Harlem: The New Frontier?

‘Harlem is the last great frontier of Manhattan real estate,’ gushes Barbara Corcoran, manager of an elite New York real estate brokerage. ‘There are many wonderful things happening in this historic and beautiful area.’ Others are calling it the new Harlem Renaissance.

Wonderful things do happen in Harlem but gentrification isn’t one of them. Since the city’s real estate market exploded in 1996, Harlem has had a bull’s eye on its back as brokers and developers have made fortunes buying and selling brownstones for renovation. Victorian mansions have been gutted, and refitted with intricate wooden staircases and period chandeliers; black professionals, white gays, students and many others have followed the developers, desperate to find a place to live in a borough where last year the average apartment price was recorded at $770,000. 125th Street (which no-one calls Martin Luther King Boulevard) has been reinvented as a suburban mall. Gone are many of the street vendors and small shop owners, replaced by the large logo stores such as Disney and Old Navy. The jewel in the crown is the mall, ‘Harlem USA.’ And a new first run movie theater, thanks to Magic Johnson’s real estate company.

Local entrepreneurs give tours to the famous streets, clubs, restaurants and Harlem Renaissance sites as well as the Teresa Hotel where Fidel Castro came to stay in his famous 1960 snub to the US government, the Audubon ballroom where Malcolm X was assassinated, the route of Nelson Mandela’s walk through the neighborhood a decade ago. For an extra $30 a visit to a gospel church is thrown in; for $40 further you can thrill to all this at night! Others give architectural brownstone tours to Strivers Row, Astor Row or the Mount Morris Park Historical District, directly encouraging gentrification. So many bus loads of tourists are coming to Harlem now – mostly European and Japanese – that the churches have had to issue rules of appropriate behavior – no flashes during prayers please.

For folks who have lived there for decades, surviving the bad years when no outsiders cared about the place, the conversion of their neighborhood into a frontier is a mixed blessing to say the least. In the early 1980s, banks and other private lenders totally redlined the neighborhood, dribbling a paltry $2 million of mortgage money into Central Harlem. By 1993, the figure for the whole of Upper Manhattan, dominated by Harlem, was $163 million rising in only five years to an astonishing $686 million. Two of the biggest banks in Harlem real estate today, Citibank and Chase Manhattan, were entirely absent twenty years ago.

Listening to real estate agents like Corcoran or reading the New York Times, you would think that Harlem residents should rejoice. They are now apparently getting what they were long deprived of: mainstream mortgage money, loans, home ownerships, shops, amenities. But they don’t give away these new windfall loans with lottery tickets. Whereas the average cost of a Harlem building in 1982 was $47,500, today that would hardly make the down-payment. Buildings now routinely sell for $300,000 to $600,000 and often require hundreds of thousands of dollars of renovation. Even without the renovation costs, it takes a household income of almost $100,000 to begin to afford the cheapest of these buildings. By contrast, the median household income of all New York City homeowners is only $50,00 so only the wealthiest New Yorkers can now afford to go ‘back to Harlem,’as Claude McKay put it. In Harlem itself the median household income in 1999 was only $20,000. Homeownership on the private market is no solution to the Harlem housing crisis.
The City’s housing policies don’t blunt the gentrification of Harlem. Gentrification is the policy. Vacant or abandoned properties that could provide urgently needed cheap and good quality housing for Harlem residents and others are instead transferred to the private sector where rents and prices go through the roof. The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, claims to have facilitated the renovation of 6,000 Central Harlem housing units in the last fifteen years, evenly split between owner-occupied and rental units. This more than doubles the number of owner occupied units in the neighborhood. Even the more affordable rental units are disproportionately targeted at ‘moderate’ income households earning between $30,000 and $75,000. Some city programs such as ‘City Home’ fuel real estate speculation and escalate brownstone sale prices, according to recent research.

And then there is the HUD debacle in which developers and landlords, masquerading as non-profit churches and community groups, received federally backed loans for rehabilitation but instead ‘flipped’ the buildings they bought to unsuspecting buyers. 160 buildings that could be housing homeless people are instead left in ruins and the feds and banks are left holding bills for $50 million of bad mortgages. Because this scam victimized well-healed would-be gentrifiers, it has received a lot of press. Where are the press reports about the majority of working class Harlemites struggling to afford rising rents in the crumbling ungentrified buildings?

A lot of conspiracy theories swirl in the street about the gentrification of Harlem. Some are true, some not. Gentrification is already bringing more white folks into the neighborhood but black professionals are just as involved. In Harlem gentrification is a race question to be sure but here, as everywhere else, it’s a class question too.

In 1982 Mayor Koch commissioned a ‘Harlem Task Force’ to draw up a redevelopment strategy. They planned a first phase of gentrification along the north end of Central Park and up the west side. 125th Street was to be rebuilt as a ‘commercial corridor for economic development.’ A second residential phase aimed at the area around Mt. Morris Park and would fill in the entire central area north of 116th Street.

Beginning in the 1980’s, that pretty much describes the geography of Harlem gentrification. The first phase was clearly underway in the 1980’s, interrupted by the long recession from 1989 to 1996, and according to recent research, the central area to the west of Mt. Morris Park has been the focus in the 1990s. Dennis Cogsville, president of the defunct Harlem Urban Development Corporation who commuted in from New Jersey, spelled it out in a 1984 interview: ‘Starting on 110th Street we will make a first beachhead on 112th Street. You know, some anchor condominium conversions. Then a second beachhead up on 116th Street. That’s a motherfucker of a street. There’s drugs, crime, everything up there. But we’re going to do it. Essentially the plan is to circle the wagons around and move into Central Harlem from the edges.’

For folks living in Harlem the conversion of the neighborhoods into a ‘gentrification frontier’ – beachheads and circled wagons – is hardly a comforting thought. Starved for investment and ignored by successive government administrations, some welcomed gentrification as a gift from on high. At least now there were supermarkets, fewer shells of buildings, safer and livelier streets – even a Starbucks, the epitome of modern cosmopolitanism. But as the bankers’ blitzkrieg of the 1990s arrived, the reality quickly dawned.

Harlem was last a ‘frontier’ in the seventeenth century, and we all know what happened to the original residents of that frontier. The very language of the frontier tells us, plain as day, what Corcoran and the developers have in mind. Money comes into the neighborhood, sure, but long time residents can’t spend their tight budgets on Starbucks cappuccino and sit on the sidelines as rents begin to soar. If gentrification doesn’t happen, the neighborhood remains starved for good housing, jobs, and services. If gentrification keeps going, displacement surely follows, and old time residents are prevented from enjoying the ‘renaissance.’ It’s a catch-22. The real renaissance is a renaissance in profit rates.

Gentrification affects neighborhoods in cities all over the world and is difficult to fight because it is so decentralized – one house here, another one there. When it is concentrated, as it is in Harlem, there’s more chance of beating back a real estate market that deprives people of decent homes. Gentrification is only stopped in one of two ways. Either the economy goes into recession or people organize to fight for decent housing. The developers, landlords, banks, and City Hall are the chief culprits.

On October 28, more than 300 people marched down 125th Street to ‘Harlem USA.’ They were angry, boisterous, militant. ‘We’re not going to take it any more.’ They have linked up with community groups from around the city and have held another march, this time targeting NYC Housing Court, where tenants are finding it harder and harder to get a fair shake against landlords. The struggle for Harlem has begun. The question is, has it come too late?