Sun, Nov 26, 2017 - Page 15 News List

Gentrification engenders unease in NYC’s Harlem

By Jennie Matthew  /  AFP, NEW YORK

In 1969, Samuel Hargress bought his Harlem jazz bar and the surrounding building for US$35,000. Half a century later, he said 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,” 81-year-old Hargress said, 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 to 1930s “Harlem Renaissance.”

However, the 1970s and 1980s brought years of decline, as those years did in other US inner cities. Hargress described streets awash with crime, drugs, pimps and crooked police.

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 Market Inc moved in.

In September, a three-family townhouse sold for US$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.

However, 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 barbecue on the sidewalk.

“I just say: ‘Why did you move here? Nobody invited you,’” said 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?’”

However, 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. Lines snake outside churches on food pantry mornings.

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

However, Rava Realty owner Riccardo Ravasini said the average one-bedroom apartment in Harlem costs US$2,265 per month to rent.

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