Now that IBREA has started its pilot program in Harlem, our attention is focused there and we are learning more about its people and its problems. Multiple community leaders we have spoken with have found a way to drop the word “gentrification” into the conversation. Harlem is changing but possibly not for the better. It seems that Harlem is the latest in a series of neighborhoods that have undergone transformations from ethnically diverse but economically struggling areas to increasingly white, economically developed hotspots.
A New York Times article in the real estate section from early last year describes a 30-something upper middle class couple’s search for an affordable place to live with lots of living space. They realize they can no longer afford to live with the standards they are accustomed to in the Upper West Side. Their search ends up leading them to West 132nd St, just within Harlem’s borders. Their real estate agent said that the same spacious brownstone they found would have cost them $400,000 more if it were just 10 blocks south. The wife and new Harlem resident expresses her satisfaction with their new area, saying that their new place has everything on her checklist and provides them with a multicultural atmosphere that reminds them of “what New York used to be.”
This couple’s story is one of many in the saga of New Yorkers who want to remain culturally relevant and be “10 steps ahead of the game”, as stated by the real estate agent quoted in the New York Times article. In their living experiences, New Yorkers look for inexpensive and authentic experiences but ironically, upper middle class people moving in droves to find these multicultural experiences is what threatens the diversity of these authentic areas. Educational organization Humanity in Action bemoans the loss of local food and jazz venues as well as street vendors and performers that used to characterize the area. Their article on Harlem’s gentrification talks about local residents’ fear that these new economic developments will not benefit them or their culture but rather will push them out. Indeed, many old time Harlem residents with rent controlled apartments are actually being bullied out of their homes by their landlords, who could make up to 5 times more if they let in new people at market rates. For more information, check out the Humanity in Action article link above.
If Harlem wants to avoid becoming overrun with Starbucks and retain its local culture, the answer will be an internal one. As the Human in Action article states, mobilization will have to occur from within. Harlem residents will have to take advantage of the government-subsidized affordable housing that is currently available and make sure that their credit is in order so that they can effectively keep these spaces. Development programs that benefit local youth and adults will be key in creating strong leaders who can in turn shape their own visions for Harlem’s future. The West Harlem Development Corporation (WHDC), among other programs and funds, is offering a substantial amount of grants for just this purpose: to support growth and progress that stimulates the community already living in Harlem, instead of trying to solve the problem by attracting a completely new community all together. Through working with high-schoolers and preconception, parenting and pregnant women, IBREA hopes to be a part of the process of helping local Harlemites create a brighter future for themselves while retaining their unique history and culture.