”This is the spiritual capital of the African diaspora. Something had to be done.”
IBO BALTON, the housing department’s planning director for Manhattan, on Harlem. February, 2001
Ibo wandered in my office and was flattered that I had a photocopy of his NYT Quote of the Day taped to my wall when I worked for the city’s housing agency back in 2001. I remember telling him that I needed to have it there to remind me why we do what we do. He had come to ask me for a copy of the Bradhurst Negative Declaration (he was always asking me for a copy of the Bradhurst Neg Dec) but instead, he posed a question that clearly had been weighing on him, “Maybe we really are gentrifying Harlem?”
To be clear, we asked ourselves this question frequently.
Manhattan Community Board 10 is probably the regional equivalent to everyone’s idea of what Harlem is. Bounded to the south by 110th Street, to the north by West 155th Street, to the west by Morningside Avenue and to the east by Fifth Avenue, Community Board 10 covers roughly 60 city blocks. Maybe more. And in 1998, the Community Board asked the City of New York to fight to bring middle class residents back into Harlem. One of the oldest residents and members of the board who had lived in Harlem all of her life, and was fortunate to own her home, knew that to make her community remain sustainable, meant that those acres of vacant lots along Frederick Douglass Boulevard and across West 116th Street, on the east end of Marcus Garvey Park (Mount Morris) needed the middle-income families. She had already seen her share of public investment in her community, which unfortunately included a heavy saturation of low-income housing. And while there were a disproportionate amount of African-Americans who’d benefit, the black middle class had all but disappeared. Where were their housing opportunities? The best and brightest who were born and raised in Harlem leave and then return to see their community remain stagnant? Property taxes pay for infrastructure. Infrastructure supports communities. When wealth disappears from a community, how will it pay for itself? Public safety, street repair, all things that makes communities run? A mixed income community spends cash in their neighborhoods, creates and sustains jobs for local residents, spurs investment in open spaces and parks. It means that there’s a tax base to support the services the community demands.
So when an elder and owner of Harlem brownstone curses you out and tell you to make sure 55,000 square foot vacant property contain affordable AND market rate homeownership apartments because it brings an influx of stakeholders to her community, regardless of what color they look like, you do it.
All of this comes to forefront of my memory in reading the recent Times article about greater Harlem’s shifting demographics and the subsequent reactions to it. Many folks were offering compelling narratives of housing’s discrimination past, a history of institutional and economic racism. I get that and don’t dispute that legacy. However, I know and have been active participant in a different story.
I think my biggest problem with ‘gentrification’ is that it’s not always bad. While many people bemoan the loss of black Harlem, I’m not sure what they think they lost. Harlem was never really a solid homeownership neighborhood, as much as say, Bedford-Stuyvesant. Harlem or the ‘idea’ of Harlem as a bustling middle class community is fiction. There are certainly pockets: Hamilton Heights, Sugar Hill, Strivers Row, Mount Morris, little enclaves of a middle class, holding on to property while harsher social and economic realities enveloped them. I heard all these stories. Yet there were other blocks not lined with row houses, but with overcrowded tenements. And other buildings left in disrepair. I don’t mean to belittle the historical and cultural significance of Harlem to African-Americans; it was a haven to many as they sought opportunities in the north, the only neighborhood they had heard of when word traveled south that there were jobs in New York City, and black owned businesses that didn’t live in fear. However, the Harlem Renaissance was not a socio-economic movement, but a discrete collection of artists who lived in Harlem. We are grateful for their legacy, but they all were not homeowners.
The next day Ibo came back. “Nope, we need to do this,” he said. ” We need to diversify the community. Psychologically, living across a shell-shocked vacant lot has an effect on people. You live in a war zone. I don’t want that anymore. So whatever it takes, let’s get this done.” I must attribute a lot of my thinking in terms of urban planning and community development to the late Ibo Balton. I worked with Ibo on nearly 20 different developments (new construction and some rehabilitation) over a 9-year period in Harlem. Late nights at community board meetings, small meetings with elected officials, hours upon hours walking up and down blocks logging every building that was abandoned or shell-shocked, near collapse and every piece a vacant land, a battery of arguments with bankers about the ‘economic viability’ of these properties and their obligation to comply with the community reinvestment act.
This isn’t to say there aren’t some valid critiques regarding the policies that come into play when building or rebuilding communities. We’re talking about a fifteen- to twenty-year cycle that brought about changes to a community living in semi-permanent disrepair. Yet if the native population left during a downturn for the sake of securing a higher quality of life, and those who stayed asked for investment to bring people back, who is displacing whom?
I’d also like to ask people to consider what they value in their neighborhoods in terms of quality of life. I sat through many a community board meeting and faced many questions from their members asking for very simple things. A bakery, a wine store, a dry cleaner, a café. In the NYC planning world, this wish list is commonly referred to as a 197-a Plan: a plan written and developed by members of the community and its respective board leaders to identify desired services, retail, and public works.
Because what it does come down to is quality of life. People want to walk down level sidewalks, shop for toiletries, food, perhaps grab a cup of coffee with a neighbor they hadn’t seen in days, buy a cookie.
And I’m not sure why in some of the comments I read people accept the tenet that gentrification is synonymous with white or whiteness. It’s too simple to conflate the desires of a community wanting improvement with the presence of white people renting, buying homes or condos. Is the ‘gentrifier’ the embodiment of a particular class, education and social status? Arguably, I’d be considered first wave of gentrification in my neighborhood. I moved from Morningside Heights (ahem, Harlem) to Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill. And in my first act as change agent, the corner bodega ordered the NYT back in the day when I bought print, because I wanted it. Boom. Now, if we’re talking about gentrification in terms of wealth and homeownership as vehicle to social mobility, then we’re saying something different. And I’ll save that for another post.
Neighborhoods change. Like individuals they grow, fall on hard times, but they do change. Diversity isn’t such a bad thing.
Syreeta McFadden is a writer and former urban planner who lives in Brooklyn.