The fall of the Harlem Club

It was once the powerhouse of black American politics. But a series of scandals among its leading figures has soured Harlem's reputation

When David Paterson, the Governor of New York, for whom the prefix "embattled" doesn't nearly suffice, made an emotional pledge over the weekend to "fulfill the mission in which God placed me", he did so at a Baptist church in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. He didn't do it in Harlem.

The Manhattan neighbourhood is the historical and spiritual home of African-American culture and political power in the north-east, but, in terms of politics, its influence has been fading, and fading fast. With the looming end of Mr Paterson's disastrous stint as New York State's first black governor, and the ethics complaints dogging the area's legendary Congressman, Charlie Rangel, it feels like an era is closing.

"Nothing is the same," muses Sheila Lee, waiting to have her hair done at a salon where Dr Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard intersects with Malcolm X Boulevard. She's lived in Harlem for decades, voted Rangel, knew Paterson's father. "It's not just the politics. The area too is expensive. There's gentrification, and more whites and Hispanics here. But if our politicians are losing their way, they only have themselves to blame. The more they get, the more they want."

Harlem is where the black political elite – including Paterson's father, Boris – has resided for generations; a ferocious, ready-made block vote wielded on behalf of the civil rights movement and advancing the community's causes.

Adam Clayton Powell, the first African-American sent to Congress from New York State, shepherded the civil rights reforms of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson through his chairmanship of the Education committee; his successor, Rangel, ascended to run the powerful Ways and Means committee, which controls Congressional purse strings.

Rangel is the last of the tight-knit, intensely loyal, and politically savvy "Gang of Four", which has controlled Harlem politics since the 1970s, to still be in elected office. But last week he was forced to step aside from the committee chairmanship and now faces questions over whether, at 79, he will be able to stand for Congress this year for the 21st time. He dodged censure over unpaid taxes on a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic, but was then criticised by a House watchdog for company-funded trips to the Caribbean. The accumulating accusations of ethical violations threaten to bring down this last remaining Harlem pillar, with little apparently to take its place.

As for Paterson, his ineffectual governorship will certainly end in November, since he has bowed to pressure and ended his re-election campaign. Thrust into power when Eliot Spitzer's dalliances with prostitutes became public in 2008, he is now fighting a drip of accusations of minor sleaze, including the claim that he intervened to help an aide accused in a domestic violence case and perjured himself in an ethics investigation into how he came by free tickets to a baseball game.

Small stuff, which politicians with a powerful political base can bat away. Not so for Paterson. It is a measure of Harlem's decline that not even his family name can save him. His father, Basil, is one of that fabled Gang of Four, and the first black secretary of state for New York. It now counts for little.

Harlem remains a political and politicised place. To walk its streets is to see political campaign posters in shop windows, and more than the usual share of Obama pictures proudly displayed or "Yes We Can" trinkets for sale. It was still the place the African-Americans congregated on that historic night, two Novembers ago, to celebrate the election of the first black US president.

The shifting sands were evident at that 2008 election. Harlem had turned out for Hillary Clinton when she stood for a New York Senate seat – Bill, tagged America's first black president by the Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, had set up his post-White House foundation with offices on Dr Martin Luther King Boulevard after all. In 2008, Harlem's elderly political elite stuck with Hillary but the emergence of Barack Obama, supported by a younger generation, muddied the picture too much.

The funeral of Percy Sutton last December provided more intimations of an era passing. The lawyer of Malcolm X had been one of the Gang of Four and a Harlem grandee, acting later as a businessman and patron of the arts, who saved the neighbourhood's legendary Apollo theatre. "He was more than the engineer of the Gang of Four, he was our inspiration, our mentor," Mayor Dinkins said at the service.

But what of the future? Reading the newspapers on the block opposite Rangel's Harlem home, a local character known as Mister Nature, a man who has observed the area's politics for three decades, says the political elite has only itself to blame. "The Democrat political meetings are sorry affairs," he says. "There is no new blood. We have politicians who are proud of their past, and working for themselves and for the rich today, but they are not looking into the future. They have simply not trained others to replace them."