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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 Adam TannerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 15, 1995


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

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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.

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.