Harlem remains an enigma, a run-down area with echoes of its glorious and glamorous past. To many people Harlem is still the world's No. 1 black community, a tourist's delight, a place to discover the mystique of black peoples, their culture, their genius, their fun-loving nature, their soul foods, their dancing, and their religious fervor.
To many blacks, however, today's defaced and scarred community is no longer their beloved Harlem.
Yet beyond the squalor, outside planners as well as community reformers can see a revitalized Harlem, one supported by New York State, New York City, and the federal government. Restoration has already begun on 125th Street, anchored by the reopening of the famous Apollo Theatre last August.
Nevertheless, a skeptic asks: ``Will the new Harlem serve us who live here now, or will it be gentrified and upgraded, moving less affluent blacks out and white yuppies and bourgeois blacks in?''
There is no doubt that Harlem today is hurting economically.
Just look at the New York State Office Building on 125th Street, a building that promised to help spark Harlem's economic revival when it was opened in 1975. Only one of four revolving front doors works, and a sign in the lobby reads, ``No Public Toilet Facilities.''
This is the lobby that people cross to reach Donald J. Coggsville, chief executive officer of Harlem Urban Development Corporation, key architect of a $1 billion program to revitalize Harlem. People in this building are working to revive the area, on call day and night.
The building borders on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, Harlem's name for Seventh Avenue, a road of boarded-up buildings, vacant lots, and homeless people. It is one of many Harlem streets that bear the names of famous blacks. (Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was a United States congressman and pastor of Harlem's largest church, Abyssinian Baptist.) Another example, 125th street, is named Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Proposed developments for the renewed Harlem are reviewed by the Harlem Urban Development Corporation, the local corporate subsidiary of the state's Urban Development Corporation. The corporation is the nation's only government-supported community agency that has independent decisionmaking power in local urban renewal.
Mr. Coggsville sees a revived Harlem as a black economic enclave, providing jobs, entertainment, and business opportunities for its residents. Its major industry would be tourism, he says. Already its major tourist attraction is the Apollo Theatre. Its practical value will be economic, with jobs created by businesses tied to tourism, light industry, and commercial enterprises.
Various projects are expected to bolster the Harlem economy. Percy Sutton, redeveloper of the Apollo, plans to move facilities of the parent Inner City Broadcasting Company, which he chairs, from downtown Manhattan to Harlem. Eugene McCabe, president of North General Hospital and a civic and business leader, is committed to building a facility in the heart of Harlem.
Both men call expansion in Harlem ``good business.''
Special projects include a $200 million waterfront complex on the Hudson River, a $165 million Harlem International Trade Center, a shopping mall, upgraded commercial strips on 116th Street and 135th Street, and revival of the La Marqueta open marketplace under the Park Street elevated train tracks.
``Gov. [Mario] Cuomo has already approved a state grant of $118 million toward the North General hospital construction,'' says Mr. McCabe, who adds that North General is Harlem's largest private employer. It operates on a $42 million budget and has 1,900 employees, 70 percent of them Harlem residents. The project should generate more than 1,000 construction jobs, he adds.
The Inner City Broadcasting Company will expand not only the Apollo's function to house a giant television production studio, but it will also transplant its other subsidiaries to facilities next door, Mr. Sutton says. These include two radio stations and a cablevision operation. ``I'm not coming back to Harlem out of sentiment,'' he adds. ``A return will be good business.''
A $200 million Harlem-on-the-Hudson waterfront complex, starting on the Hudson River at 125th Street and extending north to 133rd Street, is expected to be similar to areas in San Francisco, Boston, and Baltimore. It will include a ``micro valley'' for high-technology firms, a convention hall, and a 1,000-unit apartment complex, in addition to the meat markets and auto repair shops already there.
The new Harlem will not be all fun and entertainment. It will spotlight cultural institutions such as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the National Black Theatre.
Harlem's renewal still has far to go, says Lloyd Williams, head of the Uptown Chamber of Commerce. City Hall has the final say in what happens, he explains. Ninety-six percent of Harlem's blacks are renters, and New York City owns at least 65 percent of Harlem, including more than 1.3 million acres of vacant land and more than 1,000 abandoned buildings.
``It's clear to me that this could be a renaissance for the wealthy,'' Mr. Williams warns. ``Who will benefit from all the changes planned? Downtown planners don't live here. At what price will we have revitalization?''
``Who will buy Harlem?'' asks David Dinkins, president of the Borough of Manhattan, the highest elective office held by a black in New York. ``Will the properties go to the highest bidders? Such land disposition would mean less opportunity for blacks.'' Mr. Dinkins has taken the role of Harlem's watchdog during rehabilitation.
Meanwhile back in Harlem, a big hole has been bulldozed next to the Powell Building. A new International Trade Center is to be built there. When this center is completed, the Powell Building will likely be revitalized, too.
Next: Harlem's cultural regeneration.