Forum charts Harlem’s changes: From Black Mecca to private market
By Karen Juanita Carrillo, Amsterdam News, 4 May 2005.
“This housing boom is creating a ripple effect,” political economist John Rynn said during last week’s Harlem Tenants Council forum ‘From Black Mecca to Private Market: Will Blacks still be able to live in Harlem?’ “As prices for rent increase on the Upper West Side, residents there are looking to rent in Harlem.”
Harlem, which has served as Black America’s cultural Mecca for more than a century, was once the place where Langston Hughes exalted in seeing nothing but the various shades of African faces. But these days, you’re as likely to see the faces of the neighborhoods’ white residents – as they venture out to do their weekend shopping or as they’re getting off the A train at 125th Street before heading to their Harlem homes.
White residents throughout the New York City area have been casting glances at traditionally Black and Latino neighborhoods like Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Williamsburg, Loisaida, Fort Greene and Crown Heights for a number of years now. And as they’ve expressed interest in moving into what were once landlord and public policy neglected areas, rental prices have gone up and developers have come flocking.
At the Harlem Tenants Council (HTC) forum that took place on Friday, April 22 at Harlem’s State Office Building, Rynn was part of a panel that included Prof. Robin D. G. Kelly, labor leader Brenda Stokely, housing activist Nellie Bailey, and Prof. Lionel McIntyre, moderated by “Like It Is” host Gil Noble. Panel members talked about the market force changes that are dramatically altering the cultural and societal appearance of Harlem. The Harlem Tenants Council has been holding forums and taking part in protests to keep the community aware of what it can do to stop the onslaught.
“We have always been in a situation where we are disposable people,” District Council 1707 President Brenda Stokely told forum attendees. “There was no effort by the City to beautify Harlem when only Blacks were living here. I’m angry not because I’m against development – that’s a silly argument! I’m angry because the City has only felt our neighborhoods worthy of development when we’re not here.”
When some 85 percent of Harlem’s brownstones and buildings were owned by New York City, the properties were left to rot and you often found trees growing through the center of brownstone shells. Former Mayor Ed Koch initiated a project with the aid of Columbia University to have the City sell those properties. But the terms of that initiative effectively excluded Harlem residents: area brownstones were auctioned to anyone with a minimum $60,000 salary, when most Harlem residents averaged $17,000 incomes.
Alongside the construction boom in what is now being termed “Upper Manhattan,” there is an orchestrated campaign to recast the traditionally Black Mecca. Once characterized as crime-ridden and dangerous, Harlem Tenants Council President Nellie Bailey says The New York Times is among the leaders in now portraying Harlem as “safe” and as a place to find the best buys at trendy new boutique stores.
“They want this community to be a Mecca in terms of tourism,” Bailey commented, as she talked about the increase in tour buses and local restaurants that cater to the idea of Harlem as a Black Mecca. So while traditional service providers to Harlem residents lose funding and begin decreasing and even eliminating their services – like Harlem Legal Services, which is due to close up shop in Harlem and move downtown – “public policy will have everything available for the white gentrification flowing into Harlem,” Bailey said.
“We have to figure this out – we’re in a trap, we’re in a jam,” Prof. Lionel McIntyre said. Pointing to the 1968 Kerner Commission report, which characterized the activists who protested urgently enough to change the situation of Black communities during the Civil Rights Movement as “underemployed, frustrated, militant, 16-year-olds,” McIntyre complained that today’s youth simply aren’t militant enough to create major changes. “We have to figure out a correct analysis of exactly what’s going on here,” he said, and “devise a strategy for an analysis of the issues.”
Any analysis of current trends can still look to the past for inspiration, Bailey told the forum: just as there was a tent protest to stop Columbia University’s attempts to takeover Morningside Park for construction of a gym in 1968, there was a one day tent protest on Columbia’s campus on April 27th. Termed “Bollingerville” after University President Lee Bollinger, the University’s Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification sponsored protest was an effort to show the University’s faculty and students some of the actual Harlem residents their school will be displacing, as it makes further expansionist inroads into Manhattanville.
“They don’t want us to have anything, they want to swallow us up,” an older woman in the crowd said as the forum drew to a close. “They did this to us downtown,” she continued, referring to the once-predominantly Black and Latino San Juan Hill neighborhood, which had residents displaced in the 1950s to make way for the building of what is today Lincoln Center. “Therefore, you have to know: your children will fight this, your grandchildren will fight this, and your great-grandchildren will fight this. It just won’t end!”
This article appeared in Edition 167 of Voices That Must Be Heard.