The Harlem Shuffle


If you don’t know better, it’s easy to swallow the hype about boom time in Harlem. There’s all that stupendous real estate, for one thing (“Gracious Living! Strivers’ Row! Hamilton Terrace! Convent Avenue! 12-room landmark mansion! 65-foot-long parlour floor!”). There’s the prospect of national retailers taking the plunge. There’s an authentic new supermarket with miles of aisles, the prospect of a cineplex, and of Uptown falling into the Gap.

But scratch a federally funded empowerment zone and you find the old bedrock economics: housing projects with the greatest per-block population density in Manhattan; prairies where apartment houses once stood; food banks and a median family income of about $18,000. Poverty stands out a little more starkly at Christmas, of course, and there’s very little that defines the lot of the low-income better than a Christmas queue for discount goods. All along 125th Street last week, people were lined up to buy cheap sneakers, VCRs, layaway furniture, and kiddie toys that are mostly cellophane and box. It didn’t look like any Harlem Renaissance.

It wasn’t with a naysayer’s urge that a reporter found himself in the neighborhood. Rather, it was in an optimistic frame of mind. To swipe the legend from one of graffiti painter Brett Cook-Dizney’s spray-painted murals: “I LOVE THIS PLACE.” As foreign tourists but relatively few New Yorkers know, there’s not much around to compare with the heady feeling of walking Harlem’s broad avenues, with their high stoops and handsome brownstones and proliferated sectarian churches and abundance of sky. There is the palpable sense of neighborhoods not occupied by overpaid transients but by people whose taproots go deep. Not every person in Harlem would have remained there over the years given the choice. But it doesn’t always seem as if calculations for the latest Harlem resurgence factor in the continuing presence of people who’ve been around a while.

There are a lot of old people, in other words, living in rundown housing on fixed incomes. One of them, godmother to a good friend, can actually recall taking meals with Langston Hughes. You probably couldn’t find 10 people on 125th Street today who remember Doug E. Fresh—the goofy ’80s rapper who now hosts the Wednesday Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater—much less the man once described as the “best-known black poet in America” and whose Simple stories were in certain ways the definitive narratives of 1950s urban black life. But she can.

And it was she who reminded a visitor how it was Hughes’s character, Jesse B. Semple—a kind of skirt-chasing boulevardier—who helped create a certain weirdly enduring image of Harlem. It’s the Harlem of slick pimps and jitterbugs and conked hair, of ripe-figured women in the bias-cut dresses those Gap-ad swing dancers are attempting to ape. It’s Harlem pre-Shaft, pre-Black Power, pre-Nicky Barnes’s gang cutting smack deals at the old Monarch Bar. It’s a romanticized place—one that came to mind when the city unveiled plans last week to redevelop Frederick Douglass Boulevard from 110th to 135th streets.

On December 10, Manhattan borough president C. Virginia Fields revealed a plan to allot $2.5 million from the city’s capital budget to support development revitalizing this important and long-ruined corridor. She also disclosed that an additional $1.5 million would go to restore a traffic rotary at the northwest tip of Central Park. Fields told 150 community leaders convened at the State Office Building on 125th Street that “Frederick Douglass Boulevard is the central north-south corridor in the community. It is the backbone of Harlem.”

Harlem’s Cinderella story is easy to get carried away with. “Emerging from the ashes,” as a Times reporter recently put it, Frederick Douglass Boulevard is the “warted stepsister, abandoned in the ruins.” It bears remembering that this particular development coach has turned into a pumpkin before. Equally, it’s worth noting that, amid those warted burned-out buildings, one of Jane Jacobs’s most profound observations has been proved true. That is, old buildings need new uses.

Far from remaining the Harlem of Langston Hughes, Frederick Douglass Boulevard from 110th to 125th streets has metamorphosed over the past decade into the backbone of an entirely different neighborhood. To switch metaphors, it’s become landfall for a population of immigrants, mainly African, who got their economic start here opening beauty salons, nail parlors, restaurants, and the telephone calling centers where the accents of Senegal, Somalia, Mali, Ghana, and the Congo can be heard every day.

The number of boarded-up buildings on the boulevard still nearly outstrips the inhabited ones. But interlarding the empty lots—a whole east side stretch from 112th to 114th streets has been razed—you’ll find blocks with groceries selling fufu flour, yam flakes, and concentrated palm oil. You’ll find restaurants called Le Worodougou and La Marmité serving the French-inflected cuisine of the Ivory Coast. You’ll find delis where you can buy loosies and videotapes of Les Stars D’Abidjan.

Although the scope of the Fields plan extends north to 135th Street, a traditional beachhead of black Harlem, that part of the plan doesn’t quite lend itself to renewal since most of the area is occupied by housing projects that, while run-down, aren’t exactly depopulated. It’s the southern corridor that Fields may have in mind when she states that the plan “will send a powerful message that the second Harlem renaissance has deep and permanent roots in the community.” It’s not hard to imagine this part of Frederick Douglass Boulevard, with its tantalizing adjacency to the park, reconfigured as a northern extension of Central Park West.

The Fields plan grew out of a study commissioned from the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; it frankly favors corporate partnership and what appears to be the creation of housing capable of supporting downtown-scale rents. What’s not clear is whether the plan is another instance of city-backed carpetbagging, or what, if anything, it provides for Harlem’s old-timers or for those immigrants who have done so much to keep the place alive. “I don’t know anything about it,” cabbie Jean Christophe Diawara said last week as he stopped to return videotapes at a Senegalese-owned grocery store. “But I wouldn’t expect to,” he added with a shrug. “On the street, we’re the last to hear.”