I HAVE lived in Harlem for half my life — 30 years. I have seen it in all its complexities: a cultural nexus of black America, the landing place for Senegalese immigrants and Southern transplants, a home for people fleeing oppression and seeking opportunity. Harlem is the birthplace of so much poetry and music and beauty, but in the eyes of many who have never set foot here, it has long been a swamp of pain and suffering.
It is also changing, rapidly. A few years ago I was on Eighth Avenue, also known as Frederick Douglass Boulevard, picketing a fund-raiser for a politician who was pushing for denser mixed-use zoning along 125th Street, the “Main Street” of my sprawling neighborhood. Harlem has seen an influx of tourists, developers and stroller-pushing young families, described in the media as “urban pioneers,” attracted by city tax abatements. New high-end housing and hip restaurants have also played their part. So have various public improvements, like new landscaping and yoga studios. In general all this activity has helped spruce the place up. Not surprisingly, on that day a few passers-by shot us ugly looks, as if to say, “Why can’t you accept a good thing?”
There is something about black neighborhoods, or at least poor black neighborhoods, that seem to make them irresistible to gentrification. Just look at U Street in Washington or Tremé in New Orleans. “Everywhere I travel in the U.S. and even in Brixton, in London, a place as culturally vibrant as Harlem, wherever people of color live, we and the landmarks that embody our presence, unprotected, piece by piece, are being replaced,” said Valerie Jo Bradley, who helped found the preservation advocacy group Save Harlem Now!
This isn’t a new story. As the historian Kevin McGruder explains in “Race and Real Estate: Conflict and Cooperation in Harlem, 1890–1920,” an assessment of how Harlem came to be America’s “black Mecca,” African-Americans began moving north in large numbers into the area in the early 20th century after Macy’s, Penn Station and the theater district replaced what had been black neighborhoods farther south.
The extension of the subway to 145th Street gave black leaders an opportunity, within the nation’s leading metropolis, to set up an autonomous black city. Black churches strategically relocated here, and prime residential properties were bought for settlement by black residents. In the early 1920s followers of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, promoting political and economic independence, built a complex of shops, a theater and dance hall they called the Renaissance Theater and Casino. It quickly became a centerpiece of the neighborhood. (It was demolished in 2015.) With slavery scarcely a generation behind, the audaciousness of this plan was staggering.
By 1930 hundreds of thousands of blacks (and not a few whites) lived in Harlem. And yet, even then, residents understood that the black hold on Harlem was tenuous. That same year the author James Weldon Johnson asked in “Black Manhattan,” his classic account of Harlem’s early years, “The question inevitably arises: Will the Negroes of Harlem be able to hold it?”
After all, Harlem is a broad, flat section of northern Manhattan, poised just above Central Park with easy access to high-end jobs farther south and La Guardia Airport to the east. It is a mix of stately Victorian rowhouses and miles of apartment houses, the former ripe for adaptation, the latter for destruction and replacement by gleaming glass-cube condos. As Horace Carter, the founder of the Emanuel Pieterson Historical Society, insisted to me, “I tell you, they have a plan. Harlem is too well placed. The white man is ready to take it back.” It’s possible to remember a short time ago when this warning seemed pathetically alarmist.