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HARLEM Rich Cultural Mix Gets More Vibrant

By Guy HalversonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 3, 1993



HARLEM is changing - again!

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The north Manhattan community, for much of this century the intellectual and cultural center of black America, is seeing an influx of Hispanic-Americans and some whites returning at its fringes.

Crime is down. Individual prosperity for both blacks and whites has grown sufficiently in the past decade that national companies have been opening stores in the area or are exploring the possibility of doing so. New cultural and arts programs are flourishing.

Community observers say Harlem is undergoing more profound changes than at any time in recent memory, perhaps since the 1920s. Residents and demographers say greater Harlem is edging toward a majority of Hispanic-Americans, though its center will remain black. If not a majority, the Hispanic community will be large enough to reshape Harlem's political and cultural identity. Some whites are also moving back.

On the borders of the district, some apartment buildings are being converted into cooperatives and condominiums.

The dramatic changes occurring in Harlem "may not be a renaissance, as happened back in the 1920s and early 1930s, but it certainly is a major rebuilding," says Walter Stafford, a professor of urban policy at the Wagner School of Public Policy at New York University. "There's a new faith about what can be done."

Within the past year, for example, Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, and the Body Shop, a British cosmetics retailer, have established outlets on 125th Street, Harlem's main east-west shopping corridor.

"Sales are building for us and we're very happy to be in the community," says Robert Triefus, a spokesman for the Body Shop. Under a special arrangement, 50 percent of the profits made by the 125th Street store go to the community; the remaining profits are used to help fund additional stores in other low-income communities.

National companies opening outlets in Harlem or reportedly exploring the possibility include Pathmark, a supermarket chain; Caldor; K mart Corporation; and Circle Line Tours.

"We're now looking at increased business activity" based on Harlem's strategic proximity to midtown Manhattan as well as a new emphasis by the administration of New York Mayor David Dinkins to develop the Big Apple's urban neighborhoods, says Wallace Ford, New York City's commissioner of business services.

"There has been a growth of smaller stores and some chain stores in the past year; we consider that very promising," says a spokesman for the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce.

For millions of Americans the word "Harlem" conjures up a sense of history, as well as the enormous challenges of poverty in many urban centers.

For all its history, Harlem still has no formal boundaries. Some urban planners say that greater Harlem - Harlem and adjacent neighborhoods - starts around 96th Street. Others say 110th Street. But most experts agree that Harlem stretches from 125th Street northward between the Hudson and Harlem Rivers to the vicinity of the George Washington Bridge, around 178th Street.

Many of the largest building projects here are the work of the Harlem Urban Development Corporation (HUDC), a New York state agency. Several complexes are springing up throughout Harlem, including Harlem-on-the-Hudson, along the Hudson River, and The Gateway to Harlem project, north of Central Park. Donald Cogsville of HUDC sees Harlem's renewal as directly linked to the proliferation of new multi-use developments that feature housing, shops, and office space. New projects mean jobs. And gentrification m eans new families, many of them far wealthier than current residents. "We've got to make sure that the people who have lived in Harlem for years have access to decent housing," Prof. Stafford says.

Store rents along 125th Street "keep climbing and climbing," says Chaesoo Kim, director of the Korean American Business Association of Harlem. (There are between 40 and 50 Korean shops in the area.)

"It's almost impossible for most African-Americans to buy a home in Harlem," says Horace Carter, president and founder of the Emanuel Pieterson Historical Society, a landmarks preservation group. For all its challenges, says longtime resident Carter, Harlem is an interesting and exciting place to live.