Have We Lost Harlem?

Knuckles. “We had not expended all of our money, so we needed time to do that.”

They have presently earmarked $6 million — with commitments from New York State ($4 million) and New York City ($2 million) — for the construction of West Harlem Piers on the Hudson River waterfront from 125th to 135th streets, which will feature, among other attractions, boating, and ecological exploration.

Despite the excitement, the race for Harlem isn’t a new one. During the late 1800s, New York City went through a building fever similar to what’s being witnessed in Harlem today. According to records from the Landmarks Preservation Commission, prominent developers, such as David H. King Jr., were developing upscale homes with rents of $900 to $1,700 a year. This at a time when working-class renters paid roughly $120 to $180 a year. Excessive real estate speculation, however, caused the market to collapse in the early 1900s, at which time blacks from the south and the Caribbean had begun their migration to Harlem, particularly at the urging of black realtors. Between 1920 and 1930, Harlem’s black population had grown to 180,000. Also growing was a middle and upper-middle class that ushered in the Harlem Renaissance.

The 1930s also brought the Great Depression, war, and poverty to the working class. By 1945, hope was being restored. The war had ended, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. had been elected to the House of Representatives (the first black congressman from New York and the district), and the following year, Bobby Robinson, a self-described “country boy from South Carolina,” would start the first black business on 125th Street and Frederick Douglas Boulevard (8th Avenue) with Bobby’s Record Shop, Bobby’s Happy House today. In the 1950s, Robinson expanded into p
roducing records. “Every Beat of My Heart” by Gladys Knight & the Pips, whom he also named, was one of his earliest hits.

“No other black store was here on this street when I first came,” Robinson exclaims. “Not a single one.” Robinson, now 86, is a short man with a sharp mind and shoulder-length white hair that he wears loose and parted on the side. “I remember Franks,” he recalls, the upscale restaurant where the waiters wore tuxedos. “They weren’t serving blacks. I was there the day it changed. There were stores that allowed you to shop but not work — except for the man who swept and mopped. I’ve seen Harlem change at least three times. I saw the drugs come in and knock out all the bars and restaurants, and now I see [business and community] coming back again. I didn’t hear about it, I experienced it. I was here.”

Several years ago, Robinson was forced to move a few doors down on Frederick Douglas Blvd. when a KFC franchise secured a 20-year lease from his landlord, but Robinson expects to be here through what many are calling Harlem’s second renaissance.

With the prices of shells going for approximately $500,000, requiring a minimum of $100,000 to $200,000 in renovations, “Realistically, who can afford that?”