Article and photos by Catherine Chojnowski
After returning to New York from her college studies at Stony Brook University, Gisele Hill, a 28-year-old Harlem native, found that she was unable to afford living in the neighborhood that was her childhood home. She also found that she was not alone.
Having lived in Harlem her entire life, Hill, an assistant manager at a coffee shop, noticed that many familiar faces were no longer there and that a new demographic of young, white professionals had taken their place. Rather than returning to the neighborhood she grew up in, Hill moved north to Washington Heights.
“Rent is too damn high and it is forcing the community I have grown up in and loved to leave,” said Hill. “It is hurtful, and more and more every day it feels as if Harlem no longer belongs to me.”
Hill’s story reflects the changing nature of Harlem, which like other areas of the city has experienced widespread gentrification. Bits and pieces of the neighborhood have slowly disappeared behind wooden panels and turned into construction sites, only to re-emerge as modern residential and office buildings. Longtime residents such as Hill worry that Harlem is losing its extensive African American historical and cultural significance. In the early 1900s, Harlem became a destination for African Americans of all backgrounds seeking to assert their identity as a free people. The neighborhood became home to one of the highest concentrations of African Americans in the country and was the birthplace of one of the most celebrated cultural movements in American history, the Harlem Renaissance.
“People being forced out of their communities have to now find homes in other places although they’ve given so much to the Harlem community,” Hill said. “Even if I am able to afford to live here someday, it will not be the Harlem that I grew up in.”
The effects of gentrification are most evident in the rising housing prices and changing demographics of the neighborhood. The median gross rent price in Central Harlem increased from $800 in 2006 to $1,070 in 2017, according to New York University’s Furman Center, which researches housing trends in the city. The Furman Center also reported that sales prices for all residential property types also increased by two percent in Central Harlem between 2017 and 2018, compared to an overall two percent decrease in the borough of Manhattan. While Central Harlem’s total population increased by 13.4 percent from 2010 to 2018, the percentage of African Americans in the neighborhood decreased from 63 to 55 percent, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
David John McCoy, 30, first noticed the changes in the neighborhood accelerating around 2007 when many local bodegas and family-owned businesses seemed to suddenly disappear. McCoy’s family has a long history with the neighborhood: His great-grandmother first moved to Harlem from Georgia in 1930, fleeing the racism she was experiencing in the South. His grandfather and grandmother followed in 1958, and McCoy’s family has been rooted in Harlem ever since. Last year, when his rent was raised substantially, McCoy, who is self-employed, had no choice but to leave Harlem and move to the Bronx. Many of the friends he grew up with also have been forced to move.
“It being a struggle for the working class to live [in Harlem] is an understatement,” he said.
The changing dynamics of the neighborhood is evident to anyone who walks through its streets. Tucked between old brownstones and storefronts are novelty coffee shops, hip restaurants along with luxury condos and residential buildings. Almost every street is now home to an empty lot with a construction permit pasted on the deep green wooden panels hiding the rubble. The steel skeletons of new high-rise buildings in construction and looming cranes are visible from almost every street corner. Revisiting Harlem for the first time after having moved in August 2019, McCoy points out storefronts with grates covering their windows.
“This was open last time I was here,” he says. “And that was only two months ago.”
McCoy said that when the new businesses started popping up around Harlem, it was clear that they were not catering to the community that was once there, but rather a new one. They took the place of family-run small businesses where the workers knew most of their customers by name and community centers where neighbors once gathered. While McCoy acknowledges the positive changes Harlem has experienced, such as the renovation of public spaces, an increased police presence and a decline in crime, he wishes that such resources had been accessible to the community years ago, when he was growing up there.
“It’s a feeling, too,” McCoy said, explaining that he now feels unwelcome in the neighborhood he grew up in. “People come here and think they have more claim to the neighborhood than you.”
The Savoy Ballroom, which welcomed up to 4,000 dancers at a time from 1926 to 1958, has been replaced by the Savoy Park Apartments, a seven-building complex stretching from 139th Street to 142nd Street on Lenox Avenue. All that remains of the jazz venue that was once the “the heartbeat of Harlem’s community and a testament to the indomitable spirit and creative impulse of African Americans” is a memorial plaque.
Other historical landmarks will soon face the same fate. The building that was once the Lincoln Theatre, which is now home to the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, will soon be demolished and transformed into a 30,000-square-foot residential building. An article published by the New York Amsterdam News in 1927 described the Lincoln Theatre as “one of the smallest in New York City, but one of the most energetically conducted.”
Gentrification has also led to the displacement of long-time residents whose history is rooted in the streets of Harlem. While some of the neighborhood’s more affluent natives are able to remain in Harlem, the shift in the community has been evident universally among Harlemites.
Colette Whitlock, 76, recalls growing up in the Sugar Hill area of Harlem. Like McCoy, Whitlock’s family has a long history in Harlem: her parents moved to Harlem from Chicago in the early 1940s. Many of the family-owned businesses she recalls frequenting as a child and young adult are long gone. She reminisces about Thomforde’s, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor with black and white tiles covering the floor that she regularly visited with her friends when she was young.
“I would say that the culture of Harlem, from the time when my father was growing up to today, it’s very different,” Whitlock said. “It’s different in that the people aren’t a community – they’ve spread out.”