Have We Lost Harlem?

The scenery in Harlem is changing. Take a stroll uptown and you’ll find great shopping, yellow taxicabs, and white people. “You know what?” laughs Sylvia Stephens. “People used to work three jobs to get out of Harlem. Now they’re working three to get in.” Stephens is referring to the new wave of residents clamoring to secure a home in a section of New York City that, for decades, was renowned as a mecca of black culture, but also stereotyped as a symbol of urban decay.
Stephens, 56, has been the successful owner of the Crystal Lounge uptown in the Bronx, New York, for 31 years. Thirty one years ago, she also had the foresight to buy a residential and commercial building on Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. (7th Avenue) between 122nd and 123rd streets. “I wanted to get as close to 125th Street as I could,” she says. It was 1973, Stephens was 25, and her daughter, Crystal, was 5. It was just a few years before people began selling, or in some cases deserting, their properties because of urban blight. But for Stephens, there were certain sentiments that couldn’t be left behind. “My mother was born here, and I remember, as a child, going to the Penny Arcade on 125th Street when it really was a penny, and playing in Mount Morris Park. Harlem meant a lot to me.”

The section of New York City known as Harlem runs north and south from 110th street to 155th street, and east and west from the East River to the Hudson River in the borough of Manhattan. It’s about the size of Cincinnati, Ohio, and like many urban communities in the U.S., it has become a hot spot of inner-city development, where new businesses, megastores, and an ethnically mixed population — mostly middle class — have pitched their tents. But whereas gentrification is occurring across the nation, the transformation happening in Harlem holds special significance. Harlem is, and has been, more than a black community. It was an incubator of African American culture and artistic expression with international resonance. It was the birthplace of the style of jazz known as bebop, and home to The Cotton Club, and the Savoy, where the likes of Billie Holiday and Charlie “Bird” Parker held sway. It is the home of the Hotel Theresa, where Fidel Castro once made a point of staying, and where the late Ron Brown lived while his dad managed the property. The Harlem Renaissance spawned great literary and intellectual talents. That’s a tradition die-hard Harlemites don’t want lost.

But revitalization is in full steam uptown. And where whites, Asians, and other ethnic groups once visited to sample soul food or swing to the sounds of jazz, they are now buying property, raising families, and lining up for church on Sunday mornings. What do these changes mean for Harlem? Although most would agree that there have been tremendous improvements to the historic area, they would also acknowledge that Harlem’s redevelopment has either displaced or challenged those