Harlem and the Gentrification of New York City

By Olumide Ebimo Amungo

A recent visit to Harlem brought me face-to-face with a socio-economic phenomenon called Gentrification.

I recently got to watching Netflix’s Luke Cage, Marvel’s bulletproof super hero from Harlem. And after also watching shows like Showtime at the Apollo and Amateur night at the Apollo, Harlem became a place I had to visit. I went to Harlem through a long route, first to the Yankees Stadium in Bronx and across Macombs Dam Bridge to 155th street in Manhattan. I took a long walk through Sugar Hill and Upper Manhattan on St Nicholas Ave. I listened to the patter and laughter of children and their parents on the playground that adjourned the avenue and stared at the neat rows of buildings on the other side of the road. Underneath me I heard the whir and rumble of the trains in the subway. It was a long walk to the landmarks that define the heart of Harlem. The landmark called the Apollo Theater by 253 West 125th Street.

As I went past the various houses, I noticed they were renovated, secured and seemed to be occupied by people of means. I also walked past huge tower blocks built by the government to house the poor. While on Nicholas Ave I saw a lot white people but few African Americans. It was not until I got to 125th street that I got the sense that I was finally in Harlem. The majority of people there were African Americans and African immigrants. I had always thought of Harlem as an African Americans bastion in New York. A world-renowned center of African-American industry, entrepreneurship, culture and music. But US census figures show that while African- Americans made up 98 percent of the population of Harlem in 1958 and 68 percent in 1970 and then 64 percent by the year 2000, they were just 40 percent of the population by 2008. Harlem is in the throes of an incipient and ineluctable social-economic phenomenon. Harlem is undergoing gentrification.

Gentrification is a word that is new to me. It was introduced to me in Brooklyn. And most people who said the word said it with lamentation and a ting of anger in their voice. I have since learnt that gentrification is the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents. A study by RentCafe showed that seven neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn are among the 20 most gentrified in the United States and this has led to huge demographic changes. The report found that in one neighborhood in Harlem the median home value increased 219 percent over the period of the study. Most longtime residents have been forced to leave Harlem.

The debate about gentrification in New York seems to be a lost one, this is an economic phenomena. New York has a Gross Metropolitan Product of 1.3 trillion dollars, which makes the city the wealthiest metropolitan area in the world. A lot of people have well-paid jobs and they want to live in Manhattan, and most times they can outbid the denizens and pay more for a property. Foreigners too are buying properties in New York City for investment. And let’s not forget that Harlem is in Manhattan. A highly sought after location.

I eventually got Apollo Theater and took a good look at the place. I marveled at how America could sell so simple a theater to a global audience. But I reminded myself of the memories created in that unpretentious looking 75 years old building by legends like Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. Apollo Theater has seen better days, but it is a symbol of once vibrant African American community of Harlem. A reminder of the Harlem that was, before the onset of gentrification.

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