum was hosted by Paterson, there were, in fact, fewer elected officials in attendance than there are at most ribbon cuttings. The rage centered around one major demand: that existing powers halt funding and support for housing that the average Harlemite cannot afford. Anger was directed at elected officials, says Orlando Rivera, executive director of the Greater Harlem Real Estate Board Development Fund, because "the politicians have sat this one out."

Over the past five years, the cost of housing has become a problem on all fronts. Brownstone owners receive midnight visits from developers offering $800,000 for their properties. Those on the prowl range from Upper West Side doctors to wealthy entertainers. "You can't even start a conversation to buy a gutted brownstone for under $300,000," Rivera said.

Even for those who grew up middle-class in Harlem like Sharon Wilson, a social worker and mother of one, remaining in the community seems impossible. Earning a civil servant's salary, Wilson figures she will have to move out of the neighborhood when she needs more than one bedroom. Buildings in her area are charging $1500 a month for larger apartments. Generally, one-bedroom rentals that once would have been considered high at $500 now go for $1300 to $1500. And holding onto fairly priced apartments is becoming an increasing struggle. This year alone, there have been nearly 200 holdover-eviction cases in the Central Harlem zip codes. "We have seen a sharp increase in people losing their apartments due to landlord harassment for problems other than non-payment," says Nellie Bailey of the Harlem Tenants Council. "Money is in the air and everybody wants to get on the gentrification bandwagon."

Wilson says she would rather see Harlem developed as a middle-class community. "The question is, who is middle-class?" she asks. That's a question many activists are asking city officials and nonprofit development corporations, which, they say, are working for the wealthy. The city, which has directed huge resources toward thousands of units of low-income housing in Harlem over the years, has shifted toward supporting middle-class and market-rate home ownership opportunities.

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