Harlem is reborn, but local feeling is mixed as rich return

Click to follow
The Independent US

Now that the insatiable New York real estate market has given its blessing, it's official: "Harlem is having a renaissance". House prices are going up everywhere you look; brownstones, and Gothic and Victorian piles are being restored to their former glory; and people who five years ago wouldn't venture past 96th Street are moving in in droves. Harlem is being "discovered".

Now that the insatiable New York real estate market has given its blessing, it's official: "Harlem is having a renaissance". House prices are going up everywhere you look; brownstones, and Gothic and Victorian piles are being restored to their former glory; and people who five years ago wouldn't venture past 96th Street are moving in in droves. Harlem is being "discovered".

But not for the first time. In the 1920s through to the mid-1930s, Harlem was not only the biggest black community in the world, it epitomised chic, its broad tree-lined boulevards were the playground of the jet set, and Lenox Avenue glittered like the Champs Elysées. Jazz was king, and all jazz royalty held court in Harlem.

As the streets filled with fleets of Lincolns, Stutzes and Cadillacs "some gals had 25 pounds of beads sewed into a single gown; and evening shoes were bedecked with rhinestone heels and attachments", wrote Floyd Snelson, a local journalist.

The men favoured everything from silk hats and diamonds to English tweeds and canes. The élite of black Manhattan and white thrill-seekers lured by the promise of "hot", "barbaric" jazz with risqué lyrics and "jungle-like" dancing poured into Harlem long after Times Square's lights had faded. As the gates of Prohibition clanged shut, Harlem burst open. This was the era of the Charleston, the monkey hunch and the bo-hog, of mesmerising virtuoso piano players, spirituals, ragtime and blues, of "get in the gully and give us the everlovin' stomp".

Harlem extends, strictly speaking, from 95th to 155th Street, in northern Manhattan. A former Native American fishing village, in the 1870s it became an affluent European community known as New York's "first suburb". Developers built Gothic palaces, Victorian terraces and beautifully ornate brownstones. Then, after the feverish speculation of 1905, came the Depression. As white fortunes went downriver, there was large-scale demolition in Lower Manhattan and a huge influx of African-Americans from the South.

The catalogue of poverty, drugs, and crime, which in the late 1930s characterised the slow decline of this once great neighbourhood, has been well documented. But other neighbourhoods suffered a similar if less high-profile fate. Elinor Tatum, the publisher and editor in chief of the pre-eminent New York black newspaper, The Amsterdam News, (which celebrates 90 years in Harlem this year), is dismissive of the media's current love fest with Harlem, which they so eagerly demonised in less prosperous times. She is cautious about the future of Harlem: "What's happening is very real. But it's coming from outside. It's people outside the community who can afford to come in and buy the renovated brownstones.

"Revitalisation is always good news, but it depends on whose backs the revitalisation is coming. There's definitely more jobs, but are they going to people in the community? I think people are happy in one way because there are more services available, but they're wondering how long they'll be able to afford to live there".

Howard Dodson, director of the Schomberg Center for Research into Black Culture, notes that Harlem redevelopment started from within. "It began in 1990 with the election of David Dinkins, New York's first black mayor. At that time 67 per cent of the housing in Harlem was owned by the city, and some of the programmes he started brought much of that housing stock back into Harlem through co-operative development initiatives with the various churches," he said. "Harlem was red-lined by the banks for 50 years or longer - meaning they wouldn't lend money here. Now they are not only lending money but locating offices here, and making money available."

As for creativity in the community, Harlem buzzes like never before. "The talent has always been here," Ms Tatum says, "It's just not been showcased." Mr Dodson agrees: "In the Harlem Strategic Cultural Collaborative" - which comprises nine arts organisations - "we probably produce between us more cultural programming in the average month than occurred in the entire Harlem renaissance! But we don't get the same kind of visibility that occurred during the Harlem renaissance. So marketing will be the key. But change will be driven by quality. We have to make sure the level of quality is established and maintained, for people inside Harlem and everyone coming in."

Neil Cole, president of the Harlem Bar Owners Association is optimistic. "I think it's premature to speculate on whether rising house prices will drive locals out, he says. "I don't feel it's an intrusion by outsiders. This is New York. More diversity is good for the community. You have more protection, more services. I didn't used to use supermarkets here, I'd go further downtown, but now that's all changing, and with the influx of new faces, they can't give us day-old bread no more ... Know what I'm sayin'?"

Comments