Coming Home To Harlem

It was the type of event Bill Clinton relishes. At his welcome-to-Harlem rally last week, the former president grooved with a group of sax players, reminisced about his boyhood, expounded on the troubles of the downtrodden and indulged in his favorite type of food: fried. He was in Harlem to open his postpresidential office among some of his most loyal supporters. "No, no, no, no, don't mess with Bill!" the crowd chanted, sporting Clinton buttons and waving cardboard fans with his likeness. "You supported me on the best days and on the darkest days," he told them. "I want to be a good neighbor in Harlem on the best days and the dark days."

It's unclear which mood Clinton will usher in. His supporters hope the ex-president will speed the area's economic recovery, on display all around his West 125th Street office with new chain stores, banks and pharmacies. Some are even calling it Harlem's "second renaissance," after the vibrant black cultural and civil-rights movement of the 1920s and '30s. But detractors say the term "renaissance" is a misnomer: this time around it's not about culture or ideology--it's all about money. "I don't know where people are coming from with this 'second renaissance'," says Murphy Heyliger, a Harlem native and owner of the boutique shop Harlemade. "Back in the '20s and '30s, when blacks were moving into Harlem, there was a sense of pride that you couldn't duplicate today. Many had moved from the South or the West Indies and there was a real opportunity to make something of themselves here in Harlem. What's happening now is, if black people are moving into Harlem, they're moving in to catch the deal."

And quite a deal it is. After decades of neglect, the neighborhood is making a comeback. Real-estate prices are soaring. Yuppies of both races, priced out of lower Manhattan, have been competing with locals for apartments and brownstones. Vie Williams, a vice president at the Corcoran Group, says home sales in the neighborhood increased fivefold between 1997 and 2000. Between 1994 and 2000 the cost of a townhouse doubled to $390,000, which is still a steal compared with what's available farther downtown. New residential buildings seem to be breaking ground everywhere, and scaffolding covers the facades of previously condemned brownstones. Earlier this summer the Renaissance, a new mixed-income, 240-apartment co-op on Lenox Avenue, was decorated with a large banner: bill: live here, walk to work. The Striver's Garden development project, including condos, townhouses and penthouses, will break ground in September. These are part of some 3,000 residential units that Harlem plans to open over the next three years. Terry Lane, president and CEO of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, says Harlem's rate of home ownership has more than doubled in the past seven years.

Not everyone is happy about the real-estate boom. Growing numbers of whites are beginning to move in, and though their ranks are thin compared with the number of middle-class blacks buying property, they've spurred a small backlash. Some residents worry that gentrification will displace Harlem natives and turn the former jazz capital into another Upper West Side, with Banana Republic shops and take-out soul food. At Clinton's rally, a militant group of New Black Panthers carried signs that read CLINTON = GENTRIFICATION (the white takeover of black Harlem). Nearby, a man stood at a folding table with taped-up fliers that said rent is too damn high. Clinton, who chose Harlem for his new office only after a public outcry over his pricey first-choice location in midtown Manhattan, acknowledged his critics. "I'm glad property values are rising," he said. "But I don't want small businesses to be driven out because I'm moving in."

For all the worries, most Harlemites appreciate the new energy that recent arrivals have brought. Harlemade's Heyliger says the neighborhood has a "good vibe." Whatever their race, the people moving in are wealthier and better educated than their predecessors, he says. "You see people walking with an air of 'they've seen the world and now they want to be a part of Harlem'," he says. "And that goes for both blacks and whites."

Harlem's latest revitalization began in the 1990s, thanks in large part to America's economic boom. In 1994 the Clinton administration, together with Harlem Rep. Charles B. Rangel, initiated a chain of Federal Empowerment Zones that would grant funds to underprivileged communities for development projects. Harlem's Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone has been among the most successful, using low-interest loans and tax breaks to lure grocery shops, dry cleaners, video stores and, most famously, the Harlem USA megaplex, with a nine-screen movie theater financed by basketball star Magic Johnson.

The dining options keep getting better, too. Once home mostly to fluorescent, threadbare eateries, Harlem is welcoming "a wave of exciting new restaurants" (map), as this year's Zagat Restaurant Survey noted. Most, like Amy Ruth's, stick to traditional dishes like candied yams, barbecued ribs and fried chicken with waffles. Jimmy's Uptown, an upscale bistro that opened last year, fuses Southern American and French cooking. But guide co-founder Tim Zagat says people from outside Harlem aren't flocking to the establishments just yet. "It takes some education for people to go up and say, 'I'd like to go to a jazz brunch, or a soul-food dinner'," he says. "They need to know that no one's being shot in the streets."

Harlem is even experiencing something of a cultural revival. Spruced-up jazz clubs and galleries are showcasing a new generation of talent. The Studio Museum, which houses work by contemporary black artists, is adding gallery space and modernizing its facade. Since the landmark Lenox Lounge, where Billie Holiday crooned smokily in the 1940s, was renovated last year, weekend jazz fans have packed its Zebra Room. The Apollo Theater, where Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald used to perform, is closing soon for renovations and will reopen next spring with two theaters, one of which will host "Harlem Song," a new musical revue by Tony-award-winning director George C. Wolfe.

To be sure, Harlem has had a long road to recovery. Throughout much of the last century, the area has symbolized America's most intractable social problems: racial segregation, economic inequality, inadequate public schools, high crime and drug addiction. Most blocks still contend with vacant lots, condemned buildings, rat infestations and absent parents who let their children roam the streets until dawn. The average household income remains half the national average: about $23,000 a year. More than half the residents lack a high-school diploma and deaths from drug overdose are more than twice the citywide average.

Even so, the neighborhood has gotten so relatively safe and spiffy that tourists are crowding the streets--for better and worse. Local business owners complain that tourists rarely get off their buses long enough to spend any money. "It's like a drive-through safari," complains one. Some also note an imbalance between American and international visitors. A survey released in December by the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone found that domestic visitors accounted for just 20 percent of all Harlem tourists, compared with 40 percent of Broadway audiences. "Unfortunately, with Americans there still seems to be a latent bias," says Neal Shoemaker, a lifelong Harlem resident and founder of Harlem Heritage Tours.

When tourists do disembark, it's often to attend a church service. Each Sunday morning, droves of visitors, overwhelmingly from Europe and Japan, jam churches to listen to Harlem's famed gospel choirs. Often, the tourists crowd out regular congregants, leaving them scrambling for seats. "Sometimes it keeps the spirit from getting real," says Heyliger. Sheila Bridges, the interior designer responsible for the clean, modern look of Clinton's new office, says, "I think people do resent it if you're passing a hymn book and someone else is passing a Michelin guide, concerned about what the next tourist attraction is going to be."

Whatever else happens, it's clear that Harlem will never be the same again. "It will be a whiter community," says historian David Levering Lewis. "And I think the African-Americans who move in will perhaps have no more real linkage to the past than many of the Europeans." Sure, it may be different. But like Bill Clinton playing the sax, it's still got its own brand of soul.

Join the Discussion