Harlem has a long history. Beginning around the time of the First World War and continuing into the 1920s,
black immigrants from the American South and the Caribbean moved into the neighborhood to take advantage of job opportunities caused by the onset of the conflict.
Reportedly, getting people into Harlem was all part of a plan concocted by a real estate agent called Phillip A. Payton.
The area has struggled to hold onto its position as a predominantly black neighborhood since the turn of the millennium, largely due to gentrification and the appearance of more ‘white’ establishments like Whole Foods and Red Lobster amongst much older buildings like the Apollo Theater. While the facts of this matter are confused, 2010 appears to be the year when Harlem ceased to be majority black.
Of course, this is unfortunate, as Harlem was a beacon for cultural works in its formative years, a period of time now dubbed as the Harlem Renaissance. However, via the Great Depression, the Second World War, and myriad social issues, the neighborhood struggled to flourish towards the end of the last century. There’s some evidence that efforts to gentrify Harlem are benefitting the area’s black history, though, albeit in the short term.
Hospitality and Food
Gentrification, for all of its negative connotations, is bringing new money into Harlem while boosting efforts to preserve older structures and institutions. Inspired largely by the needs of international tourism, the hospitality and food industries are growing, creating the same kind of jobs boom that brought the black community to the neighborhood a century ago. Granted, though, it’s a much more multicultural place these days.
Tourism is almost always a growth industry but the use of relevant educational tools has made international visits even more accessible. Language services such as Preply provide the opportunity to learn English or other languages without having to commit to any particular schedule. While of obvious use to tourists, 34.7% of Harlem’s people are non-native, a figure that’s higher than the national average (22%).
The City is attempting to market New York’s districts as they might beach destinations, sending tourists to neighborhoods that might benefit from the extra cash. The Harlem Heritage Tours company helps with this lofty goal, introducing visitors to important events like the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement. Harlem Heritage Tours is staffed by local people, too.
Gentrification is a controversial topic and one that can be difficult to talk about. It can also be destructive. Williamsburg, for example, has lost much of its cultural magnetism to ravenous real estate agents, while Bedford-Stuyvesant is a vast metropolis of for-rent properties that cater almost exclusively to temporary visitors. Gentrification eventually, almost invariably, causes price-hikes and cultural sterilization.
Harlem is in a difficult position. There’s hope for the local poor and unemployed in the shape of a buoyant jobs market and greater access to facilities but there’s always a risk that beloved institutions are destroyed in exchange.