CHWhen I envision Harlem, I see Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, the Cotton Club, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. I picture the vibrant upbringings of music’s elite, like Damon Dash, Alicia Keys and Diddy as they walked the streets inhabited by Malcolm X. I visualize brownstones, beautiful people … and the impact of gentrification on the mecca of black American culture.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines gentrification as:

“The transformation of neighborhoods from low value to high value. This change has the potential to cause displacement of long-time residents and businesses … when long-time or original neighborhood residents move from a gentrified area because of higher rents, mortgages, and property taxes. Gentrification is a housing, economic, and health issue that affects a community’s history and culture and reduces social capital. It often shifts a neighborhood’s characteristics, e.g., racial-ethnic composition and household income, by adding new stores and resources in previously run-down neighborhoods.”

Gentrification hasn’t been received well in Harlem because there are positive and negative implications, including an influx of whites into the legendary neighborhood, which increases real estate prices. Some think gentrification causes neighborhoods to losetheir flavor.

“I think [Harlem’s] going to be less than 50 percent black by 2020,” Stacey Sutton, an urban planning professor at Columbia University, told the New York Times. “If all of that changes, what remains is this historical memory of the place that was black, but is something very different.”

However, Harlem resident Clyde Williams, former Domestic Policy Advisor to President Clinton, sees urban revitalization as a positive addition.

“These businesses create jobs and bring economic stimulus to the community, as well as a diversity of restaurants and nightlife,” he told PolicyMic. “Studies have shown that Harlem – as well as the rest of the District – is significantly under-supported by service businesses/retail relative to population density.”

Director Shawn Batey wants to highlight the impact of gentrification with the feature-length documentary, Changing Face of Harlem. It will examine Harlem’s revitalization through the lens of residents who’ve been living in the area before gentrification and are seeing the impact now.

Batey sees this documentary as crucial to the fabric of American culture. He writes on the crowd-source funding page:

“There is something sacred about the streets of Harlem, something that no other neighborhood possesses. Harlem has a soul. It is the holy ground for some of the most critical forces to shape Black America. Known by its moniker the Mecca of Black culture, Harlem is where men and women went to find their footing and experience spiritual and intellectual growth. Once the capital of Black America, it played a pivotal role in shaping the African American narrative and produced some of the nation’s most important icons. Malcolm X preached from 125th Street, Langston Hughes read poetry from his Harlem home, Billie Holiday sang from the legendary Apollo. Black America experienced a cultural awakening and found its voice in Harlem. This is the legacy Harlem has given to the world.”

Batey has launched an IndieGogo campaign to bring the documentary to fruition. To donate, click here.

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  • Wanda

    When I was growing up in Harlem, there were Italians, the Irish, Puerto Ricans and Russian Jews also living right there with us.

    Harlem didn’t really have massive numbers black folks until the 20s and 30s. Many of us lived downtown actually.

    • Ads

      Im italian-american, from the bronx…. But my grandparents/aunts/uncles/cousins are all from

  • i was walking around strivers row recently. it’s very sad.

    there are so many brownstones that are crying for renovation.
    black people don’t have enough money to live in harlem anymore.

  • I’m from Harlem world, and speaking as someone who was born and raised in the community, I feel that there is a definite need for some more dialogue on this issue. In fact, it’s long overdue. It will be interesting to see Mr. Batey’s take. People often assume that Harlem is a “Black” neighborhood, when it’s actually quite diverse and has always been. Yes, there is a significant Afro-American (and most recently African and Afro-Caribbean population), but we were also home to a large Latino population (PR, DR, Mexico, etc), and a White population (Mostly Italian). What the argument is really about is two things: Convenience and Money; this is changing our neighborhood–or more specifically, the love of both. Manhattan is a hub for business. Most people travel to the island of Manhattan when they come to work or to tour NYC. Harlem is near the Northern tip of the island and is very accessible by all transit lines. So, if you combine that fact with Harlem’s spacious and beautiful antique brownstones, lovely parkland and gorgeous views of the Hudson and East rivers; as well as the exorbitant cost of commuting and home prices in the suburbs; it just makes Harlem a super convenient location to raise a family and stay in the city. Thus, long time residents (mostly working class, poor, elderly or all of the above), are being priced out as market value rises; and the majority happen to be persons of color. East Harlem for example, has a significant elderly population–many retirees. Many of these people have difficulty making the current rents on a fixed income. The housing projects here (NYCHA) are affordable options, but they’re still overcrowded and quite dangerous; so, a great many people feel very much left behind here. I think Harlemites are more than willing to share and to improve their neighborhood, provided that it doesn’t mean sacrificing it’s authenticity and the “souls” of the persons who have called it home for generations; but I think you’ll find, in most cases, that the residents were not consulted or included by and large in these changes; and there has been fairly limited disclosure in the gentrification process. We have students who move in from the neighboring universities (Columbia, NYU, etc); they can afford to rent apartments up there (largely because many have parents with deep pockets and these unscrupulous Landlords permit them to circumvent the city’s occupant laws– for money), but after a year, they move out like their taking off a pair of old shoes; and every time someone does that, the apartment gets closer and closer to deregulation–further driving up the price and the values of other units in the area. Little do these folks know that the previous resident called that apartment home for 25 years, and was evicted because she or he couldn’t keep up with the rising rent. So, you have a lot of stories like that. It’s sad. I also think most residents feel as if they have been abandoned by the city they’ve served. Back in the 80’s, when Harlem was much like the Lower East Side was back in the 70’s, it was a haven for drugs and crime; yet, the very people who are being driven out, helped clean it up. They bought properties, opened Mom and Pop shops and swept the vials out of the playgrounds. Now, they’re fighting to keep their homes and their legacies. So it’s sad. I lived in Harlem all my life, but I can’t buy a home there, and rental prices are more than steep for my budget, so I had to move to another borough. I have an elderly mother and grandmother; and it takes me 45 minutes to commute to them post rush hour from where I currently live. I quite agree with the assessment that “Harlem has a soul”; and it’s difficult to see some of that soul disappear under a burgeoning demand for commerce, that doesn’t appear to be as inclusive as so many claim. Bottom line: we have to find a way to marry the old with the new for the advancement of the community as a whole.

    • JNoire

      So well said!

  • another thing that bothered me about strivers row was that there were so many cars parked piled on top of cars that you could barely see the buildings.

    i hope they restrict parking in that area so the streets can be returned to what they once were.

    it is so pretty.

  • Misshightower