Harlem goes upmarket

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"Historically New York's prosperity is always linked to maintaining a high price for real estate."

By Brian Barron
BBC News, New York

After decades in decline, New York's once crime-ridden district of Harlem is seeing a tide of reinvestment. New business, restaurants and residents are moving in, but gentrification is bringing new problems.

It is 35 years since I first went to Harlem, and for much of the intervening period it fully deserved its reputation as one of the shabbiest, most violent corners of the Big Apple.

Taxi drivers would often cut through Harlem bringing you in from the airport. But first they would make sure your luggage and briefcase were not visible, lest an unfriendly soul take a sudden liking to them in the mean streets you were traversing.

But in the last 10 years - as New York built on its success in reversing the high tide of murders, serious offences and the massive use of crack cocaine - Harlem has been on an upswing.

Instead of burned-out warehouses and graffiti of men with guns, there are now new buildings rising wherever you look.

Historically New York's prosperity is always linked to maintaining a high price for real estate.

So Harlem today, from 96th Street beside Central Park, all the way to 155th Street, is proving ripe for speculators.

That does not only mean financiers with deep pockets. Many ordinary New Yorkers are piling in.

The sister of a friend of mine paid $300,000 for an imposing townhouse in the late 90s and now it is worth at least six times that.

Business opportunities

Gentrification is swiftly changing Harlem.

On a stretch of Madison Avenue which was once bleak and half-abandoned there are rows of new condos in the style of 19th Century brownstones, the name that stems from the dark brown finish applied to the original houses.

Next to a brand new wine store is the Harlem tea room, just opened by 33-year-old Patrice Clayton.

She grew up in Harlem when black middle class families like hers were having a thin time amid the mayhem of street gangs and the failure of New York's political establishment.

Now she is relaxed and happy.

"I think the subconscious reason I moved back here was the 9/11 tragedy, " says Patrice, "I worked in Wall Street and I saw the two planes fly into the World Trade Center next door."

After a pause she adds: "For two years after, my office view every day was of the 'pit', as we called the excavation site of what was left of the Twin Towers. So it was pretty traumatic for me."

There are many examples of young African American entrepreneurs like Patrice investing in Harlem.

Some get backing from an influential body called the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation headed by an executive named Kenneth Knuckles.

He thinks it is inevitable that gentrification is controversial.

"We need this transformation, the money coming in on the scale it is now," says Mr Knuckles.

"But we have to be careful that in the process of gentrification we don't wash away all those families who can't afford the rapidly rising rents."

Eviction threat

It is not hard to find public misgiving.

"Whites out of Harlem, whites out of Harlem," chants a middle-aged black woman as I walk towards her.

At least she is smiling.

She tells me her protest is directed against newcomers buying and renting the luxury apartment blocks around the corner.

One of the most famous streets is Astor Row, lined with tree-shaded properties, now dilapidated, but dating from a century or more ago when Harlem was a sanctuary for the rich.

nside St Ambrose Episcopal Church, a weekly protest meeting against gentrification is under way.

The Reverend Wayne Dodson, a British-educated black pastor in his 40s, says many families in Astor Row are being evicted by landlords cashing in on Harlem's property boom.

"What's happening is unfair and it's causing fear and unhappiness here," says Mr Dodson.

Cultural change

This being New York, market forces seem bound to win the day.

But sympathetic voices can be heard - including some political leaders - calling for more low-cost housing so that Harlem is not drained of its long-term residents.

Still, among many positive changes, are cultural things like a well-attended book signing in a new African American bookshop by a young woman publishing her first, semi-autobiographical novel. A harrowing tale of a troubled childhood.

A few hours later I was in another new attraction.

The rebuilt Minton Playhouse, famous as a jazz centre in the "Roaring Twenties", and hopping again after being shut for over 30 years.

Harlem is rejoining the New York mainstream and no longer do you fear for your wallet, or your safety, as you step outside the door at midnight.