Harlem has a rich and storied history. It was here that the Harlem Renaissance gave new life to African American music, poetry, literature, dance, art, fashion, theatre, and politics.
It was in Harlem that Malcolm X gave rousing speeches on Civil Rights. It was Harlem’s Apollo Theatre that launched the careers of legendary artists the likes of Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. A visit to Harlem will lead you to the Brownstone home of Langston Hughes, where he infused Jazz with poetry and wrote his seminal works; to Minton’s Playhouse, the famous jazz club that hosted Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk; to the New Amsterdam News Building, where the New Amsterdam News published weekly articles that centered on the African American community in New York; and to Sylvia’s Restaurant, where you’ll eat Soul Food that soothes your soul.
Inevitable or Overlooked?
Harlem is a Mecca for those who wish to celebrate Black History and pay their respects to the activists and artists that helped shaped Black culture. Why then, has New York failed to protect a neighborhood that so clearly means so much to so many? Why has gentrification been allowed to slowly eat away at a Harlem to the extent that is becoming almost unrecognizable? Many call it the inevitable push of progress and the unavoidable result of a neighborhood becoming more affluent. Many simply refuse to acknowledge that it is happening at all. But when Whole Foods and Starbucks come to town, it’s usually a clear indication that times-are-a-changing, and it’s not always for the better.
The Meaning Behind the Word
Gentrification is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as ‘a process in which a poor area (as of a city) experiences an influx of middle-class or wealthy people who renovate and rebuild homes and businesses and which often results in an increase in property values and the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents. And there is no denying that until the late 80s/early 90s, Harlem was classified as a poor area. Harlem suffered from bad policies – known today as policies that derived from societal (or structural) racism – which led to low-quality housing, poor schooling facilities, high crime rates, poor healthcare, and high levels of unemployment.
Harlem slowly came back from the brink following redevelopment efforts in the early 90s. Crime rates began to drop significantly, and the area was also given better transport services, which encouraged outsiders to take up residence in Harlem. New Black-owned businesses began to open their doors in previously abandoned stretches of properties. New Condos appeared. Housing steadily began to improve. And just as the neighborhood began to take a breath, the rose-colored glasses began to slide off. Suddenly, the cost of living began to go up, and then up again.
Those Who Get Left Behind
Long-term residents of Harlem; members of the community; characters that made Harlem the vibrant and colorful neighborhood that it was, found themselves sidelined. Landlords with rent-controlled buildings began to find ever more creative and diabolical means of upping their rents. A rent-controlled apartment usually sits at less than $1000 per month, a non-rent-controlled apartment can go for as much as $5000 per month. It is estimated that between 2000 and 2005, approximately 32,000 African American residents moved away from Harlem, with the hike in rent prices cited as the number one reason. And in their wake, approximately 22,000 Caucasian, Latinx, and Asian residents moved in.
Many argue that people in higher income brackets spend more within the community, which benefits the community as a whole. Unfortunately, this just isn’t the case. Property developers, landlords, and corporate businesses benefit from gentrification. Local residents suffer, and small local businesses suffer – especially small businesses that specifically cater to their original residents. Take Sylvia’s, for example, a stalwart of the Harlem scene, serving soul food to local residents for generations. A restaurant like Sylvia’s relies on a core group of local regulars who share a similar cultural background; those who have grown up eating certain types of food on a regular basis. When that core group leaves the neighborhood, and a new group moves in, Sylvia’s not only lost their regular clientele, but they now also have to compete with Korean BBQ, sushi, and Chinese restaurants that are setting up shop to cater to the new residents.
The stark, unequal distribution of wealth that heavily favors white Americans over black Americans is why gentrification has become such a toxic word. No matter how you spin it, gentrification favors the rich and stomps all over the poor. To compound the issue even further, Harlem is now reeling from the effects of the pandemic. Unemployment rates have hit new highs, with the hardest being those who were working in the service industry. Reports of an increase in gambling addiction, health problems related to excessive and compulsive eating and drinking, and a steep increase in cases of people suffering from mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety are sadly on the rise. With gambling crime also rises as most of such activities are often not licensed. Even worse, these days, unlicensed casinos, as found on this website, are run from overseas and many people are just using unauthorized operators to gamble away the little money they have.
In Harlem’s case, it could be said that the beginnings of gentrification started when black Americans who were able to move away from Harlem in the 60s and 70s did so to find better housing, better education, and better healthcare elsewhere. Those who stayed behind tended to be minimum/or fixed-wage earners, and they can’t afford to continue living in the place they’ve called home for their entire lives. Those who manage to open their own businesses in Harlem now find themselves at risk of losing everything that they’ve worked so hard to achieve. And young people who were grown and raised in Harlem, cannot afford to get on the property ladder as first-time buyers, forcing them to move further afield, away from their families and their community.
What Does the Future Hold?
Could something have been done in the 70s that could have improved the lives of Harlem’s residents? All you need to do is look to the neighborhood of Jamaica to see that there was another way forward than selling off Harlem to the highest bidders. The community leaders in Jamaica made it a point to help local residents purchase housing within their local community, thereby keeping property developers at bay. It’s a model that worked because the community had a spokesman that invited residents to have their say. Is it too late for Harlem?