Why Can’t Harlem Stop Gentrification?

In his May New York Times editorial, “The End of Black Harlem,” Michael Henry Adams portrays the historic African-American community as moving inevitably toward gentrification.

He cites the familiar signposts—a Whole Foods market, “stroller pushing young families,” and “new landscaping and yoga studios”—as well as more nefarious indicia such as white resentment over blacks living in “non-eviction co-op conversions” at a fraction of the current market price.

Adams, a longtime preservation activist, Harlem historian, and author of the award-winning book “Harlem, Lost and Found,” knows Harlem as well as anyone. But as I was reading his argument that Harlem’s upscale transformation is inescapable, I could not help but ask, why? Why has Harlem not enacted the critical protections that have prevented gentrification in other communities?

For example, Adams asserts that while Harlem has “miles of apartments,” they are “ripe for destruction and displacement by gleaming glass-cube condos.” Why are these apartments vulnerable? Did Harlem activists attempt to pass anti-demolition laws to protect the neighborhood’s rental housing stock long ago? If past efforts failed, what is stopping such laws from passing now?

I ask these questions because too often the gentrification of working class neighborhoods is  deemed “inevitable” when it is not. Just as gentrification is often promoted by upzoning and other city laws, communities can pass measures to prevent or at least slow this process.

This sense of the “inevitability” of gentrification resonated with me because I have heard the same comments made about San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood since the early 1980’s.

It was said that the San Francisco powers that be would never allow a neighborhood adjacent to upscale Union Square, SOMA and Civic Center to remain ethnically diverse and low-income. Today the neighborhood remains precisely that. It has avoided gentrification despite dot-com and tech booms that dramatically increased affluence in nearby neighborhoods.

As I detail in my book, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco, the Tenderloin accomplished this in the same way Harlem could have and potentially still can: by enacting measures to protect the community from gentrification. These measures included a residential downzoning to reduce upscale development, strong protections for single room occupancy hotels (SROs), and stronger housing codes that prevented owners from displacing tenants by allowing buildings to fall into disrepair.

The Tenderloin also had nonprofit housing groups aggressively acquiring land and buildings so that nearly a third of the housing is insulated from the private market. Harlem had the largest collection of city-owned properties as late as 1994 but did not seize similar opportunities for nonprofit acquisition. Citywide rent and eviction controls, which New York City also has, and strong restrictions on condo conversions also contributed to the Tenderloin’s avoiding “inevitable” gentrification.

In addition to citing the future demolition of Harlem apartment buildings, Adams notes the destruction of such historic buildings as “the Renaissance where Duke Ellington performed” and “night life fixtures like Smalls’ Paradise and Lenox Lounge.” An effective historic preservation movement could have changed this, but prior to 2012 Harlem had done much less than other historic New York City neighborhoods to protect its buildings, and by 2015 only two sites in Central Harlem were recognized by the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission. It is said that “preservationists from areas like the Upper West Side and the West Village have long been more proactive about getting their sites designated and having more resources backing their advocacy than those in Harlem.”

Adams believes race prevents Harlem from winning preservation protections. Adams also sees race as underlying the drive for gentrification, and quotes historian Horace Carter that “Harlem is too well placed. The white man is ready to take it back.” But this dynamic makes it even more imperative that Harlem utilize more of the type of aggressive, proactive community organizing that has long been seen in the Northwest Bronx and other communities of color in New York City. And as San Francisco’s Tenderloin also shows, such organizing brings the passage of laws protecting against gentrification.

De Blasio’s Role

When I saw Adams’ article I immediately wondered what Mayor Bill de Blasio was doing about Harlem. After all, mayors set land use policies. Mayor Bloomberg rezoned a third of New York City and used upzoning to completely transform working-class Williamsburg into an upscale enclave. Considering de Blasio was elected on the strength of African-American support, shouldn’t that mean that he will protect Harlem?

Adams says no. He feels black New Yorkers “were wrong” about de Blasio, who he accuses of supporting “trickle down affordability” and other changes that facilitate Harlem’s upscale transformation. Adams is referring to a recent mayor-backed housing plan that passed the City Council 42-5 in March despite strong opposition from community groups throughout New York City.

Bill de Blasio always had strong real estate support so perhaps his reliance on private developers to achieve affordable housing goals was foreseeable. But de Blasio needs Harlem votes to win re-election in 2017. Polls already show de Blasio’s black and Latino support eroding, and he could be in real trouble if he is perceived as the mayor who lost Harlem.

De Blasio’s vulnerability would seem to give Harlem advocates leverage to secure long-overdue community protections. If this opportunity is seized, the end of historic Harlem could be forestalled.

This post originally appeared on BeyondChron on May 31, 2016

(Photo credit: Ndari Utoyo via flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Randy Shaw is director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic in San Francisco. His most recent book, "Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America," is now out in paperback from UC Press.


  1. …from a good conversation happening on our Facebook page about this post: http://bit.ly/2993cq1


    Chris Brown:
    How does Shelterforce define “gentrification”?

    Good, and difficult, question, that our writers differ on. There are some good suggestions in this Shelterforce roundtable: http://bit.ly/296Q81i – Also, from a 2003 POV roundtable moderated by Shelterforce: http://to.pbs.org/29jhJhA

    Chris Brown:
    Good reads. I often find gentrification and displacement are conflated, with the former being poorly understood as necessarily including the latter. It’s important to define these terms within the individual context of any given discussion.

  2. Chris, I agree. The historic meaning of “gentrification” was the displacement of working class residents and their replacement by more affluent “gentry.” Today, the opening of certain grocery stores or restaurants is identified with “gentrification” even when this is unrelated to any tenants being forced out of their homes.


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