Harlem Displace-aissance

It was something anyone who’s spent any time uptown over the last couple of years is well aware of. By losing it’s blackness, Harlem has become the new black. The latest New York Times “fait accompli” report, this time by Sam Roberts, was the culmination of a series of real-time real-estate oriented dispatches from younger reporters, all of which contained the same ambivalent warnings about the inevitable. People of color are being pushed to the periphery steadily, Great Recession or no.

The piece is somewhat skewed by the difficulty in reconciling “Harlem”‘s official boundaries (96th on the East Side, 106th on the West, 155th to the North) with its varied neighborhoods (Central Harlem , Spanish Harlem, Morningside Heights, Sugar Hill, etc.). The opening assertion of Harlem being “synonymous with black urban America” conflicts with the reality of these overlapping pieces of “Harlem.” But what follows is the typical “gentrification” narrative.

“Newcomers” say they came because of affordability and an attraction to “community.” Planners and government agencies, which enact the “urban removal” are mentioned in passing. Community leaders, heads of cultural institutions, and academics are blunt in their assessment of the displacement process. Native sons and daughters offer the stinging realization that they can no longer afford to live where they grew up. Politicians seek the middle ground, trying to put a human face on the process.

Before he moved downtown to St. Mark’s Place, East Harlem muralist James de la Vega once displayed a painting that said “Don’t think for a minute that we haven’t noticed that the 96th St. boundary has moved further north.”

If you take a walk down 125th Street, where there are still some street peddlers, or 110th on the East Side, you will see that there are no longer boundaries in Manhattan. But what does this mean? On the surface, it seems that the segregation that has plagued so many is evaporating. Until you return to the same corner, years later, like Avenue B on the Lower East Side. And all you have left are memories and a subtle re-segregation. And maybe, if you can afford it, you can send your kids to a good school right in the neighborhood.


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