Harlem to Clinton: you're ruining us

Gentrification since former president moved in sees rents rise by 100 per cent, forcing poor black families out
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The Independent US

Bill Clinton's decision to site his office in the largely black Manhattan neighbourhood of Harlem, as a gesture of solidarity with African-Americans, appears to have backfired.

Dozens of angry blacks demonstrated last week outside the building that houses the former president's staff, claiming that his move had led to the gentrification of the area and increased the price of homes beyond their reach.

Mr Clinton's empathy with black Americans is well known. His humble family circumstances, as a penniless white boy raised among poor blacks in rural Arkansas, gave him a rare insight into the African-American community. It led to his being dubbed "Bubba", a term of affection among impoverished Southerners, and, without irony, "America's first black President".

But his move to Harlem, known as the Black Capital of America, has had unintended consequences. The protest march by 40 mainly elderly people to 125th Street was organised by the Harlem Tenants Council to protest at property prices, which have rocketed since Mr Clinton moved in.

The booming American economy and the enormous demand for Manhattan property has already caused Harlem and other New York areas previously the preserve of blacks and Hispanics to soar. Rents have nearly doubled in Harlem since 2000, when Mr Clinton left the White House to support his wife, Hillary, and her career as the junior senator for New York. A one-bedroom flat which used to rent six years ago for $800 a month now costs $1,400, according to Valerie Orridge, president of the Savoy Park Tenants Association.

The Washington Post records that the top price for a brownstone terrace house in Harlem in 2001 was $400,000 (£215,000). Now a fully renovated townhouse costs as much as $4m. Even this is a relative bargain: 30 blocks south, similar houses which need considerable renovation start at $5m.

Harlem is home to young black professionals who can afford the inflated prices and are undeterred by the noise and late-night roistering of Harlem street life. As prices rise sharply, the area is fast becoming more staid and crime is falling.

The gentrification of Harlem is the latest twist in the neighbourhood's varied history. A strict colour bar once excluded blacks, but at the turn of the last century, affluent East European Jews moved in, and by 1910 the overbuilding of apartment blocks and a dip in the economy obliged landlords to rent to African-Americans, albeit "Respectable Colored Families Only", which meant those with good jobs, such as railcar attendants.

By the 1920s Harlem was the epicentre of black entertainment, reaching its heyday after Prohibition in 1926. A lax approach to the strict alcohol laws and the rise of brilliant jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, caused Harlem in the Roaring Twenties to become a hedonistic haven for the fun-loving, hard-drinking rich young white Gatsby set, who revelled in revue halls such as the Cotton Club.

A long period of low rents and high poverty overtook Harlem from the end of the Second World War until the early Nineties. Now there is intense pressure on poorer, older tenants in low-rent properties to pay more, hence the march to Mr Clinton's office. A spokesman for the Clinton Foundation, Jay Carson, said he could not comment on the protest.

But the decision to move to Harlem may well have exacerbated the problem for poor blacks . Which goes to prove the truth of New York wit Clare Boothe Luce's pessimistic adage: "No good deed goes unpunished."