Homesteading in Harlem

Many blacks praise Harlem as their hometown, but few invest in housing there. Two who have are Sam White and Onaje Jackson. Mr. White, a teacher, lives in a recently rehabilitated apartment building. Mr. Jackson, a newlywed, lives with his wife in a brownstone that needs lots of fixing up.

Both men are investing their time and effort in the National Reclamation Project, a ``collective development approach to help the poor and working people.'' The Harlem chapter has developed what it calls homesteading, the occupation and rehabilitation of abandoned buildings.

City fathers don't call it homesteading. They call it squatting.

``Harlem's a mess,'' White says. ``People ... can't get a place to live. The city owns all these vacant buildings but won't let us have them. So we occupy them - and homestead.''

Although he lives in a rehabbed building, White works with the homesteaders. His latest venture is a house just a short walk from the Schomburg Center near one of the most coveted neighborhoods in Harlem. ``This building is empty, in bad shape,'' he says. ``Why can't I put some people in here and let them fix it up, not only for themselves, but for people in other vacant units?''

Three homeless men stay there. They eat at a nearby Pentecostal church where the members, not affluent themselves, serve three free meals a day.

Jackson, an architect who works with a downtown firm in lower Manhattan, and his wife have purchased a crumbling brownstone. He is working on it, doing what he would like to see homesteaders do.

``Sure, we could have moved into a fancy condo,'' he says. ``But why? Harlem ... has wonderful brownstones. Of course they have to be fixed up.''

Every night the Jacksons nail, paint, scrub, and clean. They plan to live in the first floor and basement. The upper floors will remain a rooming house. ``I'm not putting out any tenants,'' Jackson says.

Now is the time for blacks to own a piece of Harlem, says Lloyd Dickens, a Harlemite who dates back to the 1930s when most New York blacks occupied San Juan Hill in midtown Manhattan. ``Blacks couldn't live south of 130th Street, the dividing line in Uptown Manhattan,'' he says. ``Black families had to double up to get a place to live. They didn't have enough money to pay the high rent. It was depression time, and they had no place to go.''

Today, he says, people are interested in returning to Harlem if they can buy a brownstone, but they aren't interested in developing here, he says.

``Whites are willing to invest and to move to Harlem,'' he says. ``I'd like to see more blacks turn loose funds and buy real estate. Government - federal, state, and local - is willing to put up some money. I could have left Harlem years ago. I chose to invest and stay.''

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