When we consider the characteristics of a decent city, we usually identify diversity and inclusiveness as important characteristics. At the same time, gentrification, which can produce greater heterogeneity in previously ghettoized neighborhoods, is feared for its displacement effects on low-income residents. Additionally, original inhabitants often resent the cultural differences and implied superiority of wealthier incomers. Harlem, which is currently undergoing a gentrification process, highlights the difficulties involved in simultaneously protecting the interests and values of original residents while also improving the quality of its housing and retailing. It also raises questions of the interaction between commercial and residential gentrification. Do upscale stores, restaurants, and galleries act as stalking horses for real-estate interests seeking to restructure the price of residential properties? Can commercial establishments enhance the quality of life and respond to the tastes of both original inhabitants and later arrivals? Should the informal retailing that has long existed along some of its main avenues be conserved and if so, how?

Harlem’s recent development

As long ago as 1986 Schaffer and Smith chronicled the beginnings of gentrification in Harlem and identified it as primarily a black phenomenon. They predicted that stable economic integration could be “an impossible hope” and that eventually white households would follow the path of black professionals into central Harlem. Nearly 30 years later, as a consequence of public subsidies, rezoning, recovery from the financial crisis of 2007-8, and a shortage of available housing in the rest of Manhattan, their prophecy, although slow to materialize, is coming true. Other contributing factors have been the activity of community development corporations in transforming abandoned structures in the city’s in rem program of tax foreclosed property and either rehabbing them or constructing new buildings in their stead; the sharp decline in the crime rate that made living in Harlem less risky; the replacement of boarded storefronts with chain stores as well as upscale boutiques and eateries; and the development of a tourism industry.

Although gentrification remains primarily a black phenomenon, whites are beginning to move into southern Harlem, increasing their share to 16% from 3.5%, attracted by both new buildings and attractive brownstones available for much lower prices than in the rest of Manhattan. On the East Side, luxury high rises have crossed what was once the 96th Street barrier into Spanish Harlem, with the white population expanding from 11.5% to 17.4% of the total (CUNY Center for Urban Research 2014). Both central and East Harlem recorded an approximately 10 percent increase in the number of households with earnings over $100,000 per year in 2012 dollars between 2000 and 2012 (NYC Comptroller 2014).

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Gentrification alone does not account for rent increases adding up to about 45% and median purchase prices for homes more than trebling during that period in the two areas. It is, however, a significant contributing factor to the changed image of the district despite the continuing dilapidated character of many blocks and the large number of public housing structures that continue to hold an impoverished, all-black and Latino population.

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Whereas the sidewalks of 125th Street, Harlem’s main commercial corridor, were once blanketed with vendors selling a great variety of goods, vending has been substantially reduced by herding some of the vendors into marketplaces and enforcing strict controls over the rest. In 1994 the Giuliani administration, responding to complaints from local store owners, instituted a massive sweep of sidewalk sellers:

Hundreds of police officers descended on 125th Street in Harlem yesterday to carry out the Giuliani administration’s order to clear the busy thoroughfare of street vendors, and 22 people were arrested as scuffles broke out between the illegal merchants and officers. Under the administration’s plan, the vendors are to move to an open-air market site about eight blocks away, at Lenox Avenue and 116th Street. But by late afternoon, only two vendors had opened for business at the new site. The major difference from most days was the complete absence of the once-ubiquitous vendors, whose presence on 125th Street had become a major attraction for shoppers from other parts of New York City and beyond. (Hicks, October 18, 1994)

Subsequently vendors have returned to 125th Street, although in smaller number, and occasionally the police reappear to again enforce the ordinance that limits selling to licensed vendors. At the same time chain stores have begun to move in, while restaurants and boutiques catering to middle-class customers have started to occupy smaller storefronts.

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Efforts to resolve the conflict between formal and informal merchants have resorted to a typical formula, one employed in New York in the early part of the twentieth century and widely used in cities throughout the world. It involves moving the street vendors into stalls within off-street markets. Although the strategy has proved successful in many locations, frequently it fails to provide the relocated with a sufficient livelihood. Relocated merchants may lose their clientele when they move off the street, have difficulty paying the rent for their more formalized stalls, and often end up using their new spaces for warehousing rather than selling their goods. So far its results have been minimal in Harlem. The Malcolm Shabazz African Market was intended for African artifact sellers on 125th Street but it was located in a less central space and houses only a handful of merchants; La Marqueta has a tiny fraction of the number of outlets that once populated the area under the MetroNorth tracks on Park Avenue in East Harlem; Mart 125 has been a total failure, despite its central location, and is slated to become the site of the Jazz Museum of Harlem whenever the financing can be raised.

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The presence of new, upscale stores has precipitated debate over their role in fostering residential gentrification, accused of alienating long-time residents, and destroying authenticity:

“Boutiquing” is, then, part of a broad dynamic of postindustrial change and urban revitalization that may benefit certain residents while deepening economic and social polarization and place low- and middle-income neighborhoods at risk. It enhances the quality of life of the new urban middle class, including the new black middle class, while making the poor of every ethnic group feel insecure. Boutiques “mark” an area as safe for commercial investment that will upgrade services and raise rents. Moreover, by institutionalizing the consumption practices of more affluent and highly educated men and women in place of stores that serve the poor, it challenges the “right to the city” of low-income residents. (Zukin et al 2009, p. 48).

Zukin identifies a number of new retail and dining establishments that conform to this model, but nevertheless her investigation shows that they constitute a very small proportion of Harlem purveyors. Given the pre-existing amount of boarded storefronts and vacant lots on commercial streets, their overall economic impact is relatively small although they do give their vicinity a different look.

Another factor affecting the retail mix and the general “feel” of Harlem has been an increase in tourism, initiated originally by bus tours taking Europeans and Japanese to Sunday gospel services in its churches. Now Harlem is a regular route for the hop-on/hop-off buses that carry visitors around the city. The reopening of old jazz clubs and development of new ones, the refurbishment of the Apollo Theater, along with the creation of art galleries and requirements for artistic establishments within the new 125th Street zoning all aim at creating a revival of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Now as then, however, only part of the community perceives itself as benefiting from this new socio-spatial imaginary (see Hoffman 2003).

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Harlem Ren

We are unquestionably currently witnessing a transformation of Harlem from Kenneth Clark’s (1965) “dark ghetto” to a far more heterogeneous place with improved amenities and better services. Lance Freeman (2006) notes the mixed feelings of remaining low-income residents who recognize the advantages that gentrification has brought them while ruing the fact that it required an influx of wealthier people for them to receive these improvements. The financial crisis of 2007-8 caused many of the previously announced development projects intended for Harlem to stall, and we are just hearing announcements of their revival or restructuring. Transformation has thus been a slow process. The long-run question is whether an increased pluralism can be maintained, providing benefits for all residents. One issue arises from the perceived disappearance of small stores serving ordinary residents. Such establishments often have short lives everywhere, but the rapidly rising rents caused by the influx of chain stores and shops serving higher-income clienteles make their longevity especially fragile in Harlem. Only some form of commercial rent regulation can insure a mix of enterprises. Most crucial, in terms of stabilizing the population mix, is the role of the public sector in maintaining the stock of public housing, keeping units within the rent regulation programs, and retaining structures whose occupants receive housing subsidies. Provision of attractive open space, humanizing public housing projects without demolishing them, improved schools, more recreational services, and generally an enlargement of facilities that can be accessed outside the market would enhance the lives of the various population groups within the new Harlem.
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Center for Urban Research, CUNY Grad Ctr (2014). NYC Population Change. http://www.urbanresearchmaps.org/plurality.

Clark, Kenneth (1965). Dark Ghetto. New York: Harper and Row.

Freeman, Lance (2006). There Goes the ‘Hood. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Hicks, Jonathan P. (1994). “Police move street vendors in Harlem”. New York Times, October 18.

Hoffman, Lily M. (2003). Revalorizing the inner city: Tourism and regulation in Harlem. Pp. 91-112 in Lily M. Hoffman, Susan S. Fainstein, and Dennis R. Judd, Cities and Visitors. Oxford: Blackwell.

New York City Comptroller (2014). The Growing Gap: New York City’s Housing Affordability Challenge. April 2014.

Osofsky, Gilbert (1966). Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

Schaffer, Richard, and Smith, Neil (1986). “The Gentrification of Harlem?” Annals of the Association of American Geographers,76 (3), 347–65.

Zukin, Sharon et al (2009). “New Retail Capital and Neighborhood Change: Boutiques and Gentrification in New York City”. City & Community, 8 (1), 47-64.