Much Ado About Gentrification

On ‘Mixed Feelings’

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


18 thoughts on “Much Ado About Gentrification

  1. “cream in the coffee”, hilarious. It must be nice to use quotes and metaphors without the fear of backlash ala some moron confusing the term black hole with a put-down. However the fact that you can’t come out and say white people without quotes speaks volumes. As you may have guessed I’m one of these pesky whitey’s gentrifying up the place whose infrastructure was originally and now continuing to be built and improved by the backs and sweat of “cream colored” skin. Forgive me, I’m sure there are some industrious black people in Harlem they just don’t have a whole lot to show for it in the last 40 years. I’m demanding and attracting things like safe streets, basic services, clean parks, small business creation, restaurants (the reason your stomach seems to be split on the issue) and oh by the way JOBS. As a small business owner in NYC I pay insane taxes so that the “Harlem locals” can have their cradle-to-grave housing along with their “leaders” (that one includes certain congressman and church figures that no doubt deserve quotes). What happened when I got priced out of my NYC neighborhood of 10 years? Did I call Sharpton to shut down the city? No, I moved to a more affordable part of the city to pay taxes, send kids to local schools, and throw my trash in the trash can on the street corner. The thanks we get for investing in this community while you cry woulda-coulda-shoulda is thanks for the restaurants and I’m not sure if I appreciate it yet? While you were haggling with a slum lord for handouts we put our money where our mouth was; get over it and enjoy the latte “gent”.

  2. Couple points. First, in regard to ‘anon 5:01’…you made the most obvious point in your comments. The condos are not made for the majority of people who do live in Harlem. I don’t think anyone is naive enough to not believe that. Even condos and rentals that are billed as “affordable” have built in weeding-out measures to make sure only certain types make it through. The point I was trying to make is that of the price of land in Harlem as far as dollars per square footage go. In light of the statistics I was putting into question the validity of the pricing mechanism. It was an honest inquiry. What would have been useful from your comment is some breakdown of real estate economics in Harlem and some explanation of the supply/demand trends in Harlem (I should have probably asked Justin)….not “the condos are made for the former lower Manhattan resident that go priced out of the Village, UWS, “. That generalization applies to just about every up and coming neighborhood in the entire city.

    Second, we should be weary of drawing too many lines around Harlem. Let’s not get lost in all the neighborhood nomenclature. Manhattanville, Hamilton Heights….these are all part of West Harlem. I was speaking in generalities. Truth is that when you look at how the neighborhoods are broken up by Police Precincts and Political Districts there is a lot more overlapping than you would imagine. One main reason the development has manifested itself differently is precisely because of the availability of vacant land. I’m sure that if there were more vacant lots on Amsterdam and Broadway you’d see condos popping up. You can actually spot a few that have been hidden in plain sight…133rd St bet Broadway and Amsterdam…149 St bet Riverside and Broadway. You just don’t see it on the same scale as streets closer to Central Harlem because of the availability of empty space.

    Furthermore, the impact of Columbia’s expansion will be felt throughout all of Harlem and Washington Heights. Even if the physical campus only reaches up to 134th Street. Otherwise there wouldn’t have been so many people for and against the expansion. The area will certainly undergo a tremendous shift. Who it will benefit depends on every person’s individual circumstance.

  3. So, is the quality/locale/transportation/restaurants/services etc. of a building on 97th street that much different from the building on the corner of 96th? No, but hooooo there’s that imaginary,”Line of Peace, Justice & the American Way” on 96th. So stupid!

  4. sunshine – you seem misguided. what’s this nonsense about west harlem eliminating the “harlem” part…..that’s got to be one of the most idiotic statements I’ve ever read. If you don’t like harlem why live in harlem….doesn’t seem too bright. And parts of what one would consider west and central harlem are no different from one another….they share the same community boards, police precincts, fire houses, transportation, restaurants, etc. When true residents of a community identify issues on a particular block they take action (ie. reach out to NYPD, community based organiztions, etc.) to improve the situation which, in turn, benefits the entire community. Distancing yourself from a particular block, within your community, makes no sense because the fact of the matter is that one’s neighborhood is not made up of two square blocks. The issues affecting that block will not be contained within that block forever and can eventually spill to your block. Thus, these imaginary boundaries you speak of serve little purpose.

  5. sunshine – didn’t you know that Columbia’s campus expansion is located in Manhattanville? I’m going to guess that you live somewhere along 8th Ave/Fred Doug… I right? And do you know what the Manhattanville boundaries are? I’m guessing that you reside outside of the Manhattanville boundaries….so stop trying to feed us all that B.S.! Trying to carve out an exclusive little zone for yourself aren’t you……feeling a little insecure maybe? LOL! Oh, and by the way do you know how far uptown the campus footprint will be? I don’t think that you would want to be associated with a campus that is so far uptown, now would you….you’re too good for that. LOL! PLEASE!

  6. anon @ 5:01pm – The question you posed,”Where in the hell are you supposed to test drive it?” in reference to the new car dealership is a clear indication of your bias. One would test drive any and all cars on the road/street just like you would in any other locale. Additionally, I find it puzzling that if you truely,”understand and get the $1M condo’s in Harlem” that you wouldn’t understand the rationale behind the dealership. Some of the new transplants to Harlem who have been snatching-up multi-million dollar pads can surely purchase vehicles of this caliber (ie.residents of 111CPN, Soha118, Loft 124, The Lenox, 50 West 127th, The Rhapsody, the Dwyer, etc.) Just because you live and/or do business in Brooklyn and are worried about the state of the Brooklyn market doesn’t mean that trying to denigrate other neighborhoods will be effective.

  7. Doug S–Get a grip. It was a reference against incendiary comments. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you didn’t actually read it in context.

  8. One point (of many) that Illoquent alluded to but did not discuss in extensive detail is the divergence of how gentrification is affecting West Harlem from the rest of Harlem. I suspect over time, West Harlem will continue to become more diverse, more open and embracing of middle class and upper middle class which will make it a more obvious investment for developers and businesses. There is no doubt that Harlem overall will change for the better, but I do believe West Harlem will fair much better than Central Harlem. In time, West Harlem being considered part of Harlem may become a distant memory as it has very little connection ( other than geographic location) to Central Harlem. In truth the areas are very different. I’m sure I will get flack for writing this, but once Columbia begins to build, the Harlem part of West Harlem will surely be eliminated.

  9. I agree on the overall impact of gentrification of Harlem concerning both the luxury and the mixed/middle income units going up in Hamitlon Heights and Sugar Hill. Brings a lot of diversity, and more importantly – brings tax dollars to New York City so the City won’t the crisis it did in the 70’s when Harlem was ignored because of lack of funds.

    Most of the new developments have been built on empty lots – which the last time I looked doesn’t kick anyone out or displace people but instead eliminates an eyesore from an otherwise beautiful part of Manhattan.

  10. “You also have those glaring statistics about the average apartment in Harlem costing $900,000 while the mean income is somewhere between $25,000-$37,000 for all of Harlem. Fom just a curiosity point of view it seems staggeringly disproportionate. One has to ask whether the higher pricing accurately describes the market or if it’s being driven artificially. It baffles me…”

    Why? Makes perfect sense. The $900,000 homes are not made the stats you refer to, that’s your mistake, trying to connect the stats to the prices, as if they have a nexus, lol. the condos are made for the former lower Manhattan resident that go priced out of the Village, UWS, etc. They’re made for those displaced below 96th St. (Though I do have Black Harlem friends who’ve lived in Harlem for years that have bought $1M Harlem condos).

    Remember, Harlem is plagued with an institutionalized culture of Black people that feel entitled to public housing in the most expensive city in america for life. Normal people have to contend with the “winds of change”, employ fiscal responsibility and make choices…..NOT Harlem Public Housing & Sec. 8 dwellers, they’re immune and hence will always be here, forever. That’s why they’re not “normal people”, notions of housing cost don’t enter their world.

    Normal people have to be mindful of housing cost, taxes, property taxes, etc. Ever see a moving van at a Public Housing Complex? That’s a normal thing to see weekly in a dwelling of hundreds of units, however not in public housing. Normal people sometime are priced out, and move, not public housing dwellers.

    The “mystery stat” that no one likes to consider? The high number of people that put a toe in the water and move to Harlem, and decide later they can’t take it, the whole ghetto side of it, lack of restaurants, etc.

    (1) There’s a class of people that bought into Harlem and as they’ve got major dollars invested in their choice, convince themselves it’s not so bad, etc.

    (2) The White Harlem Renter, that threw in the towel after a couple of years. That’s the mystery stat. As they did not invest in Harlem, they are free to say how they really feel at the end of their lease. The number that high tail it out of Harlem is quite large. They move to Brooklyn or back below 96th St.

    I work in real estate and get exposed to this. Go to any Harlem Police station and you’ll learn developers are constantly contacting them about the streets around their development. Developers actually lobby police stations demanding increased Police presence on their block, etc. Very common. The also lobby the local C Town to improve their produce, etc….and overall offerings, things like this.

    They latest dumbest Harlem Business that will last less than 1 year? 129th & Lenox, the auto dealership that’s selling cars that cost $100K+ has their awning up.

    Is that not Hilarious? The per capita income within Blocks of that place can’t afford a $25K Hyundai for crissakes. Their going to be selling Bently’s and Maseratis on 129th & Lenox???? Vehicles that get about $8 miles/gal and cost $15K-$25K/year to insure?

    You can come to Harlem for a lot of things, but would you come to Harlem to buy a $150K car? Where in the hell are you supposed to test drive it?

    I understand and get the $1M condo’s in Harlem. But the Car Dealership with $150K cars?

  11. illoquentgent,

    Name-calling in quotation marks is still just that, and it’s far from eloquent. Insulting people, however subtle, just makes it unreadable.

    It seems that UF is becoming increasingly tolerant of disrespectful terms people who aren’t black or African-American. That only serves to exclude certain groups from UF, which I don’t beleive is intentional.

  12. Amen, amen I say! Very good points, everyone. ‘4 year vet’, thanks for that observation. It is the one point I regretted not including just because of the length of the posting. It is easy for people who want to incite some sort of mass antipathy towards a group to simply throw in “whitey moving in” when in fact what you see is people of color who are afluent moving into these new developments and bringing business to these new stores along with everyone else. It is not so much a race issue but rather a class issue.

    And I suppose that is the double edged sword of gentrification. In a very systematic and economics-driven fashion it promotes a more afluent population. It tranlsates into more dollars in retail, taxes, mortgages, etc. And by affluence I mean it only discriminates based on ONE color… “green”…money. In this case the desired range goes from middle to upper-income .That’s where the clash is. How do you reconcile real estate capitalism with a welfare society? It’s always that thin line. It is what separates those who fight on both sides of welfare vs. workfare, universal health coverage vs. market based healthcare, mitchell lama housing vs. income based lotteries. You will always good points to make on both sides of the fance.

    You also have those glaring statistics about the average apartment in Harlem costing $900,000 while the mean income is somewhere between $25,000-$37,000 for all of Harlem. Fom just a curiosity point of view it seems staggeringly disproportionate. One has to ask whether the higher pricing accurately describes the market or if it’s being driven artificially. It baffles me about as much as the gasoline price inflation. But that’s a whole other discussion entirely.

    I have no objection with new condo buildings and new stores. These used to be empty lots contributing absolutely ZERO to Harlem’s economy and represent a small percentage of Harlem’s population as a whole. It is my hope, anyway, that this money is going to Harlem. However, I do worry that the rate of development will just keep driving those prices higher and faster. Okay…way too lengthy again!

  13. For me Harlem is special because of the various characters, the street life is much more engaging than other neighborhoods which gives Harlem its flavor. I would like to see more dining options but not at the expense of Harlem’s unique character. I think a neighborhood is better defined by its people than by its dining options. I have recently been visiting Park Slope and in comparison Park Slope it is much more gentrified with many more chic cafes and restaurants, but it pales in comparison to Harlem’s vibe and energy.

  14. nice post, very thoughtful. in all the talk about the neighborhood, there seems to be one common denominator: the desire for decent, reasonably-priced restaurants. how does one go about luring these establishments uptown?

  15. And let’s also remember that gentrification doesn’t just mean white folks rolling into the neighborhood – yes – it’s easier to notice the white folks on the subway or on the streets. Yet there’s also a lot of upper middle class and rich people of color that have moved up here too. Walk by the Starbucks on 145th on most days and 90-100% of the people patronizing it aren’t white. Same with the NYSC gym. From what I have experienced – the mixed income lottery buildings are a really good opportunity and more of these should be pushed versus just luxury condos. I agree with the above about the trash and noise. The main thing Hamilton Heights/North Harlem needs are more of the restaurants like west harlem – Dinosaur/Covu is a perfect example – mid to low teens entrees, casual atmosphere. Looking forward to Maroon’s if it does indeed open in July. Wonder what people in the nabe think about the east river big box stores opening up and same with bronx retail development of similar size. Not great paying jobs but they are jobs in the neighborhood I guess.

  16. I think for the most part our interests are aligned (most long time Harlem residents and newcomers). I very much want the neighborhood to retain its character, but I also want it to lose some of the more “ghetto” elements. For example, I would like to see less trash (particularly people dropping trash on the streets), fewer empty storefronts, fewer empty shells, less violence, and fewer dirt bikes. (I don’t know why they annoy me so much, but they do. The other day I saw one ride on the sidewalk for a block at a pretty fast clip. Where do they come from?) I would also like to see more diverse dining options. That’s really about it. I think that these are things that you want, too.

  17. Speaking as part of the cream in West Harlem’s coffee, I agree with the above. Over the past 1.5 years we’ve gotten a bunch of new restaurants. Having brunch at Cafe Largo, one can look around and see people of all types of backgrounds. I think the neighborhood has the potential to be a real melting pot, something Queens nabes do much better than Manhattan. I hope to see more restaurants on par with what Mark of Cafe Largo is doing. Reasonably priced, neighborhood feeling places. I don’t have great expectations for Talay. I wish Covo would do a more typical brunch. There’s still not a lot of hanging out to do in the neighborhood aside from on the streets, which is what I see as the biggest annoyance. I’m cool with ppl relaxing outside and chatting, but I get annoyed with ppl taking up the whole sidewalk, making you feel like an intruder when you are trying to pass. The garbage is also annoying. Still, I’m glad to be in a nabe where I’m not clearly the guy who bought the million dollar apartment and could care less about the rest of the ppl in the nabe. I go to the deli, I buy tamales from the vendor outside the subway station. I hope I’m perceived as a “cool” white guy, even though just typing that sounds like I’m anything but.

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