Thanks to gentrification, the face of Harlem is changing. Ensconced on Black Manhattan’s avenues and blocks are lofty condos, trendy restaurants, and many other privatized businesses. Harlem even has a Whole Foods supermarket that sits on the infamous 125th Street. The natural food supermarket isn’t there to cater to the historically poor folks of Harlem. The pricey supermarket is there to serve the sea of wealthy whites lodging in plush condominiums across the street from St. Nicholas Housing Projects on 7th Avenue.
New Harlem is far from the intellectual center, and the hub of thriving black owned businesses that made Uptown the Black Mecca of America decades ago. Gentrification is a complex issue, to say the least.
“The word ‘gentrification’ perhaps obscures as much as it reveals,” Brian Goldstein, assistant professor of architecture at the University of New Mexico, says. “Yet even if this is an ambiguous term, it helps us to understand that something has changed both physically and demographically in places like Harlem, and that ambiguity points to the fact that this process never unfolded simply in Harlem. Gentrification came with significant costs, including a focus on profit-oriented development over the needs of low-income residents, fear and tension among those residents—who worried about their ability to remain—and rising housing costs. At the same time, many Harlemites saw gentrification as beneficial: it brought stores that residents wanted no matter their income, saw improvement of Harlem’s physical environment and marked the achievement of goals of economic integration that some residents had voiced.”
VIBE reached out to Prof. Goldstein to shed light on gentrification of Harlem. Goldstein argues in his new book, The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle over Harlem (Harvard University Press), that local Harlem activists played a major role in the gentrification of Harlem. We also discussed class conflict, Bill Clinton’s stay in Harlem, local Harlem activists and the future of the uptown sub-borough.
VIBE: Can you briefly tell us what your book is about?
Brian Goldstein: The Roots of Urban Renaissance is a history of the transformation of Harlem between the early 1960s and 2000s and, through that lens, a history of urban change in those decades more broadly. In the early 1960s, Harlem was the symbol of America’s urban crisis. By the new millennium, however, Harlem had become a new kind of symbol: one that represented what people called the “urban renaissance” and the dramatic process of gentrification. In tracing this arc, I tell a history of gentrification from the bottom up, focused not on the people who moved into neighborhoods like Harlem but instead on its longtime residents, who sought to rebuild and gain control over it. Understanding their story—and its benefits and costs—provides a more complex, nuanced history of gentrification that goes beyond simple frameworks of winners and losers.
What inspired you to research this topic? Why Harlem?
There are two major reasons. First, I am interested in the ways that people use the built environment to imagine their ideal future. I found Harlem to be a rich terrain in which urban space played this role, as Harlemites constantly imagined and debated future visions of what their community should be. A lot of really interesting groups—founded by activist architects and planners, for example—participated in this pursuit but had not been included in Harlem’s long historical record.
Second, Harlem has long been at the center of both urban history and African-American history. Even as New York’s black population increasingly moved to Brooklyn, Harlem remained both an iconic place and a site in which urban transformations often happened first or especially intensely. Its role as a pacesetter was no less true in the late twentieth century as it was early in the century, and so it provided an ideal case for telling about phenomena that occurred more broadly, too.
You mentioned in the book that Black Power changes public life. How is that?
Black Power was an ambitious social movement that took up the goals of racial self-determination in political, economic and educational realms. We see its influence in the rise of black mayors, in the development of the idea of “black capitalism” and in the emergence of Black Studies. I add a detailed analysis of how Black Power also changed the way that cities were built. Black Power advocates demanded a voice in the way that land was shaped in places like Harlem. I explain that they created a new array of organizations to seek that goal, including community development corporations. Though these did not always follow a straight path, they did, indeed, give citizens a role in shaping the places that they lived, worked and shopped.
Will you briefly explain the conflict between middle-class and poor black activists in Harlem?
Middle-class and poor residents often traced fundamentally different visions. The latter demanded a Harlem built by and for Harlemites, centered on their basic needs for decent housing, jobs and education. They argued that Harlem did not need outsiders to revitalize. On the other hand, middle-class Harlemites often saw the path to community control in profit-oriented commercial ventures. They emphasized bringing wealthier outsiders into Harlem and joining Harlem to what they saw as the economic “mainstream.” At the same time, class could often align in more complicated ways. Middle-class Harlemites with an activist bent, such as radical architects, assisted low-income Harlemites. And low-income Harlemites often saw great promise in commercial development, such as supermarkets and shopping centers, in a community that had not had much of either.
Can you name some Harlem organizations that partnered with corporations, which consequently brought about gentrification of Harlem?
The Harlem Commonwealth Council, which still exists fifty years later, emerged in the late 1960s. It was a really important early voice in shaping black capitalism and, as it evolved, increasingly embraced large-scale commercial development as a goal. Most notably it played an important role in the development of Harlem USA, the community’s first shopping mall, which brought retailers like the Disney Store and Old Navy to Harlem. The powerful Abyssinian Development Corporation emerged later, in the 1980s. It played a central role in important projects like Harlem Center, a partnership with Forest City Ratner that also brought new chain stores, like Staples and Marshall’s, to Harlem.
Are local activists also responsible for the gentrification in places like Clinton Hill, Ft. Greene, and Bed-Stuy Brooklyn?
It’s difficult to answer conclusively because neighborhoods are each different, but certainly Bedford-Stuyvesant had parallels with Harlem. Just before the Harlem Commonwealth Council took form, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation arrived as the country’s first community development corporation. As Michael Woodsworth explains in his recent study of the community, this was only one outcome of efforts by middle-class residents to address neighborhood problems. And these efforts did lead, over time, to the kinds of changes that are still ongoing. If they favor longtime residents at all, they tend to favor those who own property.
Bill Clinton rented a penthouse in Harlem for his office and foundation headquarters following his presidency. How did Harlemites feel about that?
If you read headlines from the day after the office opened, you would think that the response was unanimous. One read, “In Harlem, a Hero’s Welcome for New Neighbor Clinton.” But Harlemites actually offered a range of reactions, from hope that this would be the tipping point for accelerating investment, to fear that this was the beginning of the end for African-American Harlem. While the event got a lot of attention, I’d argue that it was a shiny object that was more a symptom of changes with deep roots than the cause of continuing gentrification.
How would you assess the future of Harlem?
Central Harlem remained majority black as of the 2010 census, but I will not be surprised if that is no longer the case by 2020. As I show, economic and physical changes that have accompanied racial change have not had simple outcomes. Harlemites celebrated the arrival of their first major supermarket, a Pathmark on 125th Street, in the late 1990s. Yet in 2015 the Abyssinian Development Corporation sold the market to a major developer. It closed later that year. Whole Foods is now approaching completion elsewhere on 125th Street. Theoretically, such changes could take place while also ensuring the longevity of longtime Harlemites, but there is little to keep housing costs from continuing to rise. Without such measures, it will be very hard for all but the most well-off long-term residents to stay. Harlem will remain an attractive and unique place but the pace of change will only accelerate.
What other areas of research would you like to see explored on this topic?
I hope to see more detailed studies of specific communities. Every neighborhood has unique dynamics and understanding those can illuminate how other places have changed as well. While I have great interest in New York, I hope that others will take on studies of places like Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati, my hometown. They are likewise seeing aggressive gentrification, and in ways that are undoubtedly both similar to and different from Harlem’s story. Architecture as it intersects with race is another interest that arises in the book. This topic has gotten more attention recently but needs still more. It is important to understand how architecture and urbanism have served as settings for movements for justice and equality but also as the material through which activists fought such movements.
The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle over Harlem is available at Amazon.com.