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Harlem worries about losing its homes and heritage

By Kristin HelmoreStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 3, 1986

New York

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.''

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``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.

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.