A Whiter Shade of Harlem


On a recent Tuesday night in Harlem, Jim Haughton stood before a worried group of 20 or so and talked old medicine for an older malady. “Nowadays you don’t hear too much about class struggle,” Haughton, head of Harlem Fight Back, told the crowd. “We need to educate the white worker that the black worker is not his enemy.” The official topic for the evening was “The Growing Crisis of Black Joblessness in Harlem & NYC,” and for a solid 30 minutes Haughton, who once fought for workers’ rights with A. Philip Randolph, assured the crowd that the answer lay in Lenin’s tomb. “If you sell your labor for a wage, then you’re part of the working class,” Haughton said.

When thousands and thousands of black men in the world’s greatest city go jobless, you tend to pull out all stops—even Marxism. A report last February from the Community Service Society showed the employment rate for black men was, to use an understatement, lagging—only 51.8 percent could claim a paycheck. Now groups like Harlem Fight Back and the Harlem Tenants Council, the groups that organized the panel at Metropolitan United Methodist Church, are bent on doing something about it.

For starters, they’re looking in their own backyard. All over Harlem, developers are touting a gaggle of gleaming construction projects that they claim will turn uptown into midtown. Organizers of Tuesday’s forums wondered how there could be a construction boom in the black mecca, yet the neighborhood is still full of people without jobs.

“When we look at the economic development in Harlem, we can agree that not everyone has gotten a fair shake,” says Nellie Hester Bailey, director of the Harlem Tenants Council. “Everywhere you go in New York there is a construction project going up. Nowhere is that more evident than in Harlem.”

Already, there are tentative plans for a W Hotel to be built at 125th and Frederick Douglass. The site would be part of a larger complex that is slated to include the National Black Sports & Entertainment Hall of Fame. And in September, developers will break ground at Park Avenue and East 125th. The project, Harlem Park, will include a Marriott Courtyard Hotel along with retail and office space. A boom in development should mean a boom in construction jobs—but maybe not for the people who need them most.

“There are plenty of people of color working in the construction industry. The issue is about the good-paying, unionized segment of the industry,” says Mark Levitan, senior policy analyst for the Community Service Society. “So if you were walking down the street and looking at people working on houses, you wouldn’t see a lot of white guys. But this is not union work. Now here we are on the eve of more construction in Harlem that is going to be unions. People are asking the right question, which is, Who is going to do this work?”

The answer isn’t clear now, and may not get clearer even after the digging starts. Michael Caridi, developer for the Harlem Park project, says that achieving diversity in the construction ranks will not be a problem. “I don’t think it’s an issue. Whoever we are speaking to, [diversity] is one of my concerns right off the bat,” says Caridi. “I’ve met with the various unions and a number of large construction jobs will come out of the community. We’re also trying to bring in minority firms.”

Some of Caridi’s local allies aren’t as convinced that the workforce will reflect the neighborhood. Lloyd Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, said past experience hasn’t been great. “We are dramatically concerned that we find far too few people from our communities who are employed in these projects,” he says. “It’s unconscionable that we are in a city that is two-thirds minority and we can very seldom find ourselves in any of these jobs.”

Hard statistics about the laborers would be found with the labor organizations that do the actual site-by-site hiring, but the Building Trades Union didn’t return calls. Williams says the chamber has been pressing the union to do more, but he wants equal pressure from the developers, like Caridi. “In the main, they’ve given us all the right answers in terms of understanding the need,” he says. “But on the other side of the coin, they need to be at the table with us when we talk to the unions. It’s easy for them to say, ‘We support you,’ and then say it’s the unions. But they create the jobs for the unions.”

Employment concerns about construction aren’t confined to Harlem. Two weeks ago, the City Council’s Black, Asian, and Latino Caucus joined forces with Al Sharpton’s National Action Network to protest joblessness in communities of color. While the employment rate of Latino men is better than that of African American males, it still trails the figure for whites by 10 percent. “We wanted to bring attention to the problem,” says Councilmember Hiram Monserrate, co-chair of the caucus. Monserrate laid the blame squarely at the feet of local government. “I think that the city has not done enough to employ minority contractors, and as the chair of the caucus, I can tell you that is an issue for me and the other councilmembers.”

But in challenging New York’s commercial sector, politicians and activists may be wading into a pool that’s much deeper than race. New York, like many cities, offers tax breaks to developers who choose to invest here, under the theory that development will create jobs. Yet according to Bettina Damiani, project director for Good Jobs New York, the “tax break equals new gig” formula is an unproven theorem—for workers of any race.

“Corporations continue to get tax breaks, but there’s never been a promise to make sure New York City gets jobs,” says Damiani. While various nonprofits and government entities may secure promises of jobs, Damiani says the city does an “embarrassingly bad job” of reporting growth generated by tax subsidies. “We did a report earlier in the year, and what we found was the agreements between the city and corporations were so weak that we actually lose jobs,” Damiani says.

That’s bad news for any worker, but it’s particularly bad for those at the bottom of the social hierarchy—workers of color—many of whom are dogged by past encounters with the criminal justice system. Miguel Cardova, of the Lower East Side, worked as a cab dispatcher until 9-11 decimated his employer’s bottom line. The 30-year-old was laid off and has struggled to find employment since then, mainly because of a prior drug conviction. “It’s hard for a person like myself, as an ex-offender,” says Cardova, who has three children and is in a job training program in East Harlem. “People don’t want to deal with anyone with a record.”

Even without a rap sheet, Cardova says, it’s generally hard for black and Latino males to find work. “I used to work a mail-room job for a company that made college textbooks,” says Cardova. “There were lots of Hispanics and blacks in there. But when the company moved, you know who went with them.”

People in Harlem hope that as companies migrate north, the jobs will come with them. “We’re saying, if you were doing a development in Italy, you would hire Italians,” Williams argues. “Yes, you would seek the most qualified Italians, but you would hire Italians. We’re saying, if you want to do development in Harlem, you need to hire Harlemites.”