Harlem worries about losing its homes and heritage

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

SAM, a homeless black man, is having lunch in a soup kitchen in the basement of a church. Sam is articulate and well read, with a touch of the poet in his ghettoese speech. He is talking about a subject that worries him: the gentrification of Harlem. ``White folks is rediscoverin' Harlem,'' he says. ``Folks that moved to the suburbs years ago now wants to come back to Manhattan so they can get to their jobs easy. With the housing crunch so bad downtown, the only place left is Harlem. One of these days they gonna take over Harlem. You watch.''

``Gentrification'' may evoke pleasant images of tree-lined streets and restored fa,cades in the minds of many people. In fact, Strivers' Row -- a section of three short blocks on Harlem's West Side -- has been middle class and black for generations. But to Harlem residents like Sam, the word gentrification has a decidedly ominous ring.

It could mean the demise of a Harlem that has been a haven for blacks since the early part of this century -- the birthplace of a distinctly American heritage -- the Harlem of tumultuous neighborhoods and crowded stoops, where black people have lived and worked and where their culture has flourished. For all its problems, Harlem is home to these people; and many of them think their homes are threatened.

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When they look downtown across the low roofs of their tenements and beyond the long, green rectangle of Central Park, it is almost as if they see a wave gathering momentum in the distance. They see it as a wave of white real estate speculation, acquisition, renovation, demolition, construction, restoration, and takeover that in time, they fear, will roll uptown, flush out their neighborhoods with huge rent increases, and displace them from their homes.

It hasn't happened yet. Gentrification in any broad sense has yet to arrive in Harlem. But there are signs that it is getting closer.

On the corner of 107th Street and Broadway, for instance, is an old, three-story building that houses the Rheedlan Foundation, an alternative-education facility for school dropouts between the ages of six and 12. In a bright corner room where sunlight pours in through huge, paned windows, Rheedlan instructor Jeff Canada explains that his school must look for a new location. The building is slated to be demolished, and high-rise, high-rent apartments will go up in its place.

While 107th Street is well south of the official westside border of Harlem, Mr. Canada would tend to agree with Sam. He sees Rheedlan's displacement as one of a number of signs that ``downtown'' gentrification is inexorably inching its way ``uptown.''

Given the trends in Manhattan real estate over the last 25 years, it is conceivable that the 4.5 square miles of Harlem might eventually go the way of neighborhoods like the Upper West Side. There, ``mom and pop'' stores and the homes of their black and Hispanic customers have gradually been replaced by designer boutiques, gourmet ice cream shops, and renovated (or brand-new) co-op apartments that sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Though largely in need of repair, Harlem boasts street after street of structurally sound, architecturally venerable buildings -- row upon row of classic New York brownstones, as well as a number of large, elegant, turn-of-the-century apartment buildings designed by such noted architects as McKim, Meade, & White. Yuppies looking for old-fashioned charm would find much to admire here.

Not everyone, however, believes that gentrification is destined to come to Harlem.

Richard Granady, a leading Harlem real estate broker, for example, says that ``it's so minute, as far as I'm concerned, I don't think it's going to be shocking. I don't think it's going to look like the West Side.''

Even so, some professionals believe that Sam may have got it basically right, except for one major point. They feel that gentrification is coming, but they see the trend as being predominantly black, or black and white -- rather than exclusively white.

``I think people are a little exaggerated,'' says Michael Rodell, director of housing development at the Harlem Urban Development Corporation (HUDC), a state agency located in Harlem's only high-rise office building. ``They think [gentrification is] coming tomorrow and they think it's going to be all white.

``My feeling is that it's coming in five years maybe, and it's not going to be all white at all. I think Harlem is going to stay a black community -- or at least a mixed community racially. It's got so much history. And it has so many people who are determined to see that it doesn't get wiped out as a community.''

In the meantime, property values in Harlem are booming. Run-down buildings which used to be demolished or sold for a pittance are bringing higher and higher prices.

``The city used to give us brownstones,'' says Mr. Rodell. ``They sold them for $500 a piece. We renovated them and sold them. Now they're saying they won't do that any more, that we have to compete with private developers. Because the private developers are interested.''

From the perspective of his own real estate business, Richard Granady agrees.

``Apartment buildings and brownstones were the worst market at one time,'' he says. ``You couldn't give some of these brownstones away. They were selling for $3,500, $5,000 five years ago.''

Then about two years ago, he says, ``I went to bid at an auction representing a client for a building on East 128th Street. I was authorized to bid up to $25,000 for this building. Someone -- it was someone from the Caucasian race -- bid up to $100,000.

``Apartment buildings are selling now -- they're getting hot. The market is crazy. There's a lot of speculation going on. My hat is off to those people who really want to live here -- but the speculators I'm not too happy with.''

Granady's hat would probably be off to some of the people Mike Rodell has recently sold apartments to: a teacher, a sanitation worker, a bank employee -- all of whom represent what may turn out to be the real wave of Harlem's future, the black middle class.

``We put two or three condominium apartments in a building,'' says Rodell, ``and the apartments are almost full duplexes. It's middle-class housing, but [one buyer is] a sanitation worker. The required income for most of these apartments is about $35,000 a year. That's not hard, especially if you have two people working. It's middle income, and there are a lot of people in Harlem who can afford that: a teacher, a postal worker, a transit authority employee.

``The middle-income people who are moving here are not really Yuppies,'' he adds. ``At least not at this stage of the game. They're people who have risen up themselves and who have a memory of poverty. They've probably got relatives here in Harlem.''

Granady also says his clients, in the market to buy Harlem apartments, are not necessarily middle class. ``You find some domestic workers -- people who have saved their money all their lives and who want to buy a brownstone to retire in. It's not all professionals.''

When it comes to the fate of Harlem's poor, Mike Rodell is more optimistic than Sam. Although fully aware of the clout wielded by the ``downtown power structure,'' he believes that residents of Harlem can influence what happens to their community. ``They're not going to stop gentrification,'' he says. ``But they may help ensure that it does remain mixed -- both economically and racially -- with a certain percent of the housing being kept at the lower-income level.

``One of the city programs HUDC is supporting is [one in which], when you build a new project, 20 percent of the units have to be low-income. The 80 percent of units priced at market rate are supposed to subsidize the low-income units.''

Rodell points out, however, that this city directive can only be applied in certain instances, where the city possesses the ``leverage'' to impose price control on a building owner.

Such policies leave Sam unconvinced. And statistics about blacks climbing the middle-class ladder don't impress him either. He insists that, like himself, most of Harlem's residents are poor. For the unskilled, the underemployed, and the unemployed, the idea of buying an apartment for $35,000 is absurd. When asked where he thinks the poor of Harlem will go should gentrification -- white or black -- take place, his bitter reply is both a plea and a comment on what he sees as the attitude of the ``haves'' toward the ``have-nots'':

``Who cares where they go? Put 'em all on a big boat and take 'em out to sea. Who cares?''

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