A Black mecca. This is what I knew of where I lived as a child. Harlem was the breeding ground for African-American culture. It was the home of the Harlem Renaissance where several Black artists, writers, and visionaries expressed their artistic genius in unprecedented ways during the early 20th century. It has served influential residents, such as Malcolm X and Langston Hughes. It is the home of the Apollo Theater, where several legendary Black artists began their careers, most notably jazz singers Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington.
Growing up in Harlem showed me at an early age the livelihood of Black culture, and how important it is for that culture to have room to thrive. This early life lesson has made it increasingly troublesome to witness the dimming of the light that is Harlem.
The Red Lobster and the Banana Republic have made the famous Apollo Theater look out of place. There are Starbucks on Harlem street corners where there were not before. The Whole Foods located on Malcolm X Boulevard is arguably the largest physical representation of the changing Harlem. Harlem’s residents deserve fresh and accessible produce among the other consumer goods brought by these businesses, but that is not all that comes with the opening of major businesses in neighborhoods where these businesses have been historically absent.
Gentrification is not an issue specific to Harlem, it occurs in urban areas across the country. It often works through the migration of wealthy residents into urban areas, along with these residents comes businesses such as Banana Republic and Whole Foods. This process raises the economic value of neighborhoods, placing its current residents in positions of home insecurity. 32,500 Black Harlem residents moved out of the area, while 22,800 white residents moved into it, between 2000 and 2005.
Gentrification is ultimately problematic because there is a lack of community investment that follows the migrations of these businesses and residents. The resources and money put into integrating these businesses into the Harlem community are not applied to pre-existing infrastructures such as Harlem’s several public schools and Black businesses. Although research points to gentrification providing new jobs for urban areas, in several cases these new opportunities are not enough to sustain the original, typically low-income residents of these neighborhoods.
Gentrification does not have to push residents out of their neighborhoods. Demanding that newly built housing is affordable and relative to the income of the neighborhood’s current residents is a solution several community leaders in Harlem and other urban areas are presenting. Knowing your elected representatives is more important than one may think. Local officials are often the ones most involved in bringing these changes to our Harlem community, and resident input could be the key to maintaining the Harlem that has allowed Black residents to not only exist fully and safely but also prosper for so long.
Harlem is not a neighborhood that is made by its businesses, it is one that is made by the colorful and unique people who inhabit it. Gentrifying Harlem has cultural implications. The destruction of historic buildings such as 22 West, a restaurant that was often visited by Malcolm X and Black jazz musicians, for newer business opportunities, treats Harlem’s history as trivial.
Harlem is a cultural powerhouse. Gentrification brings a modern change in the form of economic opportunity and we cannot expect to be exempt from this change while the communities around us adapt to it. However, a change that ignores cultural history and the needs of the residents a neighborhood was created to serve is no change at all– it is a regression.
Featured image from the New York Magazine article “Gentrification in Harlem, in Photos” by Christopher Bonanos