You are here

Gentrification breeds tension in New York's Harlem

In 1969, Samuel Hargress bought his Harlem jazz bar and the surrounding building for US$35,000. Half a century later, he says real estate brokers keep pestering him to sell - for US$10 million.

[NEW YORK] In 1969, Samuel Hargress bought his Harlem jazz bar and the surrounding building for US$35,000. Half a century later, he says real estate brokers keep pestering him to sell - for US$10 million.

Such is the breakneck pace of gentrification in one of the most storied neighborhoods of Manhattan, for decades a heartland of African American culture that critics now complain is undergoing intrusive - and whiter - change.

"All of my friends are millionaires now," says the 81-year-old Hargress, sitting in the dimly lit family-run Paris Blues. "You couldn't imagine it - the situation then and now." Hargress moved to Harlem in 1960. Those were the days of the civil rights movement, of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, the preacher and activist who was based in Harlem.

It is the neighborhood where Ella Fitzgerald won amateur night at the Apollo Theater in 1934, where The Cotton Club launched Duke Ellington's career - the epicenter of the 1920s-30s "Harlem Renaissance." But the 1970s and 1980s brought years of decline, as those years did in other US inner cities. Hargress describes streets awash with crime, drugs, pimps and crooked police.

Market voices on:

Stroll the boulevards today and urbane New Yorkers sip chilled glasses of white wine in chic cocktail bars, dine in French restaurants or choose from dishes made with kale and avocado.

Churches, hit by rising maintenance costs and declining congregations, are selling up. Luxury condominiums proliferate. Upmarket supermarket chain Whole Foods moved in.

This September, a three-family townhouse sold for $4.15 million, a new Harlem record.

Most point to the 2008 economic crash, which flooded the market with "affordable" properties, as the real impetus for change.

Investors swooped, development boomed and wealthier - often white - families started to move in.

But wealth disparity, as anywhere else, breeds tension. The owner of one recently opened coffee shop said that while business was growing, he had also called the police on a number of occasions.

"People just coming in and harassing customers, threatening our employees - we've had numerous attempts to steal the tip jars," he said. "It's just the nature of being in this neighborhood right now." Stories have proliferated of newcomers complaining about the noise of poorer neighbors escaping tiny apartments to listen to music or barbeque on the sidewalk.

"I just say, 'Why did you move here? Nobody invited you'," says preservationist Michael Henry Adams, who has lived in Harlem since 1985.

"You think these people didn't do this before you arrived? If it offends you, leave. You're not forced to come here - would you go to Paris and tell Parisians, 'Oh we don't like croissants?'" But if rising prices benefit property owners like Hargress and bring better services, lower-income residents, disproportionately Hispanics and African Americans, are being pushed out by landlords eyeing a wealthier clientele.

For every sign of affluence, there are signs of pressing need. Queues snake outside churches on food pantry mornings.

Around 30 per cent of Harlem residents live below the federal poverty level, and median income ranges from US$31,000 to US$39,840.

Yet Riccardo Ravasini, owner of Rava Realty, says the average one-bedroom apartment in Harlem costs US$2,265 a month to rent.

In a city where most landlords require an annual pre-tax income 40 times the monthly rent, that predicates earnings of US$90,000 a year.

When chef Julian Medina opened a bright new taco joint in East Harlem, he thought that most of his customers would be Hispanic. Instead they're mostly white Americans.

"It's just crazy," the 42-year-old Medina told AFP at his La Chula taqueria. "And they're like 'Oh, thank you for opening because we don't have anything here.'" During the evening rush, the restaurant is packed with smart young people gorging on beef tongue, pig cheek or sweet potato and chorizo tacos. Its bright, inviting decor sticks out on a street otherwise replete with old-fashioned delis and dollar stores.

"Everything evolves," says Medina when asked about gentrification. "This neighborhood needs something like this." But opening a restaurant in East Harlem is not the bargain it might once have been, even for a chef who runs a string of high-end restaurants downtown.

"Back in the day, I would rent this place, I don't know, for a third of the price, but now not anymore," he said. "The market in New York is just getting crazy." Rachel Meltzer, assistant professor of urban policy at The New School, says while gentrification brings better services, it is harder and harder for city authorities, led by left-leaning Mayor Bill de Blasio, to mitigate the negative side-effects.

"It's hard. The reality is in much of these neighborhoods that if property is privately owned, there's not much the city can do," she says.

But that's cold comfort to Adams, recalling an attempt by realtors to rename South Harlem "SoHa" - a play on downtown's eye-wateringly expensive SoHo.

"My bottom line is that if I and other black people who aren't rich can't live here, I don't give a damn what they call it. It won't be Harlem and they might just as well call it Trump Town," he says.