A Rebirth in Harlem

Boards are coming off Victorian homes, new storefronts are opening as residents rebuild this center of black culture, brick by brick

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

STROLL down 140th Street off Frederick Douglass Boulevard reveals how far Harlem has -- and hasn't -- progressed in reviving blighted neighborhoods.

In one area, graffiti-marred cinder blocks fill the windows of 13 vacant tenements -- more than half the buildings on the street. Fresh metal fencing protects several abandoned buildings, but intruders have piled up sofas, boxes, and other refuse anyway. An American flag atop the Post Office gives the sole splash of color in the area.

Just five blocks south the view is different. In an area where saxophonist Charlie Parker once improvised bebop in after-hours jazz clubs, the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce is breathing life back into 27 abandoned shells in a $35 million project. The group has refurbished interiors and brickwork, installed new windows, put up old-style lamp posts, and widened sidewalks -- an attempt to re-create a bit of Harlem from its heyday of the 1930s and 1940s.

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After decades of neglect, Harlem is on the upswing again. Brick by brick, brownstone by brownstone, areas of this enclave -- the cultural heart of black America for much of the 20th century -- are being rebuilt.

''There's been a huge amount of rebuilding in Harlem,'' says Michael Lappin, president of the Community Preservation Corporation, a nonprofit alliance of banks that has financed about $250 million in Harlem construction since 1987. ''I compare it with 10 years ago or the early 1980s and there's a huge difference.''

To a newcomer -- and many New Yorkers never set foot in this part of upper Manhattan -- the hundreds of boarded-up buildings that remain in Harlem are stark symbols of the poverty, drug abuse, and violence still griping this primarily black community that is fringed by Hispanics and others.

Yet the landscape is clearly improving in this mostly residential area of half a million people -- once home to Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and Malcolm X. Over the past few years, public and private groups have rebuilt several thousand abandoned apartments, and a growing number of middle-class blacks are moving back, some to restore elegant 19th- and early 20th-century townhouses.

Harlem is also luring national stores such as Duane Reade and Pathmark to open branches on streets once written off as financially hopeless. As a result, storefront vacancy is down from 30 percent eight years ago to 10 percent today.

''People are beginning to realize that Harlem is on its way back,'' says Ibo Balton, director of the Harlem Urban Development Corporation, a city-property agency that oversees several hundred vacant buildings.

The turning point for Harlem came in the late 1980s, experts say, a period of federal cutbacks to the inner city when crack, urban violence, and homelessness made headlines. At the same time, New York City launched an ambitious 10-year, $5 billion plan to rebuild its housing. Harlem, reeling from the exodus of middle-class blacks for several decades, was the main beneficiary, gaining about $700 million from 1986 to the present, according to Lionel McIntyre, head of the graduate program in urban planning at Columbia University.

Such massive public spending was and is crucial, many community leaders say, because Harlem's lower-income residents do not have the spending power to lure the private sector to invest the roughly $60,000 to $85,000 that nonprofit groups have been spending to refurbish apartments here.

''To make a competitive return on your money you simply can do better someplace else with more certainty,'' says Joseph Center, former director of the nonprofit Ecumenical Community Development Organization.

Many landlords have learned this lesson through painful experience. For instance, Harlen Housing, a private developer that constructed 200 apartments in four vacant buildings a decade ago, has taken on seemingly endless problems, according to Richard Drayton, the building manager.

''The wear and tear tends to overtake the owner,'' says Mr. Drayton, who cites noise, litter, graffiti, building neglect, and late payments as his main woes. ''Even an owner who is very conscientious, who is making the best effort to maintain the property, gets discouraged.''

In recent decades, such difficulties have prompted landlords to abandon their buildings in droves, leaving the city government with hundreds of dilapidated buildings to sell off, repair, or leave vacant.

City officials and community leaders are hoping that enough public investment has stemmed the tide of house abandonment and will ultimately encourage the private sector to undertake the lion's share of investing in Harlem. Such hopes have already been realized in formerly blighted areas such as Washington Heights on the northern tip of Manhattan, experts say.

In central Harlem there are already economically self-sufficient neighborhoods such as Hamilton Heights, where Alexander Hamilton once kept a summer house. Here, tiny gardens behind wrought-iron gates lead to elegant town houses that would not be out of place alongside a canal in Amsterdam. Optimists hope that such beachheads of stability can slowly expand into other areas of Harlem.

For now the charms of Hamilton Heights end just a few blocks away and private developers would probably rather raze the turn-of-the century tenements that dot much of the surrounding landscape. Yet with 30 percent of Harlemites living below the poverty line and reliant on government housing subsidies, there is little market for self-financing urban renewal.

Even those neighborhoods that have benefited from the last few years of rebuilding still offer very few urban amenities such as health-care outlets and good schools.

Those who have put their life savings into elegant brownstones find they have to mount a small expedition to find a good supermarket. More-affluent families, dissatisfied with Harlem's schools, are sending their children to classes below 96th Street, Harlem's traditional southern frontier.

''Just housing is not enough,'' says Mr. McIntyre of Columbia University. ''Now they're talking about 'Where can I get a bagel, where can I get a New York Times?' ''

All these obstacles lead most community leaders to conclude that without continued massive government investment, Harlem cannot continue to heal.

''I don't see on the horizon any time in the near future where you would have a pure private market,'' McIntyre says. ''The public investment will probably always be there in the New York area, again because of the cost of reconstruction itself.''

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