Residents question Harlem’s longevity as the Black Mecca

Posted on January 23, 2012


Far away from Zuccotti Park where the widely publicized Occupy movement started, three women, who say they are shocked and frustrated with gentrification in Harlem, took to the stage for a protest through the arts.

Renaissance in the Belly of a Killer Whale, a play written and produced by four women under the age of 25, follows the conversation of three best friends in Harlem. They sing, dance and reminisce about the “good old days,” all in an attempt to convince one of the characters to stay in  the city she can no longer afford.

Her story is like that of many in Harlem. The lingering recession and high rent prices has prompted a mini-exodus of African Americans from a slice of the city that is synonymous with black culture. Many residents are happy with the new Harlem: cleaner streets, increased police presence and more food options. But as the number of African Americans dwindle, some doubt that Harlem can still be the iconic neighborhood that it has been for over a century.

“Harlem is not about bricks and windows, it’s about the people,” says Jemisi Obanjoko, 74, artist and founder of the Black Arts Movement in Harlem. “Harlem used to be a very high energy place. During segregation, we had to rely on our own resources and our own community spirit. The people who are coming in have a different point of view. That’s the change!”

In the 1920’s and 30’s Harlem became a sanctuary for African Americans fleeing lynchings and Jim Crow politics in the segregated south. Out of this era’s fears and hope came The Harlem Renaissance, one of the most famous movements of black literature, music, art and theater in the world. Harlem has since been synonymous with black artistic expression.

In 2010 however, only about one in four Harlem residents were black, the lowest number of African Americans in the area since the 1920s. Many black owned businesses have  closed and been replaced by national retail chains such as Starbucks, Urban Outfitter and H&M Retail Store. And  the new middle-income residents who can afford the high rent and are moving in  are  white; more than 20,000  since 1990.

Despite many changes, tourist organizations say their tours are still full with people from all over the world who want to see a slice of Black America and think they can find it only in Harlem. They visit the black churches to hear gospel music and visit various landmarks like the Cotton Club, Langston Hughes House and the Apollo Theater.

“Harlem has become more appealing to people,” says Carolyn Johnson, 49, owner of Welcome to Harlem tours.

Demand for weekend walking tours has increased over the years, she says, adding that she routinely turns people away when there are more than  15 per tour.

For many old-time Harlem residents however, something has been lost, amidst all the changes.

On the stoop in Harlem, actresses sing, dance and reminisce about the “good old days,” in an attempt to convince one of the characters to stay in the city she can no longer afford.

This feeling inspired a Facebook status in 2010 by Actress Jaylene Clark, 23, where she described gentrification in Harlem like being inside the belly of a killer whale. This comment would later inspire the play written by Clark and three other playwrights, two of whom also have leading roles in the play.

In the 90’s,  the playwrights say, they remember growing up in Harlem around Mom and Pop shops that sold unique products like chop cheese sandwiches made with ground beef rolled into bread as well as roti -a West Indian flatbread made with curry. They also remember many block parties and barbecues which would bring together neighbors and friends in a way that they say is difficult to do now.

“The community vibe is what we’re missing,” says Chyann Sapp, 23, who was born and raised in Harlem and helped write and produce the play. “You can’t have barbecues anymore, there are so many restrictions on where you can grill-out and you know, that’s black people’s thing, we love to grill.”

Now Harlem is beginning to look more and more like downtown, she says with black nannies pushing white babies in strollers and national retail chains replacing her favorite Mom and Pop shops.

Older residents also miss the community bond.

“People were always so happy to see each other,”  says Elizabeth Wells, 73, who along with her husband ran the first chicken and waffle restaurant in Harlem until 1999. “There was so much joy and laughter, you don’t see that anymore. It seems like blacks are running away from Harlem. They ran away and we lost Harlem.”

But the issue isn’t so much about race, according to Aimee Cox, cultural anthropologist and assistant professor of African American Studies at Fordham University.

“Part of what they [the older residents] are feeling is that the new people are occupying space differently,” she says. “They have a different understanding of what a community does and does not need.”

In 2008, residents in a $2 million dollar apartment complex complained of noise coming from the Marcus Garvey Park. The noise was drumming from musicians who have been performing at the park every Saturday since 1969. The drummers have since been moved further inside the park in a compromise with residents.

More recently, earlier this month,  new and older residents in the Mt. Morris Park historic district protested outside a liquor store because they found that its signage wasn’t sleek enough; it looked too much like a bodega.

The idea of what Harlem is supposed to be is in conflict with the dynamic nature of neighborhoods, according to Cox, who says both old and new residents may be stuck in a “museum complex,” about Harlem.

“Cultures change,” she said.  “But it’s dangerous to tie culture to biology. People bring culture with them, but it’s not only about the people who live there, it’s what they have produced and what they will leave behind.”

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