A case study of gentrification and displacement is the community of Harlem in Manhattan. Harlem was a historically Black community since the 1920’s. It has been considered by many to be the center of Black Culture (art, cuisine, music, etc). Starting in the 1990’s Harlem has been the site of urban ‘improvement’. And while some of the improvements have been true improvements in the reduction in crime and some increase in jobs, others can be considered as detrimental to the neighborhood. These include rising rents which are unaffordable to long-term Harlem residents, and the phasing out of the Mitchell-Lama program. In this program, either rents or the prices of co-ops were kept low through subsides benefiting middle income residents. When the program expired, landlords were allowed to ‘opt out’ and raise rents. [My aunt and uncle live in one of the developments on the edge of Harlem, Morningside Gardens, that was part of the Mitchell-Lama program that opted out and is now market rate.] The number of low income apartments which are part of the Section 8 program are not growing either. In addition, local businesses have been forced out by rising commercial rents. Many small African themed shops have closed and big chain stores like Old Navy have moved in. In a way it is good to have the chain stores as they provide employment and convenience. However it is sad to see the small ethnic shops with all of their interesting merchandise leave. These small shops also gave 125 Street a lot of its character. This rise in rents plus the influx of more middle class and even rich people, a lot of whom are not Black, have preferences for different kinds of food. The article mentions ‘soul food light’. There are now a lot of healthy type food places, like juice bars on 125 Street.
The article mentions that the situation did not have to be this way. Since Harlem is still largely rentals (not ownership) apartments, the whole economy is dependent on landlords, some of whom try to force people out so that they can raise the rents. The article mentions the Reverend Floyd Flake who moved to Jamaica, Queens where his policies emphasized home ownership. Jamaica is another well known Black NYC community, with very different housing types, including many one family homes. Flake criticized Charles Rangel, the long-time Congressman representing Harlem for not emphasizing home ownership. In my opinion, Rangel did not have the opportunity to do that in a largely rental community like Harlem. The only real hope of doing that was if the city had chosen to sell the vacant buildings to it owned in the 1980’s and early 1990’s to community groups (instead to landlords). These could have been organized community groups, churches, or simply groups of neighborhood people who wanted to do a lot of the fix up work themselves. This is sometimes called ‘sweat equity’. This was more common on the lower east side than in Harlem. However when given the chance (and pushed a little), Rangel supported home ownership—namely my family’s apartment complex on West 104-105 Street in Manhattan. It was not built under the Mitchell-Lama program but was built under another program for affordable housing. Currently the new housing in Harlem is mostly luxury housing which is, unfortunately, out of reach for most members of the Harlem community.