From red-line to renaissance

Things are looking up in Harlem, but some poor black families are being driven out by the neighborhood renewal.

Topics: Rudy Giuliani,

The news last week that New York political leaders finally resolved their differences and came up with a way to spend another $35 million of the $300 million in federal empowerment zone dollars allotted for Harlem and the South Bronx was more than welcome in those neighborhoods. The zone’s board approved 13 projects, including $1 million to move a meat-processing plant from lower Manhattan to the South Bronx, $800,000 for an east Harlem museum and roughly $200,000 for the Highbridge Community Life Center in the Bronx.

But even without the new empowerment-zone spending, Harlem is clearly experiencing what some have called a second renaissance, referring to the area’s legendary artistic and cultural flowering in the 1920s. Starbucks recently had a grand opening on West 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, and a new Pathmark supermarket, perhaps the first in a generation, has opened a few blocks away on Lexington Avenue. Harlem’s first mall, featuring the Disney Store, HMV Records and a Magic Johnson-sponsored nine-screen movie theater, is scheduled to open at year’s end.

A little over $1 billion has been pumped into Harlem housing in five years and has helped trigger a fledgling retail revolution, with outlets such as Blockbuster Video, Rite Aid and Duane Reade now becoming part of the West 125th Street main thoroughfare. That, together with a 60 percent lower crime rate, soaring rentals and upscale families pursuing reduced-priced brownstones, has led to high but wary optimism among Harlemites accustomed to having their hopes dashed.

“This is a Cinderella story about how to rehabilitate a neglected part of the city with a combination of public and private funding,” said William Shanahan of Cushman Wakefield, a realty concern. Benjamin Fox, a partner in New Spectrum Realty, said, “Corporate executives are looking at Harlem in economic terms these days, not in racial terms.”

“Harlem is hot and it’s good for business,” said Vie Wilson, a real estate broker with the upscale Corcoran Group. The neighborhood is about 25 minutes by subway to Wall Street, and although the two areas aren’t ordinarily thought to share much, they are developing common ground, according to Spencer Means, a fellow Corcoran Group agent who says he’s selling property to many Wall Streeters. His pitch is simple: Harlem is cheaper than other communities and it offers easy access to transportation.

But how long bargain basement townhouses will last is questionable. A townhouse that was $160,000 two years ago is now about $450,000, according to Wilson and other brokers in the area. Those rapidly escalating prices thrill realtors, of course, but worry locals who have lived in Harlem for years. Some acknowledge that while it’s good to see improvement in the community, the pace of redevelopment frightens them.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” said Haskell Gray, 42, a corrections officer who was born in Harlem and has lived there all his life. Gray said he and his wife, Nina, a nurse, couldn’t buy a brownstone in the 1980s because of red-lining by banks. Now loans for townhouses are readily available, but he can’t afford the prices that are being asked. “What are you supposed to do? It’s frustrating as all hell. It’s good we’re making improvement but I’m not sure most of us can afford it,” Gray added.

The fact that some corporate leaders say Harlem is no longer being viewed in racial terms alarms some residents, who see Harlem being taken over by major developers and worry that there is little room for the small investor. “We should have a vehicle for investing in the community, but we don’t,” said David Givens, 41, who was born and raised in Harlem. “The way the system is working, either you are a major developer or you’re not, and most of us are not. This is our community but we are not players.”

The empowerment zone could provide ways for local businesspeople to compete, by providing low-cost loans, grants and technical assistance to Harlem and South Bronx entrepreneurs. But it has been shackled by politics since its inception. Halfway through the 10-year program, New York has spent a little over $26 million of the $300 million it is alloted until 2004.

Harlem was beginning its comeback before the empowerment zone legislation, of course, and even before the recent burst of investment by private businesses. In the late 1980s, artists began to move to the neighborhood, attracted by cheap rents. Some African-American middle-class and professional people began to return, too, attracted by lower housing costs as well as a desire for community. A refurbished Apollo Theater brought a sense of tradition restored, and helped improve the area’s night life.

Then came the empowerment zones, the largest new anti-poverty initiative funded by the Clinton administration to date. Although empowerment and enterprise zones had previously been championed by Republicans, the Clinton-Gore team championed a modified version requiring community participation, and vastly expanded the funding.

There were signs of trouble from the very beginning, however. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who wrote the empowerment-zone legislation, did so while the city, state and federal government were being run by Democrats, from President Clinton to Gov. Mario Cuomo to Mayor David Dinkins. But by the time the legislation was enacted in late 1994, both Dinkins and Cuomo had been defeated and replaced by Republicans Rudy Giuliani and George Pataki.

Federal rules about how the money was spent required unanimity among major decision makers, to avoid the mistakes of previous urban renewal experiments, which have tacked between too much community control and too little, resulting in billions of public dollars being spent badly. “We didn’t want any one person deciding the fate of funds that later would disappear down some deep, dark hole,” one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.

But Giuliani and Pataki are two Republicans who don’t agree with one other, much less with local Democrats. Agreement has been impossible given the political differences between community folks, Giuliani and Pataki representatives and federal officials. The mayor’s office, in particular, was tough on spending proposals. “Look at it from their perspective,” said a neutral insider. “Why should the Giuliani administration approve millions of dollars for neighborhoods that give him little or no political support? They repeatedly vote against him, so why should he give them more ammunition to beat up on him.”

The result has been gridlock. The Highbridge Community Life Center in the South Bronx is an example of a program that has been stymied by politics for months, waiting for a $500,000 grant to continue its counseling and job training for welfare recipients and high school dropouts. “All you can do is try to wait them out,” says Brother Ed Phalen, who runs the center. There are scores of programs and small businesses in the Harlem/South Bronx zone with similar complaints.

Another worry is about whether the zone will slow gentrification or hasten it. This historically black, low-income community takes pride in its status as capital of black America. But the proud Harlem of the Cotton Club and Connie’s Inn, of Langston Hughes and Duke Ellington, Zora Neale Hurston and Louis Armstrong, was the same place where, in the 1920s, poverty, crime and tuberculosis rates were high. In the 1980s a Harlem hospital study concluded that a man born in poverty-wracked Bangladesh had a higher life expectancy than one from Harlem. From a peak of nearly 500,000 residents in the 1920s, the population dropped to about half that in the 1980s.

Now the population is rising again, and Harlem is gradually diversifying, with more Latinos, Asians and whites moving in, and some poor black families being displaced by rising real estate prices. Some residents hope the empowerment zone will help black families and black businesses stay in Harlem, but so far the evidence is uneven. The zone’s largest investment to date, $11.9 million, is in the Harlem USA mall, which mostly houses white-owned businesses.

Zone boosters say that now that the first logjam has been broken, more diverse projects will get funding. The Clinton administration is working hard to ease the governance glitches, because the program will be the centerpiece of Vice President Al Gore’s urban policy during the presidential campaign.

Meanwhile, the program remains popular in Harlem, despite the red tape, political squabbling and worries about gentrification. The private sector likes it and so do many low-income Harlem residents, who stand a better chance of getting jobs thanks to the funding. And despite the hype, there isn’t a stampede of Wall Streeters north yet. As realtor Vie Wilson admitted when pressed on the subject: “Maybe Harlem isn’t for everybody.”

Keith Moore is a New York writer.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>