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The Harlem gentrification: From black to white

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The Harlem gentrification: From black to white

Something is changing in New York’ s Harlem and other black neighbourhoods, and it is all to do with the gentrification of the once predominantly black areas. Leslie Gordon Goffe writes on how the hubs of black soul – from barbershops to restaurants – are increasing being “whitewashed”. This is a sign of the times.

Not long ago, these black areas were where white people feared to tread, generally unjustifiably. But today, swathes of young, white gentrifiers are on the march, changing the colour and complexion of black New York. Today in Harlem, fancy French restaurants, German beer gardens, upscale supermarkets which sell nothing longtime locals eat or can afford, are replacing black bookshops and barbershops and soul food joints. 

Walk down Harlem’s Malcolm X Boulevard, and you are as likely to see as many whites as blacks on it, and you will see as many whites relaxing in Marcus Garvey Park. Today the black population in Harlem has fallen to its lowest level in almost 100 years. On the other hand the proportion of white people now living in Harlem has more than doubled, according to statistics from the City University of New York.

Only 672 whites lived in central Harlem in 1990, according to census figures. By 2000, that number had leapt to 2,200. By 2008, this had doubled and tripled and quadrupled to 13,800. Since then, many more white people have come to Harlem and many more are on their. With property prices generally lower in Harlem than other areas in New York City, they also come in the hope of snapping up bargains. Harlem became a haven in the early 1900s for African-Americans escaping racial terrorism in the South.

It’s clear Harlem is no longer a local black people’s haven. it is, instead, a hotspot for high income hipsters

It became a haven, too, for West Indians, who arrived in the 1920s, and Puerto Ricans, who arrived in the 1950s. And it became a haven in the 1980s for West African immigrants who, because so many of them settled there, called a section of Harlem “Little Senegal”.

“This gentrification is affecting us mentally,” complains Kaaw Sow, general manager of the Senegalese Association of America, which is located in Harlem’s “Little Senegal” area. The area had been home to a host of African shops selling palm oil and fonio, and restaurants which cooked djebu jen. These are disappearing fast.

 Kaaw Sow says the arrival of wealthy whites has pushed rents in the area up and led the landlord who owns the Association’s storefront offices to raise the rent from $1300 per month to close to $6000 dollars.

Unable to afford this, the Senegalese Association will soon move out of the offices it has occupied for almost 30 years.

“They are making us go away and it won’t be ‘Little Senegal’ any more when we have to go away,” says Kaaw Sow.

It’s clear Harlem is no longer a local black people’s haven. It is, instead, a hotspot for high income hipsters attracted by the neighbourhood’s high quality architecture and by the easy commute to New York City’s commercial and business districts downtown. Harlem is a hotspot, too, for interlopers eager to experience the urban, uptown African-American experience close up and in person.

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