In his pink polo shirt and stylishly ripped jeans, 43-year-old Arthur Hoyt, Jr. is an archetypical local resident……He often stands outside his apartment building, cigarette in hand, watching the traffic go by in Harlem.
Hoyt is the perfect example of the “new Harlemite”: white, in his 30s or 40s, with a family. In south-central Harlem, which extends roughly east-west from Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. to Morningside Park and north-south from 125th Street to 110th, people like Hoyt are arriving in droves.
In the past five to 10 years, locals say, many of Harlem’s vacant lots and run-down buildings have been converted to upscale residences. Where dilapidated properties—relics of the city’s darker days—once stood, there are now condominiums and clean brownstones occupied by a new breed of Harlemite.
“You have to remember we live on an island,” Hoyt said. “As more people move in, they look for new places they might not have though of before.”
In light of the University’s planned expansion into a 17-acre area of West Harlem, it seems gentrification is on everyone’s lips. But the reality is far less cut-and-dry. Many of the new residents are middle-class white tenants who are just as dependent on city price regulations as many of the older, black, working-class residents are on affordable housing rent vouchers.
And as with housing, the businesses of the two populations co-exist. It seems south-central Harlem’s new populace isn’t trying to erase the old community—they’re just making it “trendier.”
The Rent Game
“When there’s that kind of money floating around, you can do stuff like that,” said Mickey Hicks, looking up briefly from his game of checkers. A 50-year resident of the neighborhood, he pointed across the street to some row houses on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, where some owners are adding extra stories on top of the existing structures to make lofts.
“This neighborhood’s the land of money now,” Hicks said. “That’s the only way to get things done.”
In the late 1980s, the city owned 60 percent of the buildings in Harlem, having bought many buildings from owners who had failed to maintain them. Through community and church-based development groups, the city facilitated construction of new rent-regulated housing. Private landlords jumped in as well, and by the late ’90s, housing in south-central Harlem was looking up.
Over the past decade, real estate companies began to buy formerly vacant lots and condemned buildings to construct upscale housing. The city has given such developers incentives to include affordable housing units in their buildings.
“We’re using newer tools, like tax incentives and rezoning, to achieve affordable housing with private developers,” said Neal Coleman, spokesman for the city’s Housing and Preservation Department. “In the old days, because it was our land and building, we had a lot of say in what could be developed there, and could mandate certain levels of affordable building. But now, we cannot dictate to a private owner how they’ll use that building.”
But many of the new affordable units are not occupied by tenants with Harlem roots, and while apartments can be price-controlled, this can only be done to a certain point, city officials say. For-sale, price-controlled units often sell to middle-class out-of-towners.
“Our place was subsidized when we bought it,” Babette Roberts said. “We can sell it at market price after three years, but why would we?”
Roberts and her husband Bruce moved into a condo on Frederick Douglas Boulevard and 121st Street four years ago. “Its exploded up here,” she said. “Six months after we bought, we wouldn’t have been able to afford it.”
Sustainability and the New Neighbors
The big question is whether this development will continue, and if so, how much it will affect long-time area residents. For the time being, construction seems to be limited to vacant lots and condemned buildings, and residents are hopeful that they will be able to stay in the neighborhood.
Toby Jenkins, who has sold many run-down properties in the neighborhood, said development may not be as fervent as it first appeared.
Developers “haven’t taken anything from the community,” Jenkins said. “They’ve just been opportunistic in reviving a few complete dumps.”
“There was some displacement early on, I think, but not as much recently,” Bruce Roberts said. “Unless a place is really run down, I don’t think a landlord would sell and lose all of his subsidized tenants.”
Russ Charlton bounced his infant daughter, Molly, on his knee outside his building on 111th Street. “We were just looking for space to raise her,” Charlton said. “In the past year and a half, this place has become more diverse. But I think it’s helped everyone—the local guys too. I know most of us would prefer that this place keep its character.”
The ability of the neighborhood’s longtime residents to stay may hinge on the assumption that the new residents are not interested in changing the area’s landscape. It seems the current atmosphere is a primary attraction in itself—the area is less choked with development than others and is a good place to raise a family, where local flavor has not been lost to chain stores and fashion boutiques as much as in downtown Manhattan.
“This is the neighborhood I wanted to live in,” Hoyt said, echoing Charlton’s sentiment. “I want my kids to have a multicultural experience.”
This is the attitude developers have banked on. At 118th Street and Frederick Douglas Boulevard lies the new SoHa118, a condominium complex whose name refers to the neighborhood it seems to have helped create—South Harlem, or SoHa. Testimonials on the complex’s Web site play up the neighborhood’s cultural heritage and relaxed atmosphere, inviting professionals living in hectic downtown to try out the uptown life.
“South Harlem is happening,” an ad proclaims, “And nowhere will capture its essence better than this exciting new condominium.”
Locals say new businesses have generally not crowded out old ones.
“They’ve fixed this place up,” said Mike Harris, a 20-year resident. “It’s still mostly little shops, just now its more racially diverse.”
Jason Brown, who has lived in the neighborhood for all 30 years of his life, agreed.
“What they’re doing around here is good,” Brown said. “I guess the bottom end’s always going to lose out, but I think everyone wants this community to stay. We’re tied to this place with work—there’s more job opportunities than ever.”
Indeed, it seems the new residents are the most adamant about keeping small shops around.
“It’s still mostly local business,” said Nabeel Ahmad, a Teacher’s College student who has lived in south-central Harlem for three years. “There are a lot of new restaurants, and they cater to more trendy people—not necessarily more affluent, but more trendy.”
If there is a Mecca of trendiness in Harlem, it would be the three-year-old Harlem Vintage Wines on 121st Street and Frederick Douglass. Employees say the shop’s appeal has carried over from newcomers to longtime residents.
“We really just aim to fill a gap in the stores around here,” employee Christian Finkler said. “We try to introduce wines that people have never heard of, that you wouldn’t get at any liquor store.”
Many stores echoed the belief that the key to good business is keeping a cosmopolitan flavor, as many newcomers savor the diversity the neighborhood provides. “We try to create an international feel,” said Jean Soumane, an employee at Les Ambassades café on 119th Street. “We have a diverse clientele, and business has increased in the past few years much more than it did previously.”
At Antoinette’s, a new restaurant on 113th and Frederick Douglas Boulevard, co-owner Brian Johnson voiced a slightly different sentiment.
“We’re looking for the more educated, the newer population in this area,” Johnson said, adding that because of the area’s diversity “it’s hard to attract the right clientele.”
This seems to be the paradox of south-central Harlem. New businesses have not necessarily raised the cost of living out of the price range of older residents, but such businesses are not socioeconomically geared toward those residents.
“You can tell who the newcomers are because they’re only in the new restaurants,” one lifelong resident said. “Some places are definitely not for the people in this area.”
A Fragmented Neighborhood
“Dre,” a resident of 17 years, sips his beer as he sits outside his apartment block. “I’m not a Harlem gangster kid, you know? I’ve got a job and I make good money.” He gestures with the paper-wrapped beer can for emphasis.
“It doesn’t it doesn’t matter what color you are, it matters what you’re doing,” he said. “If they [the new white residents] want black folks to live here, they have to be willing to live together. That’s how you have good families.”
The social divide between area residents extends beyond the realm of business. Many longtime residents worry the working-class social life is under assault by the new professionals moving in.
“There were a lot of little bars where you’d go after work,” said James, a longtime resident. “Now there are different bars, more upscale than before. The way the people see each other around here—its static, you know?”
Many residents noted an increased police presence in the area, which they say is not always a good thing. “We used to be a community that would sit out and talk, but now people are so quick to call the police,” 17-year resident Linda Smith said. “People don’t want to hang out like they used to.”
James, who has lived in south-central Harlem all his life, captured many residents’ discouragement in a simple statement: “We’ve got a neighborhood here, but not a community.”