Once upon a time in the nation’s socioeconomic matrix, Black activists once took to the ramparts challenging the advance of urban renewal, or as they called it “Negro removal.” Nowadays the issue is gentrification and with summer officially here we can expect a series of rallies in Harlem from groups hotly contesting the changes occurring in the residential and commercial sectors.
Say gentrification, or the “G word,” to some Harlem residents and they are ready to march with a sign saying that “Harlem is not for sale.” Ask others, as I have done for years in the community, and the responses are mixed. So much depends on who you ask, how old they are, and how long they have lived in Harlem.
On the block where I live in Sugar Hill there used to be nine eyesores or dilapidated brownstones when we moved in the early 1990s. Today, only two remain. Most of the homeowners on the block welcomed the arrival of new people who could fix up the buildings, paying little regard to race. The only thing that mattered for them was that the decaying buildings would be occupied and renovated.
To speak to them of displacement, a word often associated with gentrification, had no meaning whatsoever to my neighbors. The buildings had been vacant and abandoned for years. For the most part, the renewal had very little to do with the displacement of a family.
Many of our new neighbors are disproportionately White, which has not alarmed most of the residents. In fact, they appreciate the role the newcomers have played in commanding attention from downtown. While there is no scientific proof that complaints from White residents mean more, it seems that they do. While many longtime residents have complained about the potholed streets, a need for speed bumps, stop signs, garbage pickup, efficient mail delivery, and faster service in the post office, apparently the cry from White Harlemites, particularly those on the community boards, is being heard by the city’s leaders.
This is not to negate the influx and influence of new young Black residents, and certainly their concerns paired with their White counterparts bring additional clout.
More good news comes from elders who are pleased to have the major retail giants move into the vicinity. Whole Foods, Fairway, Duane Reade, Rite Aid and other chain stores make it easier for senior citizens to get quality food and prescriptions without having to venture to midtown. The elders often mourn the disappearance of the Black-owned mom and pop stores, but many of those spots were replaced by bodegas owned by people in various other ethnic groups and not by the giant retail stores.
So, is gentrification a myth?
No way, says Nellie Bailey, who, as the leader of the Harlem Tenants Council, has been tireless in her fight against the invasion of gentrification. “Across the country, you can see U.S. capitalists’ aim with gentrification is to follow the European model. The inner cities were once for the poor and working class, for communities of color. But now they will be only for the wealthy.”
Her views were echoed recently in a New York Times op-ed piece by Michael Henry Adams, another devout advocate for saving Harlem from the menace of gentrification. He disparages people who “treat the neighborhood like a blank slate,” proclaiming they “don’t see color” as an important vector in the shifting demographics of Harlem. “They have no idea how insulting they are being, denying us our heritage and our stake in Harlem’s future,” Adams asserted.
Beyond the passionate rhetoric about preserving Harlem’s heritage and legacy are actual projects to this end, such as While We Are Still Here, led by Karen Taylor. “Our purpose in preserving Harlem’s history begins with exploring the history of two landmark buildings—555 and 409 Edgecombe Avenue,” she said. “A veritable who’s who in Black America lived in these two locations, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul and Eslanda Robeson, Elizabeth Catlett, to mention but a few. After we document their stays and others in the buildings we will extend our research into the larger tableau of the community’s history.”
In several respects Harlem is beginning to resemble its past when the majority of the population was White. Not until the Black real estate speculators such as Philip Payton and “Pig Foot Mary” (Lillian Harris Dean) began to slice and dice the community was there rental space available for African Americans, albeit at an exorbitant price.
That exorbitant price is becoming more and more a reality in the housing industry with only a dollop of affordable housing. And, we ask, affordable for whom?
Mr. Adams raises another point about the erasure of Harlem’s heritage. If Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the soon-to-be-former director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is right, we have nothing to fear about that possibility. In a recent interview he said that as long as politically and socially conscious Black Americans control the essential institutions in Harlem—the Schomburg, the Studio Museum, the National Black Theater, the Apollo Theater, the Dance Theater of Harlem, the Amsterdam News, and the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce–“our heritage and culture is secure and in good hands.”
Whither goes Harlem, the poet Langston Hughes observed many years ago, so goes Black America. Well, like the verdict on charter schools across the country, the jury is still out on the G word.
Herb Boyd is an author, journalist, and activist who teaches at the City College of New York. His forthcoming book is Black Detroit–A People’s Struggle for Self-Determination (Amistad, 2017). Follow him on Twitter @Simbabinski1.