Harlem Feels The Pinch

United States

new internationalist
issue 178 - December 1987

Middlebrook (left), Nixon (right): 'white people want Harlem back.'
Photo: Peggy Dye
Harlem feels the pinch
Peggy Dye strolls through Harlem and discovers that New York's property
boom threatens even the heart and soul of America's black community.

The black cowboy walked across African Square stepping slow and easy under his wide-brimmed hat, his boots clicking on the pavement. African Square is where 125th Street meets 7th Avenue - the same 7th Avenue that divides Times Square in central Manhattan 83 blocks south.

But this is uptown - the heart of Harlem. Thirty years ago, Fidel Castro stayed nearby in the Hotel Teresa; Malcolm X and the Black Panthers rallied here. Now construction has disrupted traffic so much it would be impossible for a big crowd to reach the square.

The cowboy surveyed the mess and then offered his handshake. 'I'm Judge Davis,' he said slowly. Judge was his father's name too, after the Book of Judges. And no, he wasn't born in the Wild West after all: 'Harlem Hospital,' he grinned.

Last June the city broke ground on a three-year, $15 million overhaul of 125th Street near African Square - from water-mains to sidewalks. Noting decades of Harlem's neglect, Davis is suspicious. There's something going on here he acknowledges, 'But I'm not sure it's going to do black folks any good.' Harlem residents like Davis believe the upgrading is part of a long-term plan to open up the heart of New York's black community to house-hungry, upper-income professionals.

'We need more than jobs. Black companies should get some of the contracts, Davis complains. 'We have to do for ourselves what those people up there (he points to the high-rise government center behind us) are not doing.'

The real-estate developers and the speculators are already nibbling at the fringes of Harlem. And there's a lot to nibble. Nearly 4,000 tenement apartments declared unfit for human habitation in 1901 are still occupied. Of 8,507 occupied buildings, 1,127 are in poor condition according to the Harlem Urban Development Corporation (HUDC). Meantime, 47 per cent of Harlem's residents were living below the poverty line in 1984.

Ironically, the city owns 60 per cent of Harlem's housing - mainly from tax arrears. Of the 3,200 new apartments announced in 1986, 2,400 were on city property. If the gentrifiers are successful in their move uptown they will need the city government on their side.

The state-run Urban Development Corporation (UDC) is the agency responsible for priming the redevelopment pump. UDC was founded on the heels of the high-profile, black-led city riots in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The agency was set up to run projects benefiting low and middle-income (mostly black) urban residents.

A decade later UDC is working on a billion-dollar Times Square redevelopment - in central Manhattan. Meantime, its Harlem offshoot was publicizing its own plan to develop a $100 million dollar 'Towers on the Hudson' riverside complex - including luxury apartments, a marina, restaurants, shops and artists' housing and studios. If the plan goes ahead hundreds of old-time Harlem residents may be forced to re-locate.

'I've lived in Harlem for 50 years,' says Gladys Nixon. 'I don't want to leave. I can't afford to leave.' Nixon spoke from her stoop at 230 West 123rd Street, just around the corner from African Square. More than half the families in her neighborhood earn less than $10,000 a year - just above the $7,500 poverty line.

'The talk is condos are coming into the old public school on St. Nicholas Avenue where my son went. People are clamouring for this land in Harlem so bad. I get calls all the time and letters asking if I want to sell this house,' Nixon explains.

She was referring to the 15-family building that tenants had renovated and bought as a co-op for $250 per unit through a subsidized city-run program. The landlord 'walked away' in 1978 says Nixon. But it still took her and her neighbors nine years to manoeuvre through city bureaucracy.

During the time tenants relied for technical advice and building management on the Harlem Restoration Project (HRP). HRP is the nonprofit brainchild of Marie Runyan, a white 40-year Harlem resident and former state legislator.

Runyan started HRP in 1977 to 'rebuild West Harlem' and to organize low-income tenants to buy their own buildings. HRP has helped tenants in nearly 50 buildings to become self-sufficient, even though Runyan admits the city's tenant interim lease program is really just a drop in the bucket. 'Only 200 buildings have gone to tenants since 1978,' she says.

Gladys Nixon appreciates HRP's work but laments that 'Harlem people may have missed our chance to own our community. Buildings cost too much. A $40,000 building ten years ago now costs $500,000.' She nods towards the crumbling brownstone building next door: ' What's coming in is white people.'

There is also a trend towards expensive high-rise apartments. According to Mary Middlebrook, Gladys Nixon's upstairs neighbour: 'White people want Harlem back. They are sick of commuting. That's why they're building high-rises you can't rent for less than $800 a month. With those prices we got no choice but to leave.'

Mary Middlebrook came to Harlem from North Carolina in 1953. 'New York City had something to offer then,' she remembers. 'You could dream of jobs, now there are no jobs. The pressure is so great to survive now. You talk about gentrification. What I see is pressure and if you crack up under it, there's no place to go but the street. If there's no work, where's the hope?'

Peggy Dye writes for 1199 News, the monthly magazine of the National Union of Health Care and Hospital Workers.

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