There's been a lot of news lately about the steamroller of gentrification in Harlem, so I went to take a look.
First I fueled up on waffles and fried chicken at Sylvia's lunch counter, where the menu proudly proclaims that the restaurant "survived the social unrest of the 60s, the recession of the 70s, the decay of the 80s, the Renaissance of the 90s, and the devolvement of the Millennium." I think they meant to write "development" there, but "devolvement" does seem more appropriate, meaning “to pass or transfer to another” and “to deteriorate gradually.”
You have only to walk along 125th Street to see both forms of devolvement in action as black Harlem deteriorates, the property passing from local businesses and residents to major corporations and developments. For now, in places, the two continue to coexist.
Above a Rite-Aid, a second-floor hallway reveals a row of small jeans shops, hair-braiding salons, and graffiti on the wall that says, "Because we are from Africa the landlord do not want to clean the building this has been since last year..." Where a Harlem Gift Shop used to be, a Cold Stone Creamery banner announces its arrival next to the Body Shop. White people, sticking together, clamor around the Rhapsody on Fifth Avenue luxury condo sales office.
Ghosts of old Harlem haunt the side streets. The Mt. Morris Baths, closed in 2003, gathers dust and detritus. La Famille Restaurant and Jazz club, opened in 1958, is papered with movie posters. The dilapidated Corn Exchange Bank is scaffolded and draped for renovation. I don’t know what it will become, but I can guess. And the controversial Harlem Park announces its imminent arrival.
A shop specializing in hats and shoes made of stingray, alligator, and ostrich skins, Men's Walker has been here since 1970. The owner, Kevin McGill, is unfazed by the pressures of gentrification. “When you’re black,” he told me, “you always feel the pressure. This is just a different beast.” His father first opened Men’s Walker as a shoe store and repair shop on the corner of 125th and Lenox. Business was good there. But in 2003, McGill was forced to move mid-block. He’s not doing as well as he used to. And his old location? After nearly 5 years, it’s still a vacant lot, no doubt waiting for rezoning to take effect so it can sprout a 25-story tower. McGill thinks it will be a luxury hotel and he hopes they’ll have room for him in their lobby.
Further west, the area around 125th and Frederick Douglass is under major pressure from that different beast. After 35 years, the Harlem Record Shack has lost its lease from the church that owns the building. The proprietor, Sikhulu Shange, is fighting back. Outside the shop, a man called to passersby to sign their petition. “Come on y’all,” he shouted, “Come save the Shack!” People stopped and signed.
Nearby, an entire block has been served with eviction notices to make room for a 100,000 square foot redevelopment. Bobby’s Happy House has been here for 61 years. In his window are awards, trophies, photographs, and a television playing footage of Michael Jackson in concert, the music booming out to the street from speakers. A few men gathered in front and danced along with Michael. Inside, friends and family members ate lunch, watching a reality show on TV. There wasn’t much to buy, just a handful of cassettes and a few CDs. I got an Ike and Tina Turner compilation. The cashier told me the shop will be gone by the first of the year.
Next door, Manna’s Soul Food buffet, one in a small local chain, was packed with a crowd filling their styrofoam platters with pig’s feet, fried swordfish, greens, mac and cheese. It, too, will soon be gone. At the register, there’s another petition gathering signatures.
But signatures aren’t much against the powerful forces at work in Harlem and all across New York. As one graffiti artist on 125th Street noted, “There's a Jena in every city,” referring to the Jena 6, “In Harlem we have Jena-trification.”