I’m A Black Gentrifier In Harlem

July 16, 2017

harlem the gentrificer is me

Originally posted on August 15th, 2015:

The other day, I was walking back to my Harlem apartment when I stumbled upon a very shocking sign in front of a black church.

It read:

NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority), Funerals, Beauty Parlors Will Close in Harlem. Make room for sodomite gentrifiers. Have a nice day niggers!

This is a regular occurrence; this church’s messages are always provocative. A few months back, another homemade sign forewarned New Yorkers of “Wall Street bankers, gentrifiers, and sodomites ruining their community”. To this group of Harlemites, gentrification is synonymous with depravity.

The sign did not name me, but it was talking to me nonetheless: an outsider who recently made Harlem my home.

Before I came to Harlem, it was fairly easy for me to think of gentrification as a strictly “black versus white” issue. The dominant narrative targets white people barging into predominantly black neighborhoods. In layman’s terms, it’s imperialism in the 21st century.

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For my part, I moved to Harlem for its cheap rent and rich history. I had also devoured the histories of Josephine Baker and Langston Hughes, who flocked to the black cultural center of the world to express themselves more freely. Perhaps I romanticized their migration a bit too much.

I assumed that because of my skin color and kinky hair, I would fuse right into the community and be on one accord with its people but I could not have been more wrong. From the moment I walked up 125th and Lenox, I felt out of place. Older men of the neighborhood routinely note that they can tell that I’m not from Harlem just by the way I dress and walk. There are other delineations: those who sit out on the sidewalk or sell things converse with each other all day long; the frequent patrons at the local Laundromat laugh with each other like family; activist groups bemoan the rising rent and the encroachment of outsiders.

All the other people with whom I’ve spent time are my colleagues from Princeton, who now work corporate jobs or plan on going to NYU or Columbia law. I tried to differentiate myself from them because I’m a writer, and there’s less prestige associated with my line of work. However, in doing so, I’m being willfully obtuse. I am an Ivy League alumna and, like my friends, this signals both vast earning potential and social capital. According to the Washington Post, it is college graduates who are pushing lower-income African Americans out of cities, such as Chicago and San Francisco.

We are here. We may have a martini at Cove Lounge or sit in the pews at one of the famous black churches, but we are not of the community. We are transplants. And if we’re not the community, what are we?

I’m painfully realizing that perhaps we – my friends and I – are parasites, and that a black person can be damaging to a community without realizing the effect. Our skin color invisibilizes this conflict, since in the eyes of many I’m just part of “the black community”.

In New Jersey, I thought that gentrification did not apply to me. Because I’m a black woman, I was the victim. In Harlem, this message is turned upside down. Rather than the victim, I am the perpetrator (source).

Photo credit: Two African American residents in Harlem complicated the racial narrative on gentrification. Video by Laurence Mathieu-Léger

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