The Fire Next Time

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So, convergence of public dictates is systematically transforming Harlem into yet another rich, mostly white, Manhattan neighborhood. Ironically in great part, this can be blamed on Black “leaders.�

[Notes From The Frontline]


However much friends might like or appreciate us, few would welcome our comings over to announce, "Alright! Your time is up. Since I have more money than you do: you must move, now!" 

From the era of Robert Moses and longer, this has happened in New York over and over, to all kinds of people. 

Today it's happening in Harlem. Emerging from a 90 year legacy of white-flight, abandonment and neglect by the establishment, in 2000, for the first time ever, a Harlem row-house was sold for $1 million. It only took about a year more for one to sell for $2 million. 

The City’s proposed rezoning along the length of 124-126th Streets would even incentivize high-end apartments that incorporated Black cultural organizations at street-level. By merely making 20% of these units affordable, according to a regional median scale pegged at about $60,000 a year, developers could gain the right to build even more luxury apartments.

Such lopsided planning caused one resident to quip, "They're going to form Black dance troupes and a jazz museum, so we can entertain the new, rich white home-owners."

As this unprecedented change shapes a new Harlem, strangely unfamiliar to many long-term residents, Charles B. Rangel, their long-term representative in congress, contends reassuringly, "No matter what, Harlem will always be Harlem!"

But will it? In the midst of serving his 19th two-year term, Rep. Rangel is renowned as Harlem's elder statesman; first among equals of a powerful group of local leaders, affectionately known as "The Gang of Four." 

The rest of The Gang of Four are Basil Paterson, Percy Sutton and David Dinkins. They have had a hand in virtually every significant business venture, housing development and public policy initiative enacted in Harlem for a generation. Helping to orchestrate the successful bid of Paterson's son, David, as Lieutenant Governor, they now stand poised to reap the spoils of his unexpected elevation to become New York State’s first Black chief executive.

But, if past district benefits garnered by these ambitious friends, including new affordable housing, improved schools, renovation of the Apollo Theatre and creation of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, were welcomed in a community where the real median income is only $17,000, their enthusiastic endorsement of Senator Hillary Clinton and these recent, more transformative plans for their fiefdom are regarded more critically.

"Unfortunately, they're all products of Democratic Party patronage,” stresses activist Nellie Bailey. “For Rangel and his crowd, whatever is a gain for them personally or a fellow Alpha Phi Alpha members, is seen as, if not an advancement for all African-Americans, at least, as a gain for the entire Harlem community."

And so, bit by bit, historic Harlem disappears. For, there are no preservationists Downtown who are advocates for the largely unrecognized landmarks in Harlem. The culture that emerged Uptown is a high point of America's most significant achievement. The area's Victorian architecture is remarkably complete. Still, fewer than 10% of Manhattan's 10,000 protected city landmarks are located above 110th Street. 

As historian Robert A. M. Stern notes in New York 2000, “claims...made that the Landmarks Preservation Commission was neglecting Harlem's architecture...were not unfounded.”

Stern points to the disparity, in the 1990s, between central Harlem's three, "modestly sized" historic districts and 21 individual landmarks, versus five districts on the Upper East Side, "two of which were substantial" and 85 individual landmarks there.

Seventeen acres recently given over to Columbia University, which plans to raze every structure, except two, including one listed on the National Register of Historic Places, will further compromise Harlem's heritage.

Replaced by identical glass towers, this bio-tech industrial park project will displace thousands with few options of where to go. If recent history is any guide, as at Columbia's similar Audubon project to the North, that destroyed the site of Malcolm X's murder, most and the best jobs in Manhattanville, will go to whites.

So, convergence of public dictates is systematically transforming Harlem into yet another rich, mostly white, Manhattan neighborhood. Ironically in great part, this can be blamed on Black “leaders.” The best known ones, in deserting Mark Green, in exchange for trivial handouts from Michael Bloomberg, assured a more ruthless approach to Harlem's revitalization than would have occurred otherwise.

Such opportunism is as culpable as Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, with her $54 million fortune, in Harlem's "highest best use" metamorphosis. Once the African American Cultural Capital, it's soon to become just another fashionable quarter without Black churches, elected officials or residents.

As a young newcomer from Ohio, old timers insisted that there was a plot afoot, meant to reclaim Harlem for whites. "It's deliberate and organized from the highest echelons of power," they had insisted.

Now I know at last, that the very change they predicted is the Harlem of here and now. Whether it's deliberate or not doesn't really matter. What does matter is that it's responsible for much of the neighborhood's anger and feeling of betrayal.

Whether in Harlem or elsewhere, this disaffection is not to be relegated to some dim past. On TV, Harlem's mega-minister, the Rev. Calvin O. Butts called Columbia's Manhattanville expansion "an explosion waiting to happen." Regardless of whether, as some have claimed, his statement was merely a ploy for extortion, he was dead on.

Naturally, people are not going to riot over the 125th Street rezoning per-se. But, sometime, soon, there will be yet another Sean Bell-like murder; they are as regular as clockwork. As the whole world knows, Bell was gunned down by police one the morning he was supposed to get married, in a hail of 50 bullets; he was unarmed and had just left a party at a Queens club with friends, observing his last night as a bachelor.

When the next Sean-Bell type murder occurs, many will be surprised at the result. Those aware of Harlem history, of how past violence reaped more public investment than destruction, will not. People familiar with government's role in displacement here or New York's pervasive segregation by race and class will understand what's happening.

This is what makes Senator Barack Obama's candidacy crucial, as an example of how it's possible to overcome the ill effects of detached, entrenched political power. Like Lincoln, that other "inexperienced" veteran of the Illinois Statehouse, he uniquely has the ability to unite and uplift everyone. 

And, he's just in time too. For we've been so inured by the recklessness of George Bush, Michael Bloomberg, Burden and their African American collaborators, that we have forgotten that it was even possible to be inspired; that it's even possible to work, to advance a common good.

Michael Henry Adams weekly columns will chronicle the on-going transformation of Harlem.

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