Back to Africa

Harlem condos offer African roots, and not everyone is happy about it

The Kalahari, a luxury "green" condo currently under construction on Harlem's 116th street, is trying to fit in with the locals instead of sticking out like a sore thumb. The developers' solution: a sub-Saharan motif. The exterior of the building is designed to evoke the tribal art of the Ndebele tribe of South Africa. Inside, the apartments come with recycled bamboo floors and a solar heating system.

The co-developers of the $120 million Kalahari, Walter Edwards and Carlton Brown, chose African art and imagery to give the locals a sense of their heritage. "We're trying to wake up people and give them some self-pride," says Edwards. "I've been in Harlem since 1947. I'm well known in the community and this project has been received with nothing but positivity."

But not everyone is sold on the back-to-the-motherland digs.

At the Martin Luther King housing projects across the street, many residents want to know: What good is an African-inspired building when most black people in the city can't afford to live in it?

Apartments in the two 12-story towers sell for up to $1 million and, according to Edwards, they're going quickly. Luxury condos and multi-million-dollar brownstones have become the norm in central Harlem, where the estimated average household income is $24,261. What makes the Kalahari unique are the colors of its facade (a checkerboard of charcoal, beige, and brown) and its co-developers (black). But knowing that the Kalahari isn't just another case of white developers cashing in does little to ease the concerns of residents who are threatened by gentrification.

"We get along to a certain extent," says Lucille Wright, describing the neighborhood, which is made up largely of African-Americans and West African immigrants. "We're the same color but not of the same mentality." Wright has been living across the street in the Martin Luther King Houses for more than 50 years and says that the construction will push out many longtime working-class residents.

Edwards says that buyers so far are an ethnically diverse group, and the developers have set aside 120 of the 249 units for affordable housing. He says they've already received 5,000 applicants for the affordable housing units.

But as for the building's motif? "It's just so ugly," says Joe Schumacher, who lives across the street from the site. His photos of the condo construction have appeared on the real estate blog curbed.com. "It's very superficial. 'We'll slap some design on it and call it African.' I'm not sure what their point is," he says. "[The] Kalahari is in Botswana and South Africa and Harlem residents are mostly West African immigrants or people whose ancestors were slaves from West Africa."

However, next door to the construction, African vendors at the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market who sell their native wares to busloads of white tourists say the condos will have a beneficial effect. "It's going to help my business," says Munira Dimson, a vendor from Ghana who sells jewelry, statues, and masks. "If they want to live in an African-inspired building they must want to decorate it with African merchandise."

 
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