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The Humanity of Progress: Perspectives on The New Harlem Renaissance

GENTRIFICATION—reads last week’s headline of Harlem’s historic black-owned and operated newspaper The New York Amsterdam News. Beneath the headline: a photograph of eighty-two year old Calvin Copeland standing in front of his counter at Copeland’s Restaurant, looking forlornly at the camera. Lined up side-by-side behind the counter stand the employees of Copeland’s Restaurant appearing equally dispirited.  Copeland’s Restaurant, which has been serving soul food to the Harlem community since 1958 (well-known for its Gospel Brunch on Sundays) was forced to close its doors on July 29, 2007.  Mr. Copeland claims Harlem’s gentrification was part of the reason for his restaurant’s demise. Copeland’s Restaurant, the Amsterdam News cites, is the “latest casualty” of Harlem’s current economic development. Reporter Tallise D. Moorer writes, “businesses that have been a staple in the community are falling prey to franchises and insurmountable commercial leases. It’s sort of an ethnic cleansing—to the benefit of a handful of millionaires, according to the cries of the community.” 

Does gentrification really amount to “ethnic cleansing” in Harlem? Is this truly what the community feels is happening? It’s a highly controversial topic, and there are many different perspectives. What everybody seems to agree on is that the changes happening in Harlem are inevitable.

Harlem is said by some to have entered a new renaissance, but unlike the first renaissance of the 1920s, known as the black cultural revival that revolved around music, literature and theatre, the New Harlem Renaissance can be characterized mainly by economic development.

Since the beginning of the 1990s crime rates have declined, real estate prices have been skyrocketing, and new shops are popping up all over Harlem. Compared to last year, real estate costs have risen by almost 40% - the biggest rise in all of Manhattan. It is increasingly difficult to find a one-bedroom apartment rental for less than $1000 even on the outskirts of Harlem. On any given day you will find at least a dozen condominiums for sale in the New York Times for about $5 million. Harlem is still lagging behind other parts of Manhattan, but times have changed. Celebrities like Bill Clinton, Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Bill Cosby have come to Harlem, either to live or set up their office or business. Harlem has become hip and increasingly expensive. But what is the cost of progress?

We decided to ask the Harlemites themselves. Many people seem to get a say in the public debate about Harlem: real estate agents, politicians and the cultural elite, but are they able to speak for the people of Harlem? Does the view of The New York Amsterdam News broadly represent the sentiments of Harlem’s residents?  

Harlem’s New (Economic) Renaissance

Harlem development programs began in the 1980s. The Abyssinian Baptist Church involved itself in Harlem’s urban renewal project by establishing the Abyssinian Development Corporation.  One Harlem resident, Abyssinian Baptist Church archivist and co-owner of Harlemadestyleshop, Kevin McGruder, explains his involvement in the Abyssinian Development Corporation (ADC).  The ADC’s goal for Harlem’s economic development during the 1990s was to “link Harlem with the rest of Manhattan.” He discusses how those at the ADC did not foresee that Harlem would be “overcome by the tide of economic power from downtown.” Mr. McGruder explains that those outside of Harlem began to have a greater influence on the neighborhood’s economic development.  Of concern to him is whether Harlem will maintain its predominantly black population, and who will come to control its historically black institutions such as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and The Apollo Theater.  

As former Director of Real Estate Development for the ADC, Mr. McGruder says that the ADC’s priority was to build low-income housing, and it was only later when the ADC was unable to fill their new buildings that they began to focus on middle-class Blacks who were already living in the neighborhood.  And it is the black middle class that seems to be coming out on top in Harlem today. One aspect that Mr. McGruder feels is not emphasized in the main debates regarding Harlem’s economic development is that many middle-class and wealthy blacks are benefiting financially from the development. He claims that no one seems to want to include this perspective in the discussion.  He declares, “One person’s gentrification is another person’s neighborhood redevelopment.” 

Superintendent of the Abyssinian Baptist Church Sunday School Joanne Roberts agrees.  Ms. Roberts, who grew up in Harlem, was forced to move out of the neighborhood when she was younger citing the high level of criminal activity as the main cause. Since the area has become safer she has moved back and welcomes the change.  

Standing in the half-light of a church classroom, with the comings and goings of the church parishioners audible from the floor above, Ms. Roberts explains that those being pushed out are not victims of gentrification. Rather, Ms. Roberts sees it as an issue of personal responsibility: “If you are doing the right thing you can maintain living in Harlem.” She claims that those with a “ghetto mentality” are the ones at risk for being pushed out and adds that, “half of the people don’t even pay rent.” When asked about her opinion about the recent coverage on gentrification by the Amsterdam News Ms. Roberts responded with a wry smile and said, “I don’t read that.”

Harlem and the Media: The New York Times vs. the Amsterdam News

Unlike Ms. Roberts, Mr. McGruder reads the Amsterdam News and is willing to discuss the role the media plays in Harlem.  The two major media sources Mr. McGruder references are The New York Times and the Amsterdam News. Both newspapers have written a great deal about gentrification in Harlem and each contributes to how everyday folks characterize those changes. 

Kevin McGruder contends that recent positive media coverage by the New York Times helped shape Harlem’s new identity.  For him, the media’s newfound interest in portraying Harlem in a positive light is no coincidence. He and other residents speculate that certain newspapers such as the New York Times have close ties to the private real estate industry. He claims that when he was involved with the ADC in the 1990s, administrators would invite the New York Times and other newspapers to groundbreaking ceremonies in order to help promote Harlem’s development projects, but they would not show up. Instead, the media focused on Harlem’s crime. It was only when private real estate companies became more active in Harlem’s development that the New York Times also became interested in going to Harlem to report on its positive changes.  

For this longtime Harlem resident, the issue lies mainly in the inability of either the New York Times or the Amsterdam News to present a balanced portrait of the facts.  With respect to the New York Times, McGruder argues that its representation of newcomers as predominantly white is not a complete portrait of who is really moving in.  He says that many of those settling in are black as well, yet this segment of the newcomer population does not get the same kind of media attention.  

According to him, the Amsterdam News also constructs a skewed picture of the economic development.  He feels that the newspaper incites anger among community members and also ignores the black newcomer.  What he would like to see is the Amsterdam News gearing itself toward activism and promoting a less hostile and more organized community response.  

The New (White) Kids on the Block 

As Mr. McGruder suggests, tensions exist among long-term residents about whites moving into Harlem. At the Citizen Care Center for the Elderly on St. Nicholas Avenue, Alfonso, a 73-year-old resident, relates his apprehensions regarding newcomers. “I have no problem with the people moving in, but I am concerned that those moving in may be opposed to my race.” When asked to further elaborate, Alfonso diverted from the topic.

Resident anxiety surrounding the new white population weighs on the mind of one such newcomer, Anna Wolk.  Ms. Wolk is a recent Hunter College graduate who, with the help of her father, recently purchased a two-bedroom apartment in Harlem. Her new home is on 111th street in Central Harlem, where an increasing number of whites are moving in. The building is close to Central Park and close to the express train that goes downtown in 20 minutes.  On the way up in the brand new elevator in her newly renovated apartment Anna excitedly reveals that the building includes a roof deck—highly coveted by New Yorkers indeed!  Inside the apartment: new hardwood floors, lots of light pouring in through two big windows and brand new stainless steel kitchen appliances. 

Wolk took us to the Spoonbread Too, an old Harlem restaurant serving soul food just like mom used to make. The staff is black while—quite telling of the development¬—three quarters of the clientele are white or Asian. Over dinner, while seated at a table amid adornments familiar to a quaint southern country kitchen, Wolk expresses ambivalence about living in Harlem. She knows that she is a newcomer and conveys a strange, hybrid feeling of both guilt and acceptance about the part she plays in Harlem’s development.

Wolk discusses her decision to buy in such a controversial area: “When I was recently looking for a place to stay, I was really hesitant to look in Harlem because I don’t feel great about what is happening there. We could only afford to buy in a really limited price range so we couldn’t afford to buy anywhere that was totally white, and I don’t want to live in those places anyway. Anywhere we could afford we would be contributing to changing the neighborhood anyway. Where I lived before I wasn’t changing the neighborhood, but in the building I’m living now, it’s a totally different story,” referring to the new residents that are almost all white.

When asked about her contribution to Harlem’s local culture Ms. Wolk says, “I will always feel an outsider to the culture of Harlem. It is so racially rooted—until a bunch of white people move in. But hopefully that will never happen.”   She is aware of the contradiction of her moving in and at the same time wanting Harlem to stay predominantly black: “I really like Harlem the way it is. I feel annoyed when I see a group of white kids walking down the street. So I’m in a weird position!”

Nevertheless, Wolk doesn’t think most newcomers have second thoughts about moving to Harlem. “People are not choosing to live in Harlem; they’re just choosing cheap rents. More space for less money, here you can live by yourself.”

As for the community’s response to her presence, she says, “People on the street would hold me personally responsible for what was happening on a large scale.  I’d hear people mutter ‘Get out of my neighborhood’…but on the other hand, there have been surprising moments where people say ‘Welcome to the neighborhood’ and ‘We’re glad you’re here.’” 

Ultimately, Wolk’s choice to live in Harlem came down to what was best for her. “There’s no way to reconcile feeling weird about it…I have to make the choices that are right for my life.” 

“Round up the dogs…it’s coffee time!”

What’s right for Anna’s life obviously has implications for others within Harlem’s community.  Neal Shoemaker was born and raised in one of Harlem’s housing projects and is concerned about what is happening in these areas due to the influx of new inhabitants. Mr. Shoemaker advocates for the low-income population of Harlem, which he feels needs the most support.  

Mr. Shoemaker is the founder of Harlem Heritage Tours, one of the leading Harlem-based tour companies that give walking tours of the neighborhood. The company is located in the very heart of Harlem on 116th street and Malcolm X Boulevard. The office has an air of times long gone, when Harlem was a centre of the Civil Rights Movement. The walls are covered with black and white photographs of Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.

Shoemaker is one of the most passionate voices for preserving Harlem’s culture.  For him, being a resident and a tour guide allows him the opportunity to engage in community activism.  Harlem Heritage Tours gives him an arena in which to inform the public about some of the negative effects that urban renewal can impose upon the low-income inhabitants of the community.  He is sincerely concerned about the lack of a grassroots element in the decision-making in the community: “A part of the community is not at the table. I don’t see the grassroots being represented.  The guy who is part of the grassroots doesn’t know how to get to the table and nobody wants to go and find him.” 

Additionally, Mr. Shoemaker does not see that the people directing the changes are “embedded in the culture of Harlem.” He says that the new leaders in Harlem are not personally acquainted with the majority of those living in the community: “There are people around here who look black, but are not culturally black.” 

Shoemaker goes to his desk, opens his laptop and says, “Look at this blog.” He points at the computer screen and reads aloud, “Round up the dogs. It’s coffee time!” It is an advertisement for a social gathering on Saturday morning in Harlem where new inhabitants can bring their dogs and have coffee together while discussing neighborhood issues. “Is this Harlem?” he asks rhetorically with an ironic smile. He explains how the newcomers in Harlem arrange all kind of social gatherings such as this that the long-term residents aren’t familiar with and therefore are de facto excluded from. He feels that a lot of decisions are being made informally at these gatherings that have an impact on the culture in Harlem on a small scale. He says, “The newcomers are far better at articulating their wants and needs than the people who have lived here for a long time.” Asked for an example, Shoemaker explains how the annual basketball tournament —a highly attended, lively celebration for the local community—on a nearby playground in Harlem could not have high-volume music this year as it used to, because newcomers complained about the noise. In ways such as this, the everyday life of Harlem has to follow the rules of those who know how to articulate them.  

Kevin McGruder would agree with this point. With respect to who has the most control of the neighborhood, he points out that it becomes a matter of  “economic power.” The folks who have paid $2 million for a condominium are smaller in number, but their influence is far more potent.  

Nevertheless, Shoemaker isn’t reactionary or sentimental in his view on Harlem: “The change is inevitable. It’s gonna happen – has to happen! There has to be a change. There is always some crisis to be addressed. But how are the changes happening in Harlem today? We need a mutual beneficial development. We need a managed change!” Shoemaker suggests that greater emphasis must be placed on quality education for all of Harlem’s youth. For him, empowering the low-income community through education will allow them to meaningfully incorporate into the decision-making process on Harlem’s future. 

“The bitterness the newcomers create isn’t any different than in any other place” 

Like Neal Shoemaker, Dee Cee, owner of the Harlem-based restaurant Strictly Roots, views the development of Harlem as ineludible. Dee Cee, originally from Jamaica, opened his vegan Caribbean restaurant 16 years ago. He does not consider the development a major threat: “Harlem has always been changing, and the changes we see today are not any worse than the changes that have been going on before. There’s always been movement of people coming in and moving out. Some are looking for opportunities, others get fed up with city life.” Dee Cee has seen a shift in his clientele in the last 16 years too; today far more of them are tourists. “I suppose more of the same sort of development is going to happen in Harlem. But I don’t pay too much attention to the neighborhood, more to national issues. But change is inevitable and economic development isn’t getting going without change.”

When asked about the impact of development on his business, however, he replied that Strictly Roots is suffering. “There’s more competition out there, and people are demanding more diversity, so I’ve seen better times. I came to Harlem to open my vegan restaurant because nobody was providing such service at that time.” Dee Cee says the cost of renting his restaurant space has gone up, and that there has been an artificial rise in commercial realty prices since Bill Clinton came to the neighborhood. And points out that despite the rising rents, no substantial alterations or improvements have been made.

Those with resources see the opportunity to make money in Harlem and pursue it. But according to Dee Cee, “everybody needs to adjust, and low-income people have difficulties adjusting.” He offers one possible solution for low-income inhabitants possibly facing eviction: “We could unite and demand humanity in the housing situation in Harlem. Go to City Hall and demand that Bloomberg do something. What have they done the last five years that [is] in the interests of us, regular citizens? People don’t realize their power. The government is supposed to serve the people - people should demand more!”

Gentrification: A Common Urban Phenomenon

Urban historian Steven Petrus points out that gentrification is nothing new.  He specializes in Urban Planning and Development and talks about the various groups that have moved in and out of the city as a result of different economic development programs throughout New York City’s history. Although he acknowledges the importance of Harlem as a historically black neighborhood, he also notes that what once made Harlem unique, such as jazz music and culture, is no longer exclusive to Harlem, but rather has diffused to other parts of New York City.  

Petrus continues and addresses the impact of Columbia University’s proposed expansion.  “I support Columbia,” he says. He goes on to describe how Columbia’s expansion into the manufacturing zone does not pose a real threat to local inhabitants, and that Columbia University will create more jobs for residents.  Petrus explains that demographic change may well be a positive thing.  He questions the territorial attitude espoused by those living in racially segregated enclaves such as Harlem and asks us to consider whether or not it is really beneficial to an already strained community.  

Jakob Vigor, author of the article, “Does Gentrification Hurt the Poor?” clarifies the dialogue on the impact of urban development on low-income residents. He argues that, “Gentrification is merely a side effect of other broad economic trends that affect the poor… residential displacement—the primary focus of most existing literature on the consequences of gentrification—is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for declines in the living standards of poor households.” 

Will This Rising Tide Lift All Boats? 

So the question then becomes: what is being done about the low-income community and its vulnerability in the rising tide of Harlem’s New Renaissance? 

Today, fewer low-income families move into Harlem. More middle- and upper-class people are coming in, both black and white.  The Amsterdam News reports on the closing of Harlem businesses are indeed accurate even if the paper’s position is a reactionary one.  Our respondents’ perspectives did not reflect the extremist views of the Amsterdam News, and in fact, none of them knew anyone who had been forced out of their home.  However, it has been historically proven that gentrification or economic redevelopment changes the demographics of a neighborhood. And although full-scale gentrification in Harlem is not happening yet, a lot of people feel a distinct threat of future eviction, whether real or imagined. The Harlem residents interviewed each aired different perspectives on the consequences of urban renewal, yet they reached a consensus of opinion on the “New Harlem Renaissance”: change is unavoidable. Most expressed mixed feelings with respect to the impact of economic development on Harlem residents, and all voiced concerns regarding the future of Harlem as an African-American stronghold.  

Mr. McGruder offers some insight on the least enfranchised Harlemites: “In a capitalist economy, there is no easy solution to incorporating low-income people. Some solutions that are being used now are trying to designate that a certain amount of low-income housing be developed or preserved, providing tax incentives, [for example] the Low Income Housing Tax Credit for the development of this housing. For small businesses there are even fewer potential solutions since the assumption is that businesses that can't compete get driven out of business. There doesn't seem to be a movement to try to preserve access for these businesses.  If the development of other formerly low-income Manhattan neighborhoods (the Lower East Side, the Upper West Side) provides an example of the future possibilities, the reality is that low-income people will probably not be incorporated in any substantial way on a long-term basis in Harlem.”

Walking the streets of Harlem today one is surrounded by “For Sale” signs, advertisements for condominiums, bulldozers and construction sites amidst the hustle and bustle of a vibrant community. What is striking is an awareness not of an “ethnic cleansing” as such, but perhaps the cleansing by a burgeoning wealthy community of its impoverished residents, who are finding themselves increasingly less relevant in the new economic renaissance. 




•Alfonso: Patron of the Citizen’s Care Center for the Elderly [August 2, 2007]

•Dee Cee: Owner of Strictly Roots Restaurant (7th Ave. and 121st St.) [August 2, 2007]

•Kevin McGruder: Abyssinian Baptist Church archivist, co-owner of Harlemadestyleshop and Ph.D Candidate in History [August 6, 2007]

•Steve Petrus: Urban Historian, Ph.D. candidate in urban planning and development, City University of New York [August 3, 2007]

•Joanne Roberts: Superintendent of the Sunday School at The Abyssinian Baptist Church, Harlem [August 2, 2007]

•Neil Shoemaker: Founder and owner of Harlem Heritage Tours [August 2, 2007]

•Anna Wolk: Computer Scientist [August 1, 2007]

Web sites:

•New Amsterdam News: 

•http://www.amsterdamnews.org/news/default.asp [August 7, 2007]

•New York Times:

http://realestate.nytimes.com/sales/NY/Manhattan_County/Harlem_Morningside_Heights [August 7, 2007]

•Harlem Commonwealth Council

http://harlemcommonwealth.org/ [August 7, 2007]

•Abyssinian Development Corporation 

http://www.adcorp.org/ [August 7, 2007]


•Gill, John Freeman: ‘Paint it White’ in: New York Times, July 30, 2007.

•Moorer, Talise D.: ‘Closure of Copeland’s another sign’ in: New York Amsterdam News, Front page, July 26-August 1, 2007

•Santos, Fernanda: ‘Harlem Mainstay Survived Riots, but Falls to Renewal’ in: New York Times, July 23, 2007.

•Vigdor, Jacob L.: ‘Does Gentrification Harm the Poor?’ in: Gale, William G.: Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs [Brooking Institution Press, 2002], page: 133-182


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