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The Harlem gentrification: From black to white

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The Harlem gentrification: From black to white

And the newcomers do not come quietly into the neighbourhood. They announce their arrival loudly, usually via the media. Fascinated by these white gentrifiers’ journey into Harlem, American newspapers regularly commission first person articles from them about their life among the locals. Jordan Teicher’s “Confessions of a Harlem Gentrifier”, published in Salon magazine, is one typical example:

“I have been in Harlem for just over six months…with no historical ties here…I’m an outsider,” writes Teicher, as if he were Christopher Columbus sending a dispatch from a distant, and hitherto undiscovered land.

Next, Teicher tackles the chief question a white gentrifier in a black neighbourhood wants answered. Is it safe? “I’ve been met with nothing less than kindness here,” he offers. “I have felt safe walking the streets at night.”

Only once did the writer confess to feeling unwelcome in Harlem. That occurred, he explains, when a black woman called him a “white devil” and violently shook her umbrella at him. “I suspect that woman was simply crazy…rather than a representative of the neighbourhood,” says Jordan Teicher, careful not to discourage gentrification. The gentrifiers write books, too, about the challenges they face “civilising” their new neighbourhoods and the locals there. 

“So why does it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better?” Lee asked the mostly white audience at the Black History Month event in Brooklyn.

Take, for example, the ridiculously offensive book Home Girl: A Dream House on a Lawless Block by Judith Matloff, a one-time foreign correspondent in Africa and in Russia who buys a house in Harlem in what, she claims, is “one of the biggest drug zones in the country”. Matloff claims, in her memoir, that she and her family won over “brazen drug dealers”, “eccentric neighbours” and learned, in time, to “appreciate” Harlem’s “rough charms”.

It is such views, that have made black New Yorkers mad as hell and determined not to take it any more. In Fort Greene, Brooklyn, another black New York neighbourhood being bleached white by gentrifiers, black people there, like Spike Lee, director of the films Malcolm X and Do The Right Thing, have decided to fight back.

Speaking at a lecture for Black History Month in February, Lee, fed up at how the Fort Greene neighbourhood where he grew up in the 1970s had been altered by gentrification, said white newcomers had the “Christopher Columbus syndrome”, which led them to sail in, plant their flag here and there, and claim to have discovered what had been there all along.

“So why does it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better?” Lee asked the mostly white audience at the Black History Month event in Brooklyn.

“Why’s the garbage getting picked up more regularly now?” Lee asked. “We’ve been here!” Why, he wanted to know, did it take the arrival of whites in black neighbourhoods for the police to do their job and police the community. Spike Lee had nothing but good questions, pointing up disparity and discrimination. “Why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the South Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed-Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better?” Lee asked.

But everyone knows why. Because as Una Clarke, the Jamaican- born former New York City Councilperson, said (when asked why there had been improvements in the working class Crown Heights district she represented in the city council): “The whites are coming. The whites are coming.” Clarke is playfully echoing the famous call to arms in the American Revolutionary War, “The British are coming.”

The arrival of newcomers, says Clarke, sitting in her office in Crown Heights, a neighbourhood known for its large West Indian populations, has its good side and its bad side.

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