All New York neighborhoods change over time, some dramatically. But new census numbers show that Harlem, long the political and cultural capital of African-American life, is on the verge of being lost forever. That would not only deeply diminish New York City but would weaken the national political clout of blacks.
It’s ironically occurring at a time when an African-American has just been voted into the highest office in the land. It is doubly ironic that the neighborhood’s current political leadership—which itself is African-American—deserves much of the blame.
A series of scandals concerning Rep. Charles Rangel’s vacation retreat and fund-raising efforts have been all over the news lately. They haven’t mattered all that much to most Harlemites. What matters far more to them is the fact that Rangel and Gov. Paterson are neighbors, with spacious rent-stabilized apartments, in the same luxury complex.
Policies supported by most of Harlem’s black elected officials, but opposed by local community boards, have spurred the area’s economic revival. The Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, the upzoning of 125th St. and Columbia University’s push to expand by 17 acres all have spurred an atmosphere of speculative excitement.
It’s usually a good thing when a neighborhood is upwardly mobile. But the frenzy has left many Harlemites—let’s be honest, lower-income black and Latino folk—on the outside looking in.
Since 2000, as Harlem’s median household income has risen by nearly 20%, the number of white residents in Harlem has more than tripled. The incomes of whites in the neighborhood climbed by 52%; that of blacks increased by just 9%.
Making reelection into an art form, incumbent politicians weren’t trying to offend voters, but to bring about a new Harlem Renaissance. Bottom line: With the cost of real estate skyrocketing (the average price of a new condo hovers around $900,000), most long-term inhabitants just can’t afford it. For all the talk about building affordable housing, the action doesn’t match the rhetoric.
Never mind, insist Rangel and others. They concede housing prices are a problem, but think new apartments—even expensive ones—are better than boarded-up buildings.
They try to reassure us: Despite big changes, Harlem will stay Harlem.
Interviewing the powerful Harlem congressman on this subject in 2007, Mark Jacobson wrote in New York magazine, “There’s some irony that Rangel, a link to an earlier, more flamboyant uptown, will be remembered as a prime mover to this shinier, corporate version. It is a legacy that will no doubt preclude the rise of another Charlie Rangel.”
It is happening just about everywhere. Like Harlem, Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine, New Orleans and even the notorious Watts section of L.A. all confront gentrification.