When the NY Times article came out I really didn’t feel the need to pay it any more attention than quick scan. I personally thought it was a rehash of the last one. However, for some reason when our editor posted it up with some related articles and blog links it honestly turned the light bulb on in my head. It just speaks to how important the job of an editor is. I began writing this as a comment but when I noticed the length of it I must admit I was tempted to use my editorial powers to post it as a stand alone. However, it gave me the chance to flesh out some points I felt were important.
You can add me to the ranks of those who feel conflicted about the wave of gentrification that has visited Harlem. The mixed feelings abound. And on any given day you’ll hear me sounding off two different stories. That’s because my view is somewhat polarized. On the one hand, I work with a tenants advocacy group that was born out a 2 year battle my sister and I waged on a slumlord who had let 3 buildings fall into complete disarray. The abuse the tenants and their children endured were atrocious. Furthermore, the kinds of dirty tricks and underhanded maneuvers this landlord used to skirt his responsibilities were nothing short of repugnant. It definitely opened my eyes to the ugliness of real estate investment here in NYC, particularly Harlem. And so, in dealing with the landlords and helping other tenants avoid unjust evictions, I became quite bitter about gentrification because it seemed to fan the flames already burning within me.To me, it seemed that everyone was in concert to get all the poor and working-class black and Hispanic people out of Harlem in order to move in the “white folks”. This was my gut reaction to any conversation about gentrification devoid of any rational thought. In fact, if you search my comments on UptownFlavor before I started contributing you can see an evolution occur. In a parallel fashion I would also become incensed with the thugs and vagrants on my streets. The way they’d bump the loud music right in front of the building, the way people would drop their garbage right outside the entrance, the way people would try to scam their way into getting cheaper housing, the way people would scam the Human Resources office to get food stamps and cash contributions undeservedly. These abuses and disdain for the neighborhood would make my blood boil. Once again, my gut reaction was that these inconsiderate abusers of the system and their environment deserved to be ousted.
What occurred over the years is that I toned down my blind-raging rhetoric and began to better research the issues. What I came to discover was more of a consensus about things. I did welcome better housing, access to better businesses, and better infrastructure. What I was really bitter about was the systematic ousting of those who have been contributing to society, working hard, paying their bills, living lawfully who were now slowly being squeezed out of their ability to live in the neighborhood they helped create. It made me focus on advocating for and helping these people who I consider the deserving. I also wanted to preserve the essence and flavor of my neighborhood. Once I was able to better define where my outrage stemmed from, it was easier to accept certain changes with just a bit of apprehension. I focused my disappointment not so much on the new people moving in or even the condo developers. It made me look towards the movers and shakers who have opened up our neighborhood to all these changes; our politicians and local elected officials who are the gatekeepers; our community leaders who negotiated the terms of redevelopment in Harlem. It made me re-evaluate the targeted, publicly funded programs whose job was to prepare Harlem residents for home ownership and financial independence; some who did the job they were paid for and others who simply sat in their offices and received a check. It also made me look at the myriad of Harlemites (myself included) who squandered opportunity after opportunity to become home owners when the market disproportionately favored the buyer. In making these clear delineations I didn’t feel hypocritical about supporting Starbucks, eating at Pier 2110 (R.I.P.), Moca or feeling excited about The Langston when it was being erected. And even still there are stories and experiences that inform my feelings better about it all. One thing is true though, this is the business of urban economics. We must, where we can, make sure that our interests are being represented as new business and development continues to sweep across our neighborhood. Our job is to hold on to our piece of home even when everything else gets whisked away by the winds of change.
The Different Flavors of Change
I think it is also interesting to see how different sections of Harlem have undergone these changes. It has not been uniform. In Lower, Central, East, and the Northern Harlem area, each big change has usually been marked by a new condo development (i.e., The Langston, Sutton, Soha 118, etc.) coupled with openings of new posh/chic eateries and entertainment venues. These two have, for the most part, come hand-in-hand, it seems. Then you have West Harlem and Washington Heights, areas further west, where you don’t have as many new developments, relatively speaking. It should be noted that there are less vacant lots and abandoned buildings in West Harlem. What you see more of are existing structures that are being gutted out and renovated to rent at market rate. However (and this is my humble opinion) the “beer and burger” places have always been around and continue to pop up. It seems to have more of a sliding scale than what you see in other spots of Harlem where you have to choose between Mobay’s or Famous Seafood. And once again I am biased because I was born and raised in West Harlem. We always had the Floriditas, Caridad, Bus Stop Diner, El Valle. Then, when we started getting more “cream in our coffee” (I love that metaphor) there was an increase in development, particularly in the Valley with places like Dinosaur BBQ and Hudson River Cafe, cropping up in anticipation of Columbia’s expansion more than anything else. However, you also had more middle-of-the-line places like Picante, Cafe Largo, and most recently Covo where, at least price wise, they offer less expensive alternatives. In fact, you saw the “beer and burger” spots come into fruition FIRST as opposed to Central and Lower Harlem where they rolled out the higher end places like Moca, Ginger, Pier 2110, and Society. In West Harlem they were slower to roll out with the pricier Hudson River Cafe, Talay, and Body. I think it is an interesting juxtaposition. I don’t know if there is any one explanation for it but it does give an interesting picture of how gentrification is transforming the neighborhood in different ways.
All that said, I am happier (mixed feeling withstanding) with the way the changes have occured closer to the Hudson. It’s had more of a lower east side vibe to it (before the new luxury condos) where everyone’s sort of meshing together. You are seeing more of an influx of new residents, but they are moving into the same buildings I grew up in, going to the Spanish restaurants and delis I go to, etc. Of course, when all the new construction from Columbia begins in full swing, I might be fine-tuning my view a little more.
Photo Credit: Appleton, Michael/New York Daily News