The Battle of Harlem

By Harvey D. Shapiro

For decades Harlem has been recognized as the capital of black urban America. This New York City neighborhood, located near the upper tip of Manhattan, has long considered itself the political, intellectual, and artistic epicenter of the nation’s black population. But Harlem is in the midst of a profound and accelerating transformation: In a word, it’s becoming increasingly white. In “Greater Harlem,” blacks are no longer a majority of the population and seemingly every day more whites and Asians are moving into Harlem while African-Americans are moving out. A turning point in the American revolution was the Battle of Harlem in 1776, and now a new battle of Harlem is unfolding, a battle for the soul of this historic neighborhood.
Manhattan is shaped like a cigar, and Harlem stretches across its upper region, from roughly the north end of Central Park at 110th Street to 155th Street. The eastern part of this band, East Harlem, was once populated by Italian immigrants, but now it is largely Hispanic. The center of this band, Central Harlem, was heavily Jewish until the 1920s, when Jews began moving out and large number of blacks moved in, soon constituting seemingly all of the area’s population.
As Central Harlem became the most prominent black neighborhood in America, it became the center of black intellectual and artistic life. Ideologues like Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey were based in Harlem. So were many writers like James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright. The Apollo Theater on 125th Street became a world-famous cultural icon, a place to see James Brown and B.B. King, Ella Fitzgerald and Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson. New York City’s first black mayor, David Dinkins, and New York state’s first black governor, David A. Patterson, both came from Harlem.
But now Harlem’s black population is smaller than at any time since 1970. In Central Harlem, blacks account for 60 percent of residents, but this black population has declined by more than 30 percent. Overall, Blacks make up only 38 percent of the population of Greater Harlem, which includes East and West Harlem. Whites, a category that didn’t even register in the 1990 census, now comprise about 11 percent of the total population. Moreover, the Hispanic population, once concentrated in East Harlem, has increased 27 percent since 2000 and is now at an all-time high.
Two powerful forces are driving Harlem’s historic transformation. Upper middle class professionals, black as well as white, are drawn to Harlem’s solid if often rundown housing stock. As prices for “brownstones” – New York’s classic four-story town houses – have risen upwards of $2 million in Manhattan and Brooklyn–would-be buyers have been looking further afield. They have discovered the same kind of houses in Harlem, dilapidated in some cases, and with dodgy surroundings, but solid. So the classic gentrification process has been unfolding in Harlem: First come the pioneers with more taste than money, then come the slightly adventurous, comfortable to find at least some people like themselves, and then come the camp followers, piling in and bidding up prices. Many of Harlem’s newcomers are dual income 30-soomething professionals, some are black but more are white. A 2008 census found that 22 percent of the white households in Harlem had moved to their current home within the previous year.
Meanwhile, many of the black residents of Harlem are eager to move on. They have not been living there to exercise their black consciousness; they moved in because that’s all they could afford, and that’s the only place that would rent to them. Now better and cheaper housing is drawing them elsewhere. Changing white attitudes on race – and equal opportunity laws — have made it possible to move into what were once white neighborhoods. Many are eager to move to the suburbs, and, surprisingly, a substantial number are moving to the South, reversing the Great Migration that brought millions of blacks to the north in search of jobs. Despite efforts to invoke black solidarity, it turns out many middle class blacks aspire to the same “American dream” as the children of white European immigrants: A home of their own with a back yard and a car.
Unlike other gentrification stories, in Harlem whites are not exactly pushing blacks out so much as replacing them. It is not clear if this demographic change is the chicken or the egg in the revival of Harlem’s physical landscape. During the 19650s and ‘60s, the city built high rising housing projects in Harlem that concentrated troubled families. Drugs became a major problem. Street crime was rampant. And numerous buildings were abandoned or set on fire. In 1964, there were race riots. The Apollo Theater closed for several years as the level of crime deterred attendance. But in recent years, Harlem has shared in the dramatic decrease in the crime rate in New York. Meanwhile, urban renewal projects have torn down slums and spruced up many blocks, while poverty programs, along with a stronger job market have provided more income for Harlem residents.
Public officials have been working for years to upgrade the area’s main shopping street, 125th Street. The state government put a major office building there. And Bill Clinton put his office there in 2001 when he first left the Presidency – he’s since moved downtown. Now the major U.S. chain stores are opening up. Even Whole Foods, the yuppie outpost known for organic food, is planning to open on 125th Street. All this makes for better shopping, but these stores drive up the rent and drive out the black-oriented small businesses selling hair straighteners and soul music.
In many ways, there is a sense that a torch has been passed in Harlem. In music, for example, jazz and soul were nurtured in Harlem, but many of the current rap and hip hop stars are coming from Brooklyn or Queens – or from Los Angeles and Atlanta.
Similarly, Harlem’s preeminent role in politics seems to be fading. The city’s ethnic leaders hold power on the basis of their ability to deliver large blocks of voters to politicians who win their favor. But it’s less and less clear who can deliver what in Harlem.
Once Adam Clayton Powell Jr., was one of the few blacks in Congress, and he spoke not only for a black neighborhood but in some instances for the nation’s black population. Now, the city, and the nation, are filled with black leaders.
Within Harlem, thanks to redistricting, Harlem voters are now just one part of a Congressional district that includes a broad swath of the Bronx populated by Hispanics, so blacks make up only half of the districts eligible voters. Rep. Charles Rangel, who unseated the first black Congressman from New York, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., in 1970, is running for reelection this year. Now 84 years old, Rangel had to work hard to convince a largely non-black electorate that neither his age, nor the corruption allegations surrounding his use of funds and apartments should bar him from reelection. The voters bought this argument, and Rangel turned back State Sen. Adriano Espaillat , a Hispanic challenger, but it was a difficult campaign and Rangel found himself courting the substantial number of white voters who are now in his district.
State and national politicians still make the requisite photo op stops in Harlem. But black political power in New York has been flowing to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, and more of the city’s black leaders, particularly the most militant ones, are drawn from there. The black population is bigger and more concentrated in central Brooklyn.
These days, the tour buses still pass through Harlem, loaded with white Europeans eager to see the storied neighborhood. On Sunday mornings, these buses deliver tourists to the major black churches, to hear the storied gospel singers. But when the services end, it’s not just the tourists who depart; so do many of the congregants, off to new homes in other parts of the city or suburbia.
The same kind of process that is transforming Harlem, has reshaped one ethnic neighborhood after another in New York. At the turn of the last century, millions of Jews fled anti-semitism in Eastern Europe and landed on Manhattan‘s Lower East Side; but now the area is largely devoid of Jews and filled with Hispanics. Little Italy still has its pizza and gelato, but the residents are largely Asians moving in from Chinatown, the teeming adjacent neighborhood, while the Italians have moved on to better neighborhoods. And in East Harlem, it is Central Harlem with a Latin flavor: The Puerto Ricans who turned what was once an Italian neighborhood into El Barrio in the 1950s, how see an influx of other Hispanics – Mexicans and Dominicans – as well as whites moving a little further north to escape the high rents on the tony Upper East Side.
Meanwhile, In July, a 20-foot wide Harlem brownstone dating back to 1891 sold for nearly $2.9 million, a record price for the neighborhood. The building was on Striver’s Row, once the center for the African-American elite. Doctors and lawyers, businessmen and musicians have lived in these elegant homes on 138 and 139th Streets. Musical legends Eubie Blake and W.C. Handy lived there. So did Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. And so did Louis T. Wright, the first black surgeon on the staff of Harlem Hospital. (And inexplicably, Bob Dylan bought a house there in 1986 and sold it in 1995. In the last decade, however, more than a third of the houses have been sold, mostly to whites and Asians. Census data for the area showed that between 2000 and 2010, there were 711 more white residents and 699 fewer blacks.
Black ideologues talk about “the Battle for Harlem,” but for most blacks and whites, the battle is over – and both sides have won. A number of whites are happy to move in and many blacks are happy to be moving out. During the primary election campaign, a reporter asked Rangel whether “Harlem is still the capital of black America.” Rangel said, “Well, in terms of history, and culture and music and jazz and churches, and in my heart, you bet your sweet life.” But in terms of political clout or intellectual leadership or sheer numbers, maybe not. Day by day, a new Harlem is emerging. It likely to be a polyglot neighborhood, still heavily black, but filled with whites, Hispanics, Asians and other pieces of the New York mosaic.