The Latest Harlem Renaissance
By Michael MaherMarch 6, 2012
Fast disappearing or casting itself anew? Changing times in one of the world’s most iconic neighbourhoods.
Sarah Martin lives in the projects. The projects. Over the years it’s become a byword for urban blight, for drug abuse and for violence. Last September a teenage girl was murdered in the apartment building next door to Sarah’s, shot three times by members of a gang. But Harlem’s hulking public-housing complexes haven’t always been a monument to the bleak. In 1956, when Sarah moved into Grant Houses, the projects meant a new start away from New York’s notorious 19th-century tenement buildings.
“I loved it,” says Sarah. “To me it was the best thing that ever happened. The grass was green. The buildings were brand new and my rent was $25.75 a month. Unbelievable for such a gorgeous place.”
Although her family is now urging her to leave, Sarah, a community worker, remembers a time when children and their parents didn’t have to worry about gangs. “You know that saying, it takes a community to raise a child?” she asks. “We helped raise each other’s children. Everybody knew each other.”
While Sarah Martin watches the projects deteriorate, much of the rest of Harlem is moving in a different direction, a direction which is fast leaving Sarah and her neighbours behind.
Sweeping past Grant Houses is 125th Street, the central artery of one of the world’s most storied neighbourhoods. It was here, in the 1920 and '30s, that the so-called Harlem Renaissance gave rise to a distinct cultural identity for black Americans. And later, this is the neighbourhood where Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X proselytised and was assassinated, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave some of his most memorable speeches, where Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong played the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theatre and where writer James Baldwin set Go Tell It On The Mountain, his seminal work on race and religion.
These celebrated years of the Harlem Renaissance and its aftermath gave way to the ghetto years of the 1970s, ’80s and 90s, when wholesale abandonment of homes and businesses ceded the neighbourhood to crime lords. Those years still strike a tinge of fear into the hearts of tourists who even today mostly prefer to see Harlem from atop a double-decker tour bus.
Down on street level, however, gentrification is occurring faster than almost any other place on Manhattan. The well-to-do, black, white and Latino alike, have moved in to renovate some of the most handsome buildings in New York and are doing so for considerably less expense than they would have elsewhere in the city. Nearby Columbia University, with one of the richest college endowments in the United States, is a major landowner in the area, and its expansion plans are also helping to feed Harlem’s growth.
Voza Rivers describes himself as a “son of Harlem”. He’s lived in the neighbourhood for 68 years, and as chairman of the Harlem Arts Alliance he is a leading figure in the community. Unlike Sarah Martin, who’s mostly pessimistic about the changes now underway, Rivers is hopeful they can be managed in a way that accommodates Harlem’s older residents as well as its wealthier newcomers.
“I believe that it’s a combination of changes that can be beneficial, if it’s done with participation and respect and people really communicate,'' says Rivers. “The new Harlem is a reflection of the old Harlem in the sense that it’s still a melting pot.”
There are now more Hispanics in central Harlem than African Americans, Rivers points out. “We’re also seeing a major influx of Africans and Asians,” he says. ''And some of the Italians and Jews and Irish who used to live here years ago are coming back. They’re all here now, so that melting pot is growing and it’s still being brewed.”
The Global Mail visited Rivers at the cultural centre he helped build during rehearsals for a play about Emmett Till, the 14 year-old African-American boy who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for flirting with a white woman. The play is one of a series of productions, exhibitions and events being run during Harlem's Black History Month. Rivers believes that Harlem, because of its distinctive heritage, will remain an Afro-centric community well into the future. However, he notes a new and recent phenomenon, apart from gentrification, which is depleting the African-American population in the neighbourhood:
“As the population grows older and reaches retirement age they’re going back to the South, reconnecting with their family, going back to the Caribbean and leading a different quality of life,” Rivers says. “So we’re seeing that exodus happen.”
Sarah Martin already has reached retirement age but she has no intention of returning to Abbeville, South Carolina from where she came as a 12 year-old. Gentrification and the sheer juggernaut momentum of New York may be putting pressure on poorer Harlemites to leave, but Martin says she has work to do in the community she’s lived in for more than 60 years.
Referencing the 1970 ''blaxploitation'' film Cotton Comes to Harlem, Martin jokes the film's title might now apply to the recent influx of whites into the area.
''But I don't care what colour they are,'' she says of those building new condominiums and restoring old townhouses. ''There are plenty of black landlords as well, including from the churches, who are charging rents which people like me can’t afford.''
“I guess I’m stuck here [in the projects],” says Martin “I feel myself empowered. I’m a community activist and I like helping people. That’s what I do.”
During a lifetime in Harlem, Sarah Martin and Voza Rivers have witnessed plenty of change, of the good and the bad kind. Proud members of one the world's signature black communities, their views diverge on the new Harlem but both share the same sense of inevitable and impending loss.