The Harlem gentrification: From black to white


The Harlem gentrification: From black to white

The good is obvious. Streets where garbage lay uncollected are now clean. Ugly graffiti has been scoured from buildings and new tree plantings are flowering on street sidewalks. Some of this has been done by the new residents themselves, but much of it has been done by the pressure they have brought to bear on municipal authorities inclined to listen to middle-class whites and ignore the black poor. But the bad the gentrifiers have brought to neighbourhoods is obvious, too.

Several small Caribbean and African-American stores, unable to pay the increased commercial rents, have been forced to shut down. Residential rents have risen, too, by as much as 200 per cent in some areas.

“Whites moved away and now they have come back,” says Clarke, amused that white flight to the suburbs 50 years ago has now reversed itself. “It’s heartening that they have discovered we are not going to eat them.”

No one has done more to convince whites interested in moving to Harlem that blacks aren’t going to “eat them” than Willie Kathryn Suggs, a well- known African-American real estate broker in Harlem. Many housing activists and others blame Suggs for encouraging the rapid pace of change taking place in the neighbourhood.

“Oh yes, I’ve sold to people from Israel, Argentina, Egyptians. I sold six properties to a Norwegian,” she boasts happily. It’s clear it is not personal, and just business. “What am I supposed to do? Tell African-Americans whose house I am selling to sell only to other African-Americans?” That, Suggs shrieks, “is called racism. Look, the people whose house I sell, and get top dollar, love me to death.” 

Gentrification, Suggs says, has pushed prices up and brought the murder rate down. She points to her neighbourhood in Hamilton Heights where she lives in one of Harlem’s most impressive brownstone mansions as an example. In 1990, Suggs says, there were 55 murders. Last year, there was only one. “It’s gentrification on top of the world, but gentrification is not an ugly term,” says Suggs.

Tell that to the many Harlemites living below the poverty line. While a select few are enjoying the high life there, statistics gathered by New York University show central Harlem has the highest unemployment rate in the city. As a consequence, the area has, too, the highest poverty rate in New York City. Bizarrely, in central Harlem, that is where the neighbourhood’s most expensive home, a 4-bedroom, 4-bathroom duplex penthouse on the market for $4.3m, is located. 

Harlem has indeed become a case of the haves and the have-nots. While some fill their faces at fancy new French restaurants on Malcolm X Boulevard, others do not have enough food to feed themselves and their families.

More than 10,000 Harlem households get their food from subsidised food banks and community kitchens, according to a report. For example, the Community Kitchen and Food Pantry, a free food facility for the poor in Harlem, says it provides 50,000 hot meals to locals each month. And the soul of the old Harlem is fast disappearing. Most of the structures and hubs that were black in New York have become white.

As one of the victims of this gentrification, Kaaw Sow of Senegalese Association of America, mournfully concludes: “There won’t be people speaking Wolof here any more. If we go, they will speak about us as history, saying ‘here used to be an African restaurant’ and here used to be this but it is not here any more. It won’t be ‘Little Senegal’ any more. It’s not Harlem, any more.” 


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