You move to Harlem because you like what’s already there, but when you get there, you wonder if you’re helping to push what you like out…
On a recent Saturday night, a red carpet was rolled out on Frederick Douglass Boulevard near West 116th Street. Bright lights shone, West African music pulsed through the air and lanky models showed off a new collection of Africa-inspired clothing by Ibrahima Doukoure to mark his boutique’s third anniversary.
The scene was a far cry from the one on 116th Street when Guinean-born Mr. Doukoure arrived in Harlem from Rome 16 years ago. Then, he had to walk to 110th Street and Broadway just to find a bank. He had to lie to Yellow Cab drivers to get a ride home, telling them he was going to 110th and Central Park West.
“Everything was run down,” Mr. Doukoure recalls. “I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ ”
Today, his shop, Bebenoir, is on a stretch of Frederick Douglass Boulevard that real estate agents call Harlem’s Gold Coast. Marketing gimmicks aside, there’s no doubt that the 116th Street area is in the midst of a transformation.
On the neighborhood’s eastern edge, a long-dormant wire factory is now a $500 million shopping center anchored by such major retailers as Target and Costco. Toward the western end, Columbia University is about to spend $6.3 billion for a new campus that will enhance its research capacity and extend its reach to the north and west.
Those developments stirred up plenty of controversy: the center’s for the potential harm to small businesses and Columbia’s for its use of eminent domain. But megaprojects are just one chapter of 116th Street’s rapidly changing story. Maybe more than any other street in the five boroughs, this two-mile stretch reflects all the elements of a city in transition: new immigrants establishing themselves as former ones move on, businesses opening their doors as others close.
Luxury condominiums are being built without subsidies—unthinkable just two decades ago—and upscale professionals are moving into a community long considered impervious to the economic boom that has swept other parts of Manhattan.
Progress hasn’t come without a price. It has pushed out longtime residents and immigrants, mostly from West Africa and Latin America. And the influx of new wealth presents a challenge to city officials recasting government’s role amid a recession that has weakened traditional tools for economic development.
“As much as the city changes, and we have to embrace that, its future also depends on having places where a diverse mix of New Yorkers can live and work,” says Jonathan Bowles, director of the Center for an Urban Future, a nonpartisan public policy think tank. “It would be a real shame if every neighborhood continued to see an explosion of major retail chains and a diminishment of local businesses that give the city its unique flavor.”
The revival of 116th Street can be traced to the decision by former Mayor Edward Koch to make housing the centerpiece of his agenda. Harlem, devastated by the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s, had lost 37% of its population. In 1986, Mr. Koch set aside $4.2 billion to invest in affordable housing and embarked on a rebuilding program in some of the city’s most blighted neighborhoods. The initiative moved quickly in Harlem, partly because over 60% of the property there was already under city ownership.
“The decision to reinvest in neighborhoods like the 116th Street corridor rather than wall off these sections of the city that were severely dilapidated is one of the great untold stories about New York,” says Rafael Cestero, commissioner of the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development. “Housing allowed neighborhoods to repopulate, and that brought all the good things and all the challenges neighborhoods face today.”
On 116th Street, a menu of city, state and federal subsidy programs helped entice private developers into an area that was “essentially gutted,” according to Kathryn Wylde, who until 1996 ran the nonprofit New York City Housing Partnership.
“Most of the housing we developed under the Housing Partnership was the first privately financed new housing built in Harlem in more than 50 years,” says Ms. Wylde, now president of the Partnership for New York City. “That’s how long there was no market investment in the housing stock.”
The $60 million Renaissance Plaza, a housing and retail development on the northeast corner of Lenox Avenue and 116th Street, signaled the strip’s comeback. Built by a team consisting of the city, the Housing Partnership, the development arm of the Malcolm Shabazz mosque, and developers Stuart Match Suna and Jeffrey Levine, its 241 moderately priced co-ops attracted more than 4,000 applicants when the project was completed in 1999. Additionally, its 60,000 square feet of retail space brought the banks and supermarkets that for years had shunned Harlem.
“It created what we call in the appraisal world the comps that made much of the rest of the development of for-sale housing in Harlem possible,” says Mr. Levine.
The city subsidized Renaissance Plaza generously, with more than $20 million of zero- and low-interest loans, to make it affordable for middle-income households.
Another 116th Street project, Full Spectrum’s 1400 on Fifth, paved the way for the torrent of market-rate condominiums in Harlem. Built through a public-private partnership, the 129-unit complex sold out quickly when it was completed in 2004; one-third of the condos were market-rate.
“I knew at the time that particular project was going to be the game changer for Harlem,” says Blondel Pinnock, president of the Carver Community Development Corp., who worked on 1400 on Fifth as a banker for Fleet. “The nagging doubt we had was whether anyone would pay $1 million for a townhouse or market rate for any unit right across the street from a public housing project.”
Within two years, Ms. Pinnock says, developers were “laying stake to ground” on the neighborhood’s first solely market-rate projects. Carver Federal Savings Bank got involved with Graceline Court, a 16-story luxury building that is filling up adjacent to Malcolm Shabazz mosque.
“1400 on Fifth gave birth to all these other projects,” Ms. Pinnock says. “It established a market for market-rate condos in Harlem proper.”
But change brings uncertainty. And for those who endured Harlem’s worst days and now contend with soaring commercial rents and new condos that are out of reach, it raises a question: Who benefits?
On one hand, everyone, because empty lots now have banks, supermarkets and some affordable housing. But in just one block, high rents have forced out a chicken joint, a carpet dealer, and a coffee shop and left others struggling to survive. Since Bebenoir opened, the monthly rent has nearly doubled, to $4,000.
“We have a history of being here through Harlem’s tough times,” says Imam Izak-El M. Pasha of Malcolm Shabazz mosque. “If it’s going to have good times, we have a right to benefit from them.”
The recession and weak recovery have slowed the frenzy, but 116th Street’s expansion continues. On one block near Frederick Douglass Boulevard, a group of investors is ready to break ground on a market-rate condo project, and several restaurateurs are preparing to open a 3,500-square-foot tavern and bistro.
As a new neighborhood takes shape, the challenge is to balance growth with affordability, to ensure that the diversity that makes New York New York continues to flourish.
“You move to Harlem because you like what’s already there, but when you get there, you wonder if you’re helping to push what you like out,” says Gabrielle Lopez, a resident of 116th Street.