HARLEM is changing - again!
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.
Originally, "New Harlem" was a Dutch village founded in the 1600s by Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of New Amsterdam, which later became New York City. After the British assumed control in the late 1600s, Harlem became a farming settlement. By the early 1900s, Harlem was populated mainly by Germans and German-Jewish families, although there were a few Irish, some Scandinavians, and, further east, Italians. East Harlem contained the largest Italian-American community in North America right up through the 1930s. Thousands of Italian-Americans still reside in neighborhood enclaves near 116th Street, next to Puerto Rican and other Hispanic communities.
African-Americans first began to move north of Central Park in significant numbers after WW I, in part "because of the large amounts of available housing," notes Frank Vardy, a demographer at New York City's population division. (Harlem still has the largest cluster of unoccupied housing units in Manhattan.) Until the first part of this century, Mr. Vardy says, New York's black community was scattered mainly on Manhattan's west side. The trickle of black families northward became a flood, as major black churches relocated north.
The 1920s was the Golden Age of African-American Harlem, symbolized by the Cotton Club and such jazz luminaries as Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, and Cab Calloway. Writers, intellectuals, and artists such as Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, and Paul Robeson, lived here. At that time, 125th Street was racially and ethnically integrated.
"The street was lined with movie and vaudeville theaters, mainly catering to Jewish families; there were fine restaurants and numerous retail establishments; and the nightclubs attracted many whites," recalls a white man who lived on 125th Street in the late 1920s. "Mostly, everyone got along. 125th Street was vibrant."
White families began moving out as African-Americans moved in. "Jewish Harlem" virtually disappeared. Still, as recently as 1950 greater Harlem, including the area around Columbia University on the West Side, had a 52 percent white majority. By 1960 the tide had turned: Harlem was 53 percent black, with a small Hispanic population (18 percent), mainly in East Harlem. And overall population steadily declined. But whites were not alone in leaving. Thousands of middle class and professional African-American
families moved out; the largest black community in New York is now in Brooklyn.
"Harlem has been depopulating for much of the past 20 years," says David Reimers, a historian at New York University. But people of all ethnic backgrounds are slowly starting to move back.
"The 1990 census shows the first rise in population for the greater Harlem area since 1950," says Donald Cogsville, president of HUDC. In parts of the upper West Side and East Harlem, African-Americans are down to 42 percent of the population; whites have risen to 15 percent, up from 14.5 percent in 1980; Asians are moving out of the community. But the growth rate of Hispanic-Americans is soaring.
"Hispanics are clearly going to be the majority group in the overall Harlem region sometime in the next few years," Carter says.
Local black leaders insist that Harlem will stay predominantly African-American. Demographic patterns suggest that may be the case only in the very center of Harlem. Even in central Harlem, where blacks have been a majority since the 1930s, Hispanics are arriving in significant numbers.
The rise in the Hispanic population, which includes many immigrants from the Caribbean, is one factor in a recent climb in poverty rates. Some 30 percent of all families in Harlem receive public assistance, according to James Davis, with HUDC. Still, overall income levels have shot up, reflecting in part the impact of gentrification. Within central Harlem, households with incomes between $20,000 and $50,000 rose from 11.6 percent in 1980 to more than 32 percent in 1990; the number of families with income s above $50,000 went from 1 percent in 1980 to 10 percent in 1990, HUDC reports.
Crime is also dropping, particularly in neighborhoods away from main shopping areas. In the 30th Police Precinct, located on West 151st Street, homicides fell from 46 in 1991 to 26 in 1992. Robberies, assaults, and car thefts were also down.