Posted on March 29, 2010

There Goes the Neighbourhood: Change Sweeps Black America’s Cultural Home

Tim Padgett, Time, March 29, 2010

For much of the last century Harlem was the heart of the black community, but now some locals fear that whites and Hispanics are invading their turf

There was a time when the sight of Sandra Schulze’s blond hair in the middle of Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park would have been a shock. But last week, as the 38-year-old graphic designer played with her two-year-old son, it was more a sign of the times.

Harlem has long been one of the most famed names in black American culture. The neighbourhood produced jazz greats, political giants and sports heroes. It kept a firm black foothold in the heart of Manhattan. But that is changing, and fast. Schulze, who moved to Harlem from Connecticut a week ago with her advertising executive husband, is the new face of what was once a place synonymous with either black pride or black ghetto-isation. Not that Schulze, who is German, sees it that way. She just sees a wonderful place to raise her son, with cheap rents, enormous apartments and friendly locals. “So far, it’s been wonderful. It is a little like Paris, a little like Berlin. I love it,” she gushed.

Schulze is part of a tide of newcomers to Harlem that is changing the historic neighbourhood. In Greater Harlem, black Americans no longer make up a majority. They comprise about four in 10 people, being pushed out by white gentrifiers and the explosive growth of the Latino population of Spanish Harlem. In fact, the black population of Greater Harlem is at its lowest in absolute terms since the 1920s. Those figures are from 2008, but a new census will take a snapshot of America on 1 April 2010 and its results will be announced later this year. For Harlem, one thing is almost certain: the neighbourhood will continue to have become less black and more white and brown.

That is mimicking trends at a national level. Throughout US history black people have been the most prominent ethnic minority group. That is no longer true. Now about 13% of Americans are black, compared with 15.5% who are Latino, and the gap is growing. If America had an “official” minority, it would now be Latinos, not blacks. Some would argue this could be a sign of progress in race relations. With the US having its first black president, it could mean that black Americans have finally joined the mainstream of American society.

But the recession has shown that black people still remain massively disadvantaged. No other ethnic group has suffered as much in the economic downturn. The black unemployment rate of 16% is now twice that of whites. Blacks are now three times more likely than whites to live in poverty. A black man may sit in the Oval Office, but black America’s tenuous grip on prosperity has been weakened in the recession by joblessness, foreclosures and poverty. “When America gets a cold, black America gets pneumonia. That is what we have now seen,” said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University.

In Harlem, that means the black population may not be able to hang on to what has been its own turf for almost 100 years. This is the neighbourhood that boasts the Apollo Theatre, where generations of black stars, including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown launched their careers. This is where, during the “Harlem Renaissance” in the 1920s and 1930s, black culture and politics flowered. This is where Malcolm X preached. It is the place where countless soul food restaurants once served up fried chicken and biscuits, transmitting the culinary memory of the south for the descendants of black migrants who made the trek north for a better life.

Though prices dipped at the height of the recession, overall Harlem property values have more than doubled in the last ten years. Many new buildings have sprung up boasting plush new apartments at prices beyond the wildest dreams of many locals. An apartment block on 116th Street has homes that cost up to $980,000 . Or if you fancy buying and renovating an entire house, an elegant Harlem brownstone home will currently cost you $899,000.

It is no surprise that the changes in Harlem anger some. Tarik Haskins, 61, makes a living by selling CDs from a stall on 125th Street, the long thoroughfare which is Harlem’s Main Street and on which the Apollo stands. He is furious at the changes he sees around him. “It is a threat to the indigenous people. We do not have the same salaries as these new people. Our choices are more limited,” he said. What is the answer? “We have to organise,” replied Haskins, who proudly wears a Black Panther badge.

Any attempt to organise will have to take place despite a collapse of traditional black political influence in Harlem. For many years Harlem produced a succession of black political leaders who often rose to national prominence. Most recently there was the rise of the so-called “Gang of Four” who gained power in Harlem during the 1960s and 1970s and included David Dinkins, the former New York mayor. But now the only one of the four still in office is a congressman, Charlie Rangel, who is being investigated for alleged ethical abuses. The gang also helped craft the career of David Paterson, the black governor of New York, but he, too, is mired in scandal, his career effectively over. Thus the old machine that once ensured black influence in much of New York’s politics has disappeared as demographics have changed.

But not everyone is mourning the loss of the old ways. Instead, they say that Harlem has always been a changing neighbourhood and its history has to be seen through a longer lens than just the past 100 years as a black community. After all, its origins are Dutch, and before it was black it was a Jewish area. It once boasted a large Italian population, and Irish and Finnish communities. “Harlem is not a static neighbourhood. It is crazy to think that Harlem is going to stay fixed as one thing,” said Gillespie.

That makes sense to another newcomer, David Stoler, a writer and teacher. He has just moved into southern Harlem near the top end of Central Park. Sitting in his apartment, Stoler–who is Jewish–also has no time for those who think a city neighbourhood should stay the same. “I view the city as an organism. It grows and it changes. That is what makes a city into a city. It is constantly reinvented,” he said.

Stoler does not see himself as an invader. “I teach in local schools in Harlem. I love the soul food restaurant on the corner. I play soccer on 125th Street. I am part of the neighbourhood and I am an artist, which means I am hardly rich,” he said. But if Stoler is the face of the new Harlem, then perhaps the neighbourhood, like the rest of the US, has simply become less easily defined in the age of Obama. Walking down 125th Street, the people crowding the sidewalk are a mix of blacks, Asians and whites.

Some black residents welcome the changes. Frank Caldwell, 36, is a jobless financial adviser, laid off in the recession. Last week he was playing his saxophone on 125th Street to earn some cash. He was born in Harlem and has no qualms about its changing identity. “If a new class of people is coming in, then I think the cultural life here will pick up. They can bring something to Harlem,” he said.

That is a way of saying that the US is now a country where all can benefit equally in the good times, and all will suffer equally in the bad times. Yet many experts say the recession has shown that black people remain left behind in Obama’s America. And if they lose Harlem, where will they go?

Tarik Haskins does not have an answer. But he is determined to stay. “Harlem is a cultural mecca for African Americans,” he said. “I don’t want to move somewhere else.”