Harlem, race and gentrification: Black gentrifiers reflect on their role in the changing Harlem landscape

theGRIO REPORT - While the story of Harlem’s on-going gentrification is often told in the press by blaming big retailers that are pushing out smaller stores, or wealthy, white residents who are rehabbing historic brownstones, what is being overlooked is that many of these architects of change are black...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Over the past few years in Harlem, empty lots have sprouted luxury condos instead of weeds. You’re almost as likely to stumble upon a crafted cocktail at an upscale restaurant, as you are shea butter offered by a street vendor.

But, going from a New Jack City dangerous image, to certain parts of Harlem being called the “New Williamsburg” (after a part of Brooklyn known for artsy youths), has come with controversy.

Gentrification is still a four-letter word as it often includes the process of new residents moving into a community and displacing lower-income residents. And yes, long-time residents of Harlem are being priced out.

Some worry that the resultant increase of non-black residents in Harlem threatens the rich culture that has flourished there since the neighborhood became predominately black over the course of the 20th century.

And while the story of Harlem’s on-going gentrification is often told in the press by blaming big retailers that are pushing out smaller stores, or wealthy, white residents who are rehabbing historic brownstones, what is being overlooked is that many of these architects of change are black.

Blacks gentrifying Harlem speak out

“The demographic that lives in Harlem now is a lot more affluent, educated and health-conscious than just a few years ago,” Nikoa Evans Hendricks, executive director of the merchant association Harlem Park to Park, told theGrio. “The new businesses that you see now are driven by demand. Different pockets of Harlem have different personalities, but overall you’re getting a savvier customer who is demanding high quality.”

Media professional Barion Grant is one of those savvy, African-American residents who has called Harlem home since 2001. “I’ve seen empty lots get filled with condos. I was fortunate to purchase one,” Grant said. “I’m a college-educated person from New Jersey who has moved to this community, so I’m fine with identifying myself as a gentrifier. But at the same time I’m re-investing in this community, mostly via my church, First Corinthian Baptist Church.”

Not every Harlem resident who is enjoying this economic renaissance is a New York City transplant.  Bevy Smith, co-host of Bravo TV’s Fashion Queens,  is a lifelong Harlem resident who appreciates many of the new changes in her community. “The fact that they redid the riverwalk on 125th street is just great. I just did the walk from 125th Street to 96th Street. It was a great walk. Once upon a time that walk was not possible because it was unsafe and unkempt,” said Smith. “Today, more businesses here accept credit cards. For someone like me who might have hundreds of dollars worth of dry cleaning at a time, being able to go to the dry cleaner’s and use my credit card is wonderful. There are little things you take for granted and I think it’s healthy for longtime residents of Harlem to see that the area is changing.”

African-American business owners enjoy renaissance

Of course not everyone in Harlem can afford the pricier restaurants and services, but Smith maintains that there is something for everyone. “I pray that there will always be places like Melba’s, Sylvia’s and Corner Social where you can get a meal for $30. You will also see more places like Minton’s where the prix fixe menu is a $90 four-course meal.  Do you need to do that every night? No, but you shouldn’t have to go downtown to do something fabulous and chic,” said Smith.

“Harlem is now really kind of experiencing its second renaissance,” Richard Parsons, former CEO of Time Warner, said in a recent interview with New York Magazine,. “It’s coming up after a long winter’s sleep. But this time it’s different. The renaissance of the twenties was intellectual. This is a commercial one.”

Parsons, an African-American man, is the current owner of Harlem’s new Cecil restaurant and the renovated jazz club Minton’s. Minton’s is in part a gentrification project, but also a labor of preservation. The club originally dates back to the birth of bee bop jazz, and is seen as its space of origination.

Brian Washington Palmer, owner of the restaurant Native, a Harlem locals’ favorite, noted the relationship between eateries and different types of development. “The retail follows the bars and restaurants. That in turn creates a more walkable environment and people get to ‘discover’ different options in the neighborhood,” said Palmer, who will be closing Native and opening La Bodega 47 Social Club in mid-December at the same Harlem location. La Bodega 47 Social Club will be a lounge that focuses more on appetizers and cocktails than meals as Native did.

A cultural revolution garners interest

Food and drink are not the only ways that communities like Harlem have seen a re-awakening. Dr. Khalil Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, has been capitalizing on the renewed interest in Harlem to revive audiences for the repository of black history it houses.

“All cultural institutions have a responsibility to help to shape and define a community,” Dr. Muhammad told theGrio. “They are critical to connecting people to something more than the space they live in and shop in.”

Community-friendly programs have helped to triple the Schomburg’s number of visitors since 2009.  A hip-hop education think tank, an exhibition on Africans in India and a summer youth program are just some of the initiatives that have been attracting an increasing number of largely multi-cultural visitors.

“We hold the leading archives of the global black experience — Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean and beyond. Black people have helped make this world as inclusive, fair and just as possible. We want to continue to share that story and protect that legacy,” added Dr. Muhammad.

Blacks also displacing Harlemites

Yes, Harlem is becoming more chic and culturally stimulating due to an array of influences powered by monied African-Americans. Yet, restaurants and related entertainments there are still a very big business — and surprisingly political in their operation. “Forty-four percent of the businesses that are part of Harlem Park to Park are in the food and drink industry,” said Hendricks.