Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Harlem: Gentrification or Addition?

The New York Times ran a great article about how Greater Harlem in New York City is no longer majority black. For those who do not know, Harlem was the long cultural epicenter for black folks throughout the 20th century. Not only was Harlem the home to many world renowned black writers, artists, musicians and intellectuals, the Harlem Renaissance helped defined the black experience in America in the 1920's and beyond.

Like most historic cultural ethnic enclaves, Harlem fell on hard times particularly after desegregation and urban renewal policies. The traditional base of black folks had eroded by the 1970's. The well-to-do and the middle class black populations were no longer forced to live in the crowded conditions of Harlem and moved onto better housing in and outside the city. What was left of Harlem in the 1970's was a poor urban community with a rich and long cultural and historical legacy.

Harlem was not the only culturally significant black community that fell on hard times, similar patterns of vacancy occurred in the Shaw-Howard University neighborhoods in Washington D.C., and the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor in Baltimore. The article reports that:

"Because so much of the community was devastated by demolition for urban renewal, arson and abandonment beginning in the 1960s, many newcomers have not so much dislodged existing residents as succeeded them. In the 1970s alone, the black population of central Harlem declined by more than 30 percent.

'This place was vacated,' said Howard Dodson, director of Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. 'Gentrification is about displacement.'"

There are many urban communities today that have incredibly vacancy rates of over 10-20%. Many of these communities are now feeling development pressure after 30-40 years or more of abandonment in some cases. A lot of people in these urban communities fear gentrification but in cases like Harlem where there are so many vacancies, should residents feel threatened by the newcomers if no one is being displaced?

What are you thoughts?


Kirk Mantay said...

That's thought provoking. I've thought that about some other neighborhoods (is it really "gentrification" if the place was abandoned?) but I just assumed it was some kind of subconscious bias talking.

So is there a word for this other spatial pattern aka "you left on your own, and you can't come back now!"

Certainly, the long term impact to the previous community is similar to gentrification, though. Housing stock for lower classes is lost in both cases. This is key, especially in a place like NYC, when an apartment can remain an apartment for 100+ years.

Anonymous said...

This type of overturn is what is happening in my neighborhood. I moved in two years ago, but none of the turnover has yet been due to rising property taxes, it's simply due to vacancy.

My neighborhood experienced white flight mid-century, but then the upper-middle class black community that had succeeded the flight, ended up fleeing themselves, mostly in the 80s when crack cocaine was introduced. Many homes turned into illegal rooming houses, brothels, and pharmacies. These houses are not being lost as low-income housing as most of the redone houses wouldn't even pass a Section 8 inspection.

These neighborhoods should be preserved, and without regard to ethics, their preservation will be due to change, as they have been due to change through their history.

Anonymous said...

I meant that the houses would not have passed inspection BEFORE renovation**

Anonymous said...

Addition? I believe that it's clearly gentrification. Of course black people left. No one wanted to invest in Harlem when it was mostly black and now that white people are the majority it's going to bloom.

Anonymous said...

Indeed, today we read about the new "HARLEM BIENNIAL 2011." What is this? Nothing more than privately funded and Real Estate driven gentrification affiliating itself with art in order to soften the blow of removing a culturally viable community. Spanish Harlem and Chinatown are also going through similar violence. Harlem's already loosing a block each month to outside investors whose goal is not to add culture but reap from it. What is worse is that many people of color within the arts community are buying into the facade simply for a few moments of fame.

Director Thelma Golden from the Studio Museum in Harlem should be the first to step out of the box and stand up for the community as much as the community has enriched this institution.

Accountability works!

Anonymous said...

The only way to maintain low income housing in the face of gentrification is for state subsidised / owned housing to maintain a strong presence. Im writing from Australia, so relying on Wikip, but City of NY owns (or used to) a lot of tenements, many abandoned, so agitating for city to keep them and rehab them for low income folk (not just welfare recipients) AND building new ones where old ones gone only way. This is how it works in Europe, and no US city is more european in urban form than NY. Only prob is cant ensure that new tennants would be black, but priority could go to existing residents in area being displaced from privately owned places.

Anonymous said...

I think is unfair to blame the new comers for gentrification! these group of new comers are paying a premium with interest! Furthermore, have your heard the term HDFC co-ops! NYC gave thousands of low income families in Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens etc, the option to buy share of their apartment/building co-op for $250 [two hundred and fifty dollars]- find out how much those apartments are selling now by the owners that paid $250! hundreds of thousands! they are walking way with thousands of dollars...who is causing gentrification here?