Churches try to preserve Harlem's character

With the drug dealers and crime on the wane, the newest neighborhood challenge is gentrification.

When the crack house across the street burned down a few years ago, the people at St. Edward the Martyr thought things were finally beginning to look up.

On 109th and Fifth Avenue in East Harlem, the neighborhood had been ravaged for years by gun-toting crack dealers, gangs, and absentee landlords. In the midst of it all was the small Episcopal Church and the hundreds of families - Puerto Rican, African-American, Mexican, and Dominican - who struggled to survive in the neighborhood.

Now with the crack mostly gone, comes a new challenge - gentrification.

The wave sweeping across Harlem is about to reach St. Edward's block. The Museum for African Art and the Edison Schools reportedly plan to build a museum and corporate headquarters on the vacant lot. Both pastor and parishioners are bracing for the change, grappling with the same questions that are increasingly being asked in urban neighborhoods across the US.

"I'm more unsure than sure about what our role should be - we're scratching our heads over it," says the Rev. John Denaro. "Some of it represents real progress and hope, and, as long as rents are kept decent, we'll rejoice."

But there's the rub: the rents. This is a once-swank neighborhood at the northeastern tip of Central Park. St. Edward the Martyr was built in 1887 by the wealthy Garys of US Steel fame as a kind of "family chapel." Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia lived around the corner in the 1930s.

Then the complexion changed. Puerto Ricans began moving in and white people moved out. The neighborhood became known as Spanish Harlem - El Barrio - a hotbed of immigrant energy and gang troubles. Rents tumbled, along with the upkeep of many buildings.

Now, with the crime rate dropping, rents are expected to soar as developers snap up the grand "prewar" buildings ripe for renovation.

For Julia Reed, a sturdy grandmother with prominent cheekbones, the potential is exciting. She's already more comfortable walking around the neighborhood. But she also wants to see more services, like after-school programs for local kids. And she's worried that without some kind of protection - a subsidy or a rent-stabilized apartment - many friends could get priced out of their homes.

So, early one morning last week as homeless men lined up at the soup kitchen next door, she arrived at St. Edward, a friend's toddler in tow. Fr. Denaro had invited a group of New York religious leaders for bagels and coffee to discuss how to cope with the coming onslaught of riches that present what he calls a "bittersweet" challenge.

Ms. Reed says what she heard was both encouraging and discouraging.

"There's precious little you can do to resist gentrification. The economic pressures are so great that it's sort of like a wave coming in," says Paul Moore, a leading social activist and the former Episcopal bishop of New York. At the same time, he noted, churches like St. Edward and the more than 600 others in Harlem can provide a spiritual base along with their community outreach programs to help support their neighbors during the transition.

That sounds good in theory to Roland Woodland, a church warden and member of St. Edward's for more than 35 years. But he lived on the Upper West Side when Lincoln Center moved in, and saw that neighborhood change as rents soared and mom-and-pop stores were forced out by pricey boutiques.

But like Reed, Mr. Woodland also sees some benefits to the changes.

"I am beginning to see more Caucasians in the neighborhood, that's good for the integration movement," he says, approvingly. "But I'm also wondering, at whose expense are they here?"

No one had a direct answer for that question. But the Rev. George "Bill" Webber of the New York Theological Seminary believes it's incumbent on churches to ensure everyone benefits. "We spend a lot of time saying, 'You've got to think that God put you here to try to do something about the problems of your neighbors' - so not to be involved would be to reject God's agenda."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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