Lia Sanfilippo opened the restaurant 5 & Diamond with partner Selene Martinez two and a half years ago, she said, because she saw in Harlem a sense of community she had not experienced on the Upper West Side, where she had lived her whole life.
The sleek, dark storefront of the American-Spanish restaurant on Frederick Douglass Boulevard near 112th Street stands in sharp contrast to the loud awnings of the pharmacy and deli on either side—but it’s not an unfamiliar sight in West Harlem.
“I’m certainly a part of that gentrification,” Sanfilippo said.
Gentrification is a loaded word. It’s taken on a negative meaning over the years, associating the rapid influx of whites into a traditionally minority neighborhood with higher costs.
The numbers certainly show demographic and income changes in West Harlem.
“I think it’s going to be less than 50 percent black by 2020,” Stacey Sutton, an urban planning professor at Columbia, said. “If all of that changes, what remains is this historical memory of the place that was black, but is something very different.”
But new business owners and residents don’t want to change Harlem, insisted Sanfilippo, who is white.
Gentrification, she said, “is about people who really want to move to Harlem because of what it represents. And what it represents is peace, tranquility, large sidewalks, and people who say good morning to you in the morning.”
“It’s about people really wanting to be a part of the charm and beauty that is here,” she added.
Storefronts that just 30 years ago were boarded up now host upscale restaurants like Lido, 5 & Diamond, and Melba’s, which have earned Frederick Douglass Boulevard the nickname “Harlem’s restaurant row.” Gourmet market Whole Foods plans on opening a store on 125th Street within three years.
Walking through West Harlem today, one finds a diverse range of residents eating, shopping, and making their lives in the neighborhood.
Between 2000 and 2010, the number of non-Hispanic white residents in West Harlem—the area stretching from approximately 110th to 145th Street and from Morningside Avenue to Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard—increased precipitously. According to census data compiled by the city, it jumped up by 405.1 percent, from 1,483 to 7,491.
Meanwhile, the number of non-Hispanic black residents decreased by 13.1 percent, from 43,319 to 37,630—still making up 61.9 percent of the neighborhood, but down from highs near 100 percent in the ’50s and ’60s.
If he saw a white person in Harlem in the ’80s, recalled Curtis Archer, who is black, one question sprang to mind: “Why were they here?”
Under his breath, Archer, the president of the Harlem Community Development Corporation, whispered the usual guess—“Drugs.”
The change in ethnic makeup is just one aspect of the neighborhood’s transformation that some say threatens to erode Harlem’s identity as the capital of black America. Median household income levels have also increased nearly across the board. One census tract—between Morningside Avenue and Frederick Douglass and 122nd and 126th streets—made an average of $33,500 in 2010, a 124 percent increase over the last decade.
The fear, of course, is that rising incomes drive up prices—and drive out lifelong residents.
The new pioneers
Cator Sparks, a resident of Harlem for the past 10 years, doesn’t think so.
“There hasn’t been too much disruption. The people who move here have to realize it’s Harlem, not SoHo,” Sparks said. “We’re a community, and we’re a family.”
Sparks, who is white, has been the president of Block Association 122, which represents the residents of West 122nd Street between Frederick Douglass and Adam Clayton Powell boulevards, since 2005—only three years after he first moved to Harlem from SoHo.
Lance Freeman, a Columbia urban planning professor who has studied neighborhood change extensively, said he thinks gentrification brings some benefits to the community.
“I think the good thing is that population decline has stopped,” he said. “There’s less abandonment. Crime rates are down.”
Freeman also said the new businesses are “diverse” and try to “serve pretty much everyone in the community.”
Rolando Matute, who has worked in Harlem for 10 years, said he appreciates the convenience brought by the new stores.
“They have everything nearby now,” Matute, who is Hispanic, said. “You don’t spend too much money downtown,” where things are more expensive anyway, he added.
Although Archer said he appreciates the “options” in his community, he said that he’d want to see more racial diversity come with the new businesses.
“I’m hoping that there will be more entrepreneurs of color who will take advantage of the community,” he said. “I want a community that is diverse in economic base as well.”
‘Why can’t I live here’
However, with housing and retail prices continuing to rise after the recession, longtime residents said they feel like they are getting pushed out.
“They’re not giving us no jobs,” Theo Digler, a self-proclaimed “born-and-raised” Harlemite, said while standing outside a 99-cent store on the corner of 114th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
Digler, who is black, added that most jobs he can get do not pay well, and with prices on the rise, “we can’t afford these things.”
“They moved the whole block out,” he said, pointing to a building with boarded-up windows on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Although it would take two to three years to renovate the building, he said, “They don’t hire us. They’re not taking anyone in the ’hood. And when they’re done, they’ve got an easy 2,000 a month for an apartment.”
His friend Jimmy Johnson, who has lived in Harlem for 44 years, echoed similar concerns.
“If you live here, why can’t I live here,” Johnson, who is also black, said.
“They’re building all this shit up so they can push everyone else out,” Digler said. “They’re pushing the blacks out of the community.”
Sutton, the professor, said that the new businesses, such as cafés that charge $3 to $5 for a cup of coffee, don’t appear to be catering to longtime Harlem residents.
“That’s more in line with a middle-class income,” she said. “They’re targeting folks that will see Harlem as a destination for consumption.”
A long process
Neither developers nor academics, however, think this trend will move quickly through Harlem.
“As white people came to the community, you have a net increase in white people. But the projects aren’t going away. And why should they?” Archer asked.
Freeman said he’s surprised by how little Harlem has changed in the past half-century, despite developments in retail and housing.
“There’s the feeling that blacks may not be welcome or may not have the means to move to certain neighborhoods,” he said.
Although new development projects in Harlem have largely been on abandoned sites—not necessarily kicking out residents—Sutton said the increase in housing prices will prevent many people from purchasing new homes.
“If you just think of gentrification as physical, we didn’t literally displace anyone, because nobody was there,” she said. But that’s not the whole story—the people who have historically lived in the neighborhood, she said, can’t buy those properties.
Archer said he sees a need for affordable housing to keep existing residents in the neighborhood, especially with the economy recovering from recession.
“Is there enough affordable housing being developed? No,” he said. “Now, with the cooling off of things, hopefully more rational heads will prevail.”
Although longtime residents are still sticking around in Harlem, it is clear that the neighborhood around them is changing gradually.
“You can live in this neighborhood, but if everything has changed around,” Sutton said, “you no longer feel it’s your community.”