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Bill Maxwell

Harlem as Black Capital of America will soon be a memory

NEW YORK —Many communities are little more than tracts of real estate. Harlem is not one of them. Known as the "Black Capital of America," Harlem is a one-of-a-kind culture. Beyond being a physical location in upper Manhattan, it is hallowed ground for many blacks.

It is where the famous Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s occurred, where the intellectual life of black artists flowered and entertainers found a safe space to hone their skills. During these years, writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, W.E.B. DeBois, Alain Locke, James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay and Arna Bontemps worked here. They joined musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker to forge a movement that became an essential part of America's cultural history.

These great artists are gone, and most of the grand old clubs of that period have disappeared, victims of gentrification. Connie's Inn, where Fats Waller played, is now a parking garage. Small's Paradise has been replaced by an International House of Pancakes. The famous movie theaters —- the Victoria, the Lafayette and the Regent — have been demolished. The once-familiar facades on Harlem's best-known thoroughfare, 125th Street, have made room for chains such as Old Navy, Seaman's, Staples and Starbucks.

This physical metamorphosis means that the demographics of the area are rapidly changing, too. A harsh truth for many U.S.-born blacks in central Harlem is that they no longer are the majority. They are outnumbered by a combination of African-born blacks, whites from lower Manhattan and Hispanics from east Harlem seeking affordable housing.

"In Manhattan, there are only so many directions you can go," said Joshua Bauchner, a white resident who moved to a Harlem town house in 2007. "North to Harlem is one of the best options."

With the influx of outsiders who have money comes hardship for many longtime black residents. Neil Smith, director of the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at the City University of New York Graduate Center, neatly describes what is happening: "Gentrification — the buying up and rehabilitation of land and buildings, whether by families or developers, occupied or abandoned — means a rising tide for all, leading inevitably to displacement next door, down the block, or two streets away."

Four of my relatives, along with their children, are being displaced from the street where they have lived comfortably since the 1970s. When they told me in 2001 that they were participating in demonstrations against the plan to locate Bill Clinton's post-White House office in a high rise at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, I suggested that the former president was reaching out to blacks, trying once again to demonstrate solidarity and empathy.

They argued that Clinton's very presence would "jack up" the prices of housing and rents for small business people. They turned out to be right. An unintended consequence was that prices for almost everything began to soar. In 2001, for example, the top price for a brownstone terrace house in Harlem was $400,000. Five years later, that same type of house was worth $4 million. Prices have been rising since. Unfortunately for low-income blacks, Harlem has more brownstones than any other part of Manhattan that are waiting to be remodeled.

My fiercely proud relatives now have about six months to find new housing. Their old tenements are being demolished to make way for high-end condos, fancy shops, restaurants, a private preschool and an office complex. The old reliable coin laundry, bodegas, barbershop and West African Hair Weave shop will be history after the heavy equipment arrives.

Two of my relatives are moving to Newark, a city they hate. But the price of housing is affordable there. They will be forced to spend several hours commuting to work each day, and their children will have to transfer to schools in a different state.

Although gentrification has brought many good things to this part of upper Manhattan — lower crime rates, cleaner streets, more shops and restaurants, quieter nights and more racial and ethnic diversity — many longtime residents see these changes as bad trade-offs for the sense of community they are losing forever.

In a New York Times article, Mindy Fullilove, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, compared the predicament of Harlem's displaced residents to "root shock," the condition that plants experience after they have been uprooted, "the pain of losing one's beloved neighborhood."

My other two relatives have not found new homes for their families in or near Harlem. And time is running out. They feel cheated because they stayed in Harlem during the bad years — the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s — when the area was a wasteland of drugs, prostitution and murder, when many law-abiding residents fled and never looked back.

Their mistake, like that of most other longtime Harlem residents, was renting rather than owning their homes. And gentrification is disproportionately cruel to low-income renters. As other groups with money and real estate savvy continue to move in, Harlem, the Black Capital of America, will become a mere memory.

Harlem as Black Capital of America will soon be a memory 04/02/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 2, 2010 7:55pm]
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