Gentrification in West Harlem: An Introduction
West Harlem is located just above the Upper West Side of Manhattan, between 110th Street and 155th Street. Since the 1920’s, West Harlem is renown as the home of many Africans and African Americans. Though not as prominent as before, there are still clear remnants of African culture, which are displayed through street vendors and family-owned stores. In fact, throughout time, Harlem has been subject to several boom-and-bust cycles – each followed by major population shifts.
Within the past ten to twenty years, African Americans have been moving out of Harlem. According to the United States Census, in 2008, for the first time since the 1930’s, less than half of the residents in Harlem were of African descent, compared to the 70% it reached in the mid-20th century. This percentage has been decreasing and will continue to decrease due to gentrification and the influx of upper-class folk.
Businesses and Business Owners
Many of the businesses we observed in the heart of West Harlem (125th street) include American clothing stores, African clothing stores, and furniture outlets – most of which are family-owned. Additionally, there are numerous street vendors, who sell items such as fruit, seafood, and incense. Though West Harlem’s business scene is bustling right now, this was not the case around 20 years ago.
“Many businesses have been opening up recently. 20 years ago, people were scared to open up businesses in West Harlem due to major crime and investigations.” – Agnes, African clothing store owner
This shift in new businesses opening up is due to the increase in gentrification throughout the past 20 years. In fact, although there is still a large number of family-owned stores, there has been a major increase in big-box retailers, such as Whole Foods and Walmart, as well as an influx of stores that market to health-crazed millennials.
This major competition from big retailers has caused the rent prices for businesses to increase. This increase in rent prices has caused many family-owned businesses in West Harlem to go out of business, forcing them to move elsewhere.
“I used to pay $24,000 per month for my business, but when I went to renew my lease, it went up to $30,000… Our business was located on Lenox Avenue, but it was taken over by a massive Whole Foods, so now we do business in this smaller shop.” – Thierno, CEO and owner of Harlem Hat Store
Although many family-owned businesses have been disbanded, gentrification in West Harlem has overall had a positive impact on the economy of the area. Thierno, Harlem Hat Store owner, stated, “gentrification comes with both positive and a negative aspects.” He argued that although some of the culture has been pushed out and replaced, there is overall greater diversity in the buyers, sellers, and inhabitants, in addition to lower crime rates and higher average incomes.
Apartments and Rent
In the past few years, many apartment complexes in West Harlem have undergone renovations. What used to be run-down brownstones are now gorgeous buildings with sturdy structures and sustainable designs. Many of these complexes are managed and rented out through real estate firms, rather than individual land-lords. With renovation and gentrification comes a price – the cost of living in West Harlem has increased exponentially in recent years.
“20 years ago you were able to rent a studio apartment in this area for around $500 a month. Now, you can’t find anything for less than $1,500 a month.” – Mikey, elderly resident of West Harlem
The graph below indicates the races which comprise Harlem’s populations by percentage (Note: Census data is collected in New York in accordance with its districts). It is evident that the demographics of District 9 (West Harlem) are changing. An influx of White and Hispanic residents occupy the majority of the population, with the Black population diminishing. Census analysts expect the percentage of the Black population to continue to decrease since Black residents are typically the ones who immigrated from West Africa with little money in their pockets.
A wide array of trains and buses take people to and from Harlem. The MTA’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, A, B, C, and D trains make numerous stops spanning from the East to the West and from 110th Street to 115th Street. Most notably, the Metro North Railroad Station stops at 125th Street and Park Avenue, which is where many residents catch trains going north into Westchester County. Similarly, buses like the M100 take residents and visitors anywhere that the trains don’t. Refer to the MTA’s bus map here to see all the buses that go through Harlem.
The transportation system is not a category unscathed by the effects of gentrification. The best example of this would be the construction of the Second Avenue Subway in East Harlem. Upon its completion, the subway should reach as far north as 125th Street and as far south as the Financial District. This subway line will increase traffic in the area, and consequentially increase the value of the neighborhood (i.e. higher rent prices).
Gentrification in East Harlem
When getting off the train the first thing one will notice is the noise. East Harlem is a loud and lively neighborhood with salsa music playing from local bodegas and teens yelling slang to their friends such as “yerrrrr”. There is an apparent mixture of various races and ethnicities.
When walking, we noticed a concentration of white people in a flower shop. The flower shop is owned by La Marqueta, which is currently being redesigned.
We noticed that East Harlem has ethnic shops, in which people of the corresponding ethnicities or cultures go to. We did not see much mixing of race in this regard. For example, we went into a shop called “Almacen & Botanica,” which translates to “Store and Botany”. Everybody in the store was Latino and there was bachata, a type of Dominican music, playing on loudspeakers. Below, you can listen to a small clip of what bachata sounds like. The shop sold items such as love spells and “stay with me” potions. Interestingly enough, although almost everything was in Spanish, the products came from Haiti.
Once we left the shop, we saw two walls. On one, there was a promotion for Joe Veras, a very famous Dominican singer.
On the other: stickers advertising against rezoning. We saw many posters about rezoning, this being one example.
Rezoning is definitely a topic that is widely publicized in the neighborhood.
East Harlem has the largest concentration of public housing in New York City. Recently, however, new legislation has been passed by the New York City Council and Bill De Blasio, which approved rezoning.
The legislation will allow the construction of new businesses in the neighborhood and is expected to decrease affordable housing by 25% by 2040. By 2030, 4,000 units of affordable housing will have expired.
This may be attributed to the fact that from 2000 to 2013 the median income rose by 35%. Bill De Blasio also approved a $135 million plan which will focus on preserving 500 units of affordable housing for the next 40 years.
The council was able to lower the percentage that was going to be allocated to future development. They also allocated money towards the creation of a waterfront esplanade, as well as a new Workforce1 center, which will decrease the unemployment rate in the neighborhood due to the fact that Workforce1 helps people find jobs.
To further improve the neighborhood, East Harlem is introducing new public parcels of land.
In a New York Times Article written in 2016 claimed that East Harlem is “New York’s Next Hot Neighborhood” In the article, a financial consultant admits to moving to East Harlem where he pays $690,000 for a one bedroom condominium because he likes the idea of living in a changing neighborhood.
In order to fight gentrification Landmark East Harlem has been attempting to gain historic district and landmark status for certain places in East Harlem so they won’t be removed. This includes the Taino Towers which are named after the indigenous people of the Dominican Republic. The Taino Towers are a federal housing complex. They are also trying to get landmark status for the Harlem Court House.
While walking around, we could not help but notice the number of new-looking stores – in particular, stores that would be deemed “healthier options.” There were a number of smoothie and natural juice stores lining the streets, advertising the use of only the freshest of fruits with no added sugar. We also noticed, in particular, a new store on 125th Street that seemed out of place in between a deli and a discount store: Edible Arrangements. One of our interviewees, Leona, actually spoke to us about how she noticed the recent presence of these new stores selling healthy snacks and juices. However, she could not give us a reason as to why she thought these new stores were gaining popularity in the neighborhood.
Furthermore, on the quest to find a deli in which we could get the price of a bacon, egg, and cheese, we came across a “deli” that looked way fancier than the other ones in the same vicinity. It was much larger and seemed more like a small diner than a deli. It was called “Q&A Foods” and advertised that it sold American food. It seemed like it would serve clientele with a slightly higher income, which was determined when the lady working there told us a bacon, egg, and cheese was $4.75.
(Photo courtesy of Q&N Food website)
This store, later researched, has has a fully functional website where customers can order food as well. Overall, a sprinkling of these kind of eateries can be seen taking hold in East Harlem.
From what we observed, East Harlem is home to a wide range of people. However, Latinos represent a large percent of the population (44%), particularly people from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. After Latinos, Africans have a large presence in East Harlem as well. African hair braiding attests to this fact, as we observed an endless supply of African hair braiding shops and outdoor stands selling African trinkets as we walked around. Afro-Caribbeans are another large group, as the African population, that we saw represented in shops selling all kinds of Caribbean delicacies and merchandise. Lastly, African-Americans, whose presence in Harlem is well-known in history, are another group we saw. We saw some white people, but not too many present where we were observing.
Apartments and Rent
In the past, apartments in East Harlem were on the more affordable side, with the average rent being around $500 for the cheapest apartment. However, recent renovations to the neighborhoods historic brownstone buildings and the influx of a younger crowd with higher incomes than the neighborhoods previous residents has led to the overall rent in the neighborhood skyrocketing to about $1,500 for the cheapest studio apartment on Zillow. Overall, the cost of living in Harlem, whether East or West, has increased greatly.
We visited La Marqueta which is marketed as a place where people can find ethnic foods in Spanish Harlem. However, to our surprise, this is not what we saw. We saw numerous cupcake shops, a Tipsy Scoops and a West Indian food shop rather than the multiethnic food that was advertised.
It is important to note that La Marqueta has been going through renovations.
We saw a small art shop which peaked our interest. Once the owner began speaking Spanish, I felt inclined to interview her. Her name was Carmen Ayala and she informed us that she was able to get a spot for free in La Marqueta through a neighborhood program called Acacia Network – in particular, The Loisaida Center. According to their website, this subset group of Acacia focuses on being an “incubator for self-sustainable artisanal, technology, and culinary arts entrepreneurial initiatives.” The program began in the Lower East Side and was led by Latino residents and Puerto Rican activists in the mid-1970’s in order to help low-income Latino residents.
After discussing La Marqueta, we began talking about the neighborhood itself. She stated that she has noticed that there are not as many Hispanics as there were when she first came (she did not want to share when she came). She also said that although she has housing, her rent has been increasing. She stated that a plethora of trendy stores have been introduced to the neighborhood and even new supermarkets which were nice, but far too expensive. She concluded that the changes are great but they come at a great price: the expense of the lower income residents in the community.
We met Juanita in the “Alamacen & Botánica.” Juanita came from Puerto Rico in 1972 and was scared at first. She came from a farm and was not used to seeing rampant drug use or homelessness. She even shared a personal story with us. On her way home from work, she was robbed of her check and she claims that crime has barely improved in the neighborhood.
We came across a school, P.S.57, and noticed a lot of parents and students out and about since it was the end of the school day. We interviewed a teacher from the school and asked her about the conditions of her school, as well as the kind of students she has. She told us that she has been teaching at the school for nearly 10 years and has noticed that the school has an increasing population of displaced children and kids from shelters. Although the demographics of the school remain the same (primarily black and latino students), she told us that she noticed an influx of students from charter schools, due to the quality of the school rising. She could not explain this rise in quality, but we suspect it is due to the quality of life in East Harlem changing in general in terms.
We met Leona at a bus stop. She told us she had been living in Harlem for more than 10 years and has noticed that the neighborhood is definitely changing. She pointed out that the area has shifted in age, with younger people moving in and older people becoming a minority. We asked her about price fluctuations in the area and she admitted she had not noticed any change in prices, but she said there was less crime. It seemed like the neighborhood was getting safer. She attributed this to the rising quality of Harlem in general. She told us that the stores were getting better and serving more high-quality products; one particular example she gave was the “health juice” shops that she had seen sprouting along 125th and 116th Streets. She also mentioned that Harlem has recently seen a lot of remodeling, with new apartment complexes and storefronts becoming the norm on every block.