This article is the first in a two-part series exploring the history and changing dynamics of Congressional District 13, which is centered in Harlem. Read part two here.
In the mid-1960s, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Harlem’s first congressman, a local hero and nationally known politician, found himself plagued by ethical dilemmas.
In the span of a decade, Powell would become embroiled in a slander trial, exiled from New York City by threat of arrest, and, in the culmination of a House ethics investigation, stripped of his committee chairmanship on the Education and Labor Committee and excluded from his seat by a vote by the full House.
The man who had once been the most powerful African-American in Congress saw his health deteriorate and, with this power depleted, began spending more and more time at his house in the Bahamas.
Then, in 1969, a young member of the State Assembly named Charles Rangel paid the ailing congressman a visit.
“He was thinking about running, but he wanted to ask Powell first,” Kevin McGruder, a scholar-in-residence at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, said. “It’s said that Powell said, ‘Do what you got to do,’ whereas he was expecting him to say, ‘Yeah, don’t run against me.’”
Rangel went on to defeat Powell by a razor-thin 300-vote margin. He has handily won his seat back every election since, often with over 95 percent of the vote. But 41 years after he first took office, the congressman faces another difficult race, in a district that has changed dramatically from the Powell years.
Rangel, in a telephone interview Monday, called Powell one of the preeminent figures in Harlem.
“Adam Clayton Powell was the only voice that we had that would be reported to the outside world when we were talking about radio and newspapers,” Rangel said. “Nobody had the attention of the Harlem community like Adam Clayton Powell. I won’t go challenge that he was certainly one of the most effective legislators the Congress has ever had.”
Going up against him, Rangel, a Korean War veteran and a former assistant U.S. attorney, had just four years in the New York State Assembly under his belt. But after taking over Powell’s seat in 1971, he’s shown extraordinary staying power.
Over his 21 terms in office, Rangel has advocated a vast range of policies, among them cracking down on drug trafficking, promoting economic empowerment, and reinstating the military draft. His legislation created nine so-called “empowerment zones,” including the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization that created jobs and assisted small businesses.
As the third-most-senior congressman, Rangel has been in a position that allows him to impact the district, the city, and even the entire country.
City Council member Robert Jackson said Rangel’s tenure as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee from 2007 to 2010 helped “bring home the types of resources our city and our district needs overall.”
“Charlie has been the mainstay as far as the delegation is concerned,” Jackson said. “As someone that senior, he has a lot of political clout.”
Fundraising goes hand-in-hand with strong leadership, and Rangel’s supporters say he has both.
“Rangel funneled a tremendous amount of money into the district, and provided leadership in the state and in the nation for people of color and particularly Harlem residents,” Democratic State Committee member Dan Cohen said. “He’s done a very good job that way of getting money into the district—millions of millions of dollars.”
“He was the guy who protected New York in the House of Representatives,” longtime political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said. “He served as the symbolic power broker in black politics at a time that, maybe, that was needed.”
But like Powell before him, Rangel has faced a series of scandals. The House Ethics Committee investigated Rangel for failure to pay taxes on a property in the Dominican Republic, improper fundraising, and misreporting his personal income. He stepped down as chair of his beloved Ways and Means Committee during the investigations and, in November 2010, was found guilty of 11 counts of ethics violations in a well-publicized hearing.
Rangel’s ethics problems have persisted in recent months. In March, Rangel agreed to pay a $23,000 civil penalty for using a rent-stabilized apartment as a campaign office.
And at 81, Rangel’s health is a concern: A back injury sidelined him from the House for two months—the longest he had been absent in his long career. He plans to return to Capitol Hill this week.
To his unfazed constituents, however, Rangel is still their congressman.
“I think he’s been very supportive in the community,” resident Christina Braggs said. “If you ever have concerns, you can write him anything or go to his office.”
Justine Adjowa, a lifelong Harlem resident, said Rangel “did a good job as the years go on. I like him still.” She said she sees his fight for funding Harlem Hospital as one of his most commendable actions.
And when it comes to Rangel’s ethics troubles, community members are divided.
“I can’t say it’s true, you can’t say it’s true. There are a lot of false allegations going around,” Robert Brown, who has lived in Harlem since 1960, said.
Others say they can’t overlook Rangel’s actions, especially the use of the rent-controlled apartments when so many other residents can’t afford their own rents.
“I don’t feel that was fair at all,” Braggs said. “I don’t take too well to that … if you’re an elected official or a spokesperson for the community, it matters how you’re living.”
In many ways, Rangel’s district is no longer the same as the one he won 41 years ago.
“Forty years ago, when Rangel beat Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the lines of the congressional district itself were basically the Harlem neighborhood,” Cohen said. “The Harlem seat was in totality one district.”
Over the years, the district has ballooned to cover all of Upper Manhattan, and in the most recent round of congressional redistricting earlier this year, it extended into the Bronx.
“Back then, you could see a person elected being ‘the Harlem congressman,’” Cohen said. “Now, it’s the Manhattan Valley, Harlem, Washington Heights, the Bronx. It’s muddied the district from being seen largely as a black seat to a multiethnic one.”
At its peak, the district’s voting-age population was more than 80 percent black; now, it’s 35.7 percent. Today, Hispanics make up the majority of the voting-age population, at 52.7 percent.
Brown said he has seen that change firsthand. “There were no Caucasian people in Harlem, only the police, the sanitation workers—white people didn’t even drive through Harlem,” Brown said, watching a multi-ethnic crowd go by on 125th Street. “On the 2/3 train, they didn’t go past 96th Street—the train would stop, and all the white people would get off.”
“Everyone who’s lived here 30 years has to go to shelters, the projects, drugs, the streets,” he said. “We’ve been here all our lives, and it’s like we don’t belong here.”
While Brown said he was sad that Harlem is no longer the traditionally black community it was, other residents said a more diverse district is a good thing.
“The big change I see is diversification, and it’s good to see more cultures and races around the neighborhood,” Braggs said. “But I’d like to see people who move into the community partake in the community. Instead of just coming and going, people should get involved.”
Locals point to higher rents as a sign of gentrification, but they acknowledge that Upper Manhattan has also changed for the better.
Washington Heights resident Ibrahima Lette said in his neighborhood “there’s less crime, the quality of life is up, things are cleaner, and overall, it’s more friendly.”
“It’s much safer than before,” Inwood resident Giselle Suazo said. “People volunteer in their own community. Small businesses are booming. People want ownership, local people.”
“After 40, 50 years, of course there have been dramatic changes,” Rangel said. “We had cats running across our streets, houses were abandoned, arsons being committed all around our town. We had overcrowding, misery, pain, and drugs being sold on street corners. And it was legal.”
In his day, Brown said, “You could live here for $100 a month.” However, “Harlem used to be a drug factory—on every corner, they were selling drugs.”
Improving that situation “had a lot to do with legislation and with Mayor [David] Dinkins,” Rangel said. “We were able to turn over the abandoned properties to the city and they could come in with affordable rents. Instead of a so-called ‘inner-city community,’ it’s one of the most prized places that people want to live.”
According to McGruder, the Harlem historian, the paradoxical effect of the civil rights movement was that with the advent of open housing, middle-income residents began moving out of the neighborhood, and Harlem’s socioeconomic status dropped.
“Gentrification is a loaded term,” McGruder said. “I think that when people mention it, they mean that the cost to buy or to rent affordable housing has gone up, but there’s a flip side in that we have a lot of services that we didn’t have—choices in restaurants that didn’t even come here, businesses as basic as drugstores we take for granted. But 20 years ago, that wasn’t true.”
For a neighborhood that is nearly synonymous with African-American history, it’s tough for residents to swallow the physical and demographic changes that gentrification entails.
Tens of thousands of residents have been displaced over the last decade as a result of what Craig Schley, a community activist who is challenging Rangel for his House seat, called “Frankenstein rezoning proposals.”
“You know, every now and then, it would be nice to get off of any subway in the district and smell oxtails and gravy and rice and beans before you smell Starbucks,” Schley said. “There’s nothing wrong with Starbucks, but I like rice and beans, too.”
Clyde Williams, former adviser to President Bill Clinton and a candidate for Rangel’s seat, called the changes a “natural progression.”
“I don’t think this community is that different than other communities, where you’ve seen tremendous growth, and you see people moving there because of available housing,” he said. But he added it was important to continue off the momentum of economic revitalization—even if that came with higher rents—and make sure that long-term residents benefit.
While Rangel’s district has changed in very real ways for the people who live in it, that’s also a result of its changing borders. The district now includes part of the Bronx and less of Manhattan than it used to.
For a district that has seen only two congressional representatives—both African-American—the new Hispanic majority has the possibility to be a major factor.
The redistricting process this year focused especially on race. Hispanic community leaders advocated for a new, Hispanic district, separate from Rangel’s. The congressman’s African-American political base supported this, searching for a way to ensure the district remained black. But the two-district plan was foiled by the federal magistrate who drew the lines, merging the predominantly Hispanic Washington Heights and Inwood with Harlem.
Although many critics accused state legislators of trying to gerrymander the district lines to ensure a Rangel re-election, Herman Farrell, a State Assembly member and longtime Rangel ally, said, “We were never concerned about whether he could get elected or not. The issue was about the next person who could come in—if you didn’t shift the district, you would make it harder for African-American candidates” down the line.
In order to make sure that the future would hold an African-American representing Harlem in Congress, Democrats at one point even considered extending the district into Westchester County and the Bronx.
But after the state legislature came to a deadlock on the new district lines and the task to redraw them was sent to the courts, the end result of District 13 was a single district for Upper Manhattan that was majority Hispanic but still encompassed Harlem. The biggest change was the removal of some areas farther south in Manhattan—including Columbia’s Morningside campus—and the addition of Bronx communities.
“Charlie Rangel is going to now have to make sure that he looks at those areas that are new, look at what their needs are, and advocate,” Jackson said.
With the district lines on the map and the candidates on the campaign trail, the scene is set for what could be the closest election Rangel will face since 1970.
Read part two of the series, which explores the state of the congressional race, here. What shot do the candidates have against Rangel?
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Rangel was found guilty of 13, not 11, counts of ethics violations in a 2010 trial, not a hearing. Spectator regrets the errors.