Thursday, February 26, 2015

What Is Authentically Harlem?

Last week, the Columbia Spectator published an op-ed entitled "Is Columbia really destroying Harlem’s authenticity?" Written by first-year student Cristian Zaharia, it supports the school's expansion into Harlem, which was made possible via eminent domain. Zaharia argues that Harlem's authentic culture is not African-American, but one of ever-changing cultures dating back to the Dutch, and that the expansion "will be the start of a new, fresh era for the neighborhood."

On his Facebook page, Harlem historian and activist Michael Henry Adams wrote a reasoned and impassioned response. It is reproduced here in full, with his permission:

Adams arrested while protesting the demolition of Harlem's Renaissance Ballroom and Casino, photo by Antwan Minter

Harlem has numerous lovely old buildings reflecting varied cultures, even former synagogues. But throughout history, nothing about Harlem has made it renown, world-wide, apart from black people. One may talk all one likes about other earlier Harlems populated by people who were not black. By contrast, these white Harlems were insignificant. African Americans alone--our culture, drive, and creativity--have accorded Harlem a status as fabled and fabulous as that held by Paris or Rome. Everything, anything else is superfluous, even meaningless, in terms of Harlem's well-deserved fame.

Entertaining any illusions about the possibility of preserving an authentic Harlem, absent African Americans, it's instructive to look downtown. What survives in Greenwich Village or Hell's Kitchen, to suggest an earlier historic black identity today? And so, yes, Columbia and by extension unknowing or unwitting students--through displacement and gentrification--are rapidly helping to destroy Harlem's irreplaceable heritage and rich legacy.

You are not alone. Many blacks, beguiled by white dollars, are just as eager to replace the houses, churches, schools, stores, theatres and other buildings where Langston Hughes, Georgette Harvey, A'Lelia Walker and other Harlem luminaries, lived, worked, played and prayed, with more luxury condominiums.

Indeed, whatever one has to suggest, even if it's making a black congregation's church into a private school for your kids, or a mansion just for you, they are cool with it. A fig leaf of 20% "affordable" housing, and an historic name, derived from some black hero, for the new condo building or the street or park nearby are nice, but hardly essential. Landmarking and preservation that enhance neighborhoods downtown are antithetical to them. "How much longer will blacks exert political sway over Harlem?" they reason, "while whites are buying, we had better sell up."

A few brave voices contest Columbia University’s contention that their Harlem expansion plans will be universally beneficial. "It's nothing but rubbish," says distinguished and scholarly architectural historian Robin Middleton, who formerly taught at Cambridge before joining the faculty at Columbia. "Columbia's plans are simply monstrous, like an Orwellian, Stalinist, or dystopian campus of factories. No one touting how much they cherish 'design excellence,' could possibly approve of what they are doing, unless of course if it were their job to do so. And, it is, isn't it?"

It was around the connected issues of Harlem being up-zoned, and observing Planning Commission Chair Amanda Burden much more closely, that I began to see who she really is and how it shapes what's at stake. Did it help the homeless to provide for evermore $900,000 condos, in a community where the yearly wage for half the residents is less than $36,000? Is it beneficial to small local merchants, allowing for 25-story towers where 19th-century buildings with just 6 floors once prevailed? What's the point of confiscating thriving businesses that want to be a part of a new revitalized Harlem? Why were they "compensated" at a rate pegged to the value of property prior to the zoning change allowing greater density? Why clear 17 acres, solely for Columbia's use, and leave only 2 of dozens of historic structures? Ought not the sole Planning Commission vote against this ill-conceived venture, cast by Karen Philips, a black woman who lives in Harlem, to have influenced the chair, who said, "The community is not going to buy in, unless it reflects their culture?"

For a long while, it seemed as if the teeming numbers of poor people here would mean Harlem's and Manhattanville's salvation. Reliable voters, housing project residents seemed sure to elect legislators who would act in their interests. Given the great numbers of low-income people here and the enmity that many affluent have to living among such people, it seemed as if gentrification might just be held at bay.

Now the marketplace seems poised to pressure the elimination of such oasis of affordable civility. More and more affordable housing and other matters affecting the poor are deemed issues only possible to address by warmly embracing the concerns and requirements of the rich. In a city of more than eight million, an utterly unwinnable solution to the massive problem of housing that's unaffordable to most is underway.

Seemingly commendable, government in partnership with developers, is making inclusion of "affordable" housing a condition for building. Ironically though, on average, 80% of all new housing is targeted for those who already have the greatest amount of choice, people who make up fewer than 20% of the population. Conversely, the "affordable" component, typically 20% of units in a new structure, will never meet an ever-growing demand among the city's working poor.

What will remain when it's all finished? No one can say for certain. Some romantically hope for the best. That, miraculously, the African American Cultural Capital at Harlem will somehow survive. Very likely, however, what's in store for Harlem instead is yet another Manhattan community like every other: one boasting the same stores, restaurants, banks, condos, and rich people. As one writer observed, "the same three stores, for the same two people."

Michael Henry Adams is an accomplished writer, lecturer, historian, tour guide, and activist. Born in Akron, Ohio, he lives in Harlem. Michael trained at Columbia University's graduate historic preservation program. His books include "Harlem, Lost and Found: An Architectural and Social History, 1765-1915," and "Style and Grace: African Americans at Home." Currently, he's at work on the forthcoming "Homo Harlem: A Chronicle of Lesbian and Gay Life in the African American Cultural Capital, 1915-1995." He is a passionate supporter of historic preservation, for the Casino Renaissance the fire watch tower restoration and Villa Lewaro, Madam Walker's house at Irvington. Dismayed by Harlem's piecemeal destruction, he is seeking to establish a preservation advocacy organization to Save Harlem Heritage. For additional info, call 212-862-2556.

You can also follow him on Twitter: @harlemhellion

Capturing Manhattanville
Rebranding Harlem
The eviction of 125th
On revanchist hyper-gentrification
Columbia wins right to seize private property in Harlem


DrBOP said...

Thanks for re-printing this Jeremiah.
I have a new voice of reason to listen and learn from.

Anonymous said...

I sympathize. However, having spent the last four years working at City College -- just north of Columbia's planned expansion -- I'd say there is already little vestige of an African-American community in that part of Harlem. The vast majority of the area is dominated by a Caribbean hispanic population, mostly relatively recent immigrants from the Dominican Republic, who have in their own way created a vibrant and culturally unique community that threatens to be completely eradicated in due time by the new campus.

James said...

Harlem. Afro-centrism aside, noting that at times people from the actual African continent have settled there, most people think of Harlem and the Harlem Renaissance in the same bubble of reference. Harlem was certainly New York City's (and America's) premier black village, neighborhood, country, and territory. It was so popular that it nevertheless partially thrived on white dollars from Downtown and even from across the country and abroad, as white merry-revelers chose Harlem for their evening entertainments from famous hotspots like The Cotton Club, Pod's & Jerry's, and The Savoy.
There was a universal complicity in making Harlem what it was - home, nevertheless, to real communities of prominent black families which constituted a safe atmosphere for the nurturing of some remarkable careers by those either born in Harlem or those who adopted Harlem (as in Duke Ellington). What "authentic" Harlem is all about, as in any great neighborhood, is its best and most enduring memories and stories combined with its physical evidence. 1920's Harlem hasn't been around for quite some time and was the scene, for many years, of true urban neglect, drug addiction, street crime, and general misery - all historical prowess aside. A great Harlem, in this age of homogenization and rampant real estate exploitation, requires the striking of a balance where history is not paved over, where certain wards of Harlem are preserved outright, and where the city's almost unbelievably complex history can be enjoyed, not just lamented because of its erasure from sight. The Columbia changes must be reviewed intelligently.

Anonymous said...

Why doesn't he just say he wants the white devil kept out and be honest about it? Who benefits from NOT developing and improving the neighborhood? I suppose Columbia is an easy target. I suppose Columbia students are selling crack on the corners and committing crimes right? It must be their fault. I guess the Dutch should take back the Bronx because the borough was named after Jonas Bronck? Or what about Brooklyn? Do we say, hey, this area wass all white until after ww2 therefore everyone who is black needs to go back to Alabama? Cities change. Neighborhoods change. Populations change. Maybe if Columbia gave this 'activist' a 'donation' to run his 'nonprofit' he wouldn't be so angry? Keep the area the wonderland it is? Ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

Shame, shame, shame on Columbia if they do this in the same destructive, history-erasing way NYU has behaved in the Village. NYU is not just tearing down the neighborhood but replacing it with some of the ugliest structures this side of hell. I shudder for Harlem.

Anonymous said...

Case in point. Look at what NYU wants to do to downtown parks.

Will Columbia be any different? Maybe the existence of their own small in-house campus will prevent them imposing an artificial campus on what belongs to actual urban dwellers.

Pat said...

I read the Columbia Spectator op-ed piece:

"Ever since New York was founded in the 1600s by Dutch settlers as an outpost for the town of New Amsterdam, Harlem has been continuously redefining its identity."

Get your facts straight Zaharia.

In 1625 the Dutch West India Company founded New Amsterdam at the southern tip of Manhattan Island as the New Netherland colony’s capital and seat of government. Peter Minuit bought (or swindled, depending on your point of view) Manhattan Island from the Native People. It was not called New York until the British wrested it from the Dutch in 1664. The British called it New York after the city in England. The Dutch did not care what the city was named as long as they could stay there and make money, which they did.

Because the writer of the op-ed piece confuses historical fact and dates the existence of New York from the arrival of white people it is a dead giveaway what kind of person is writing this and the kind of mentality. There were Native Americans here first, and just because they did not call the place Harlem, it does not mean that the place did not exist.

Scout said...

The only sure thing about New York City is Change, and one change I look forward to seeing someday is when we can all live together in harmony, rather than in racially segregated pockets, each pocket resenting, hating, and fearing the others.

Anonymous said...

What to save/preserve and what not to save? And who to save it for?

Walter said...

Always love to be educated by a 20 year old first year student about what authentic NYC is/was.

mch said...

Take a gander at what they're planning:

Not exactly Low Library.

laura r. said...

walter, 100% correct. he is ignorant, & you know what. but still those universities are just big corporate monsters. the 25 story condos are also a turnoff.

Anonymous said...

Not sure who's insulting who in this thread, but the fact is that not all change is the same kind of change.Some change is still human-sized, adapts itself to the pre-existing communities, understands that neighborhoods need to be preserved as their unique cultural selves, and grows up organically from the community itself. Read your Jane Jacobs if you give a damn about the health and longevity of real cities.

Yes, the Dutch came in and decimated the ancient Native American settlements that had been here and that was a genocide. No excusing. But does that now make it okay to make every part of the city look like every other part of the city and all of it to look just like downtown Cleveland?

Doesn't sound like "change" at all. Sounds like the uniform bland-i-fying of urban life so that everything will be exactly the *same*.

Thanks for the post Jeremiah.

Anonymous said...

Please note Karen Phillips was working for the State Parks Dept on 125th Street...doing what nobody knows, but now she's landed at Homes &, the big question is what does she do there?

Anonymous said...

This article was pure non-sense.
Harlem did not start out black and is certainly not black now.
Change is the only "authentic"
thing about Harlem.

Scout said...

There's a kind of person who tries to squelch all disagreement with their point of view by saying, "I'm not outraged because you disagree with me, it's the way you disagree, it's your TONE."

Affiliated with this is the person who says "I'm not afraid of change itself; I object to the WRONG kind of change (and I'm the one who gets to define 'wrong' for everyone)."

It's all just another way of trying to make the world over into one's desired image. In 50 years, none of it will be remembered.

John K said...

I really appreciate Jeremiah running this blog, and this post. Michael Henry Adams has been a tireless champion of Harlem's history and cultures, and I think what's being missed in some of the criticism of it is that while New York always undergoes change and while people of different races, ethnicities and religious affiliations have lived all over New York, it is also the case that both New Yorkers and people across the US and globe associate some of its neighborhoods with certain cultures and cultural formations.

Harlem has not been a static neighborhood at any point in its history, but it's also true to say that in historical terms and in popular mind, including in NYC--except perhaps for very recent transplants--it is indelibly associated with African Americans and Black people from across the African Diaspora, including African immigrants. This has been true for at least the last century or so. The neighborhood has been the site of many important moments in American and African American culture (and in the case of East Harlem, also Latino culture), and any student of literature knows about the Harlem Renaissance, which was one of the most important 20th century American artistic and cultural movements. So Michael Henry Adams is making an important argument about its transformation.

The larger point, though, is the transformation of New York's distinct neighborhoods and cultures into one giant, bland corporatized mall, with chains that can be found everywhere; neighborhood after neighborhood of wealthy condo and homeowners and their children, with nothing to distinguish the city's different parts from themselves or any suburban town anywhere in the US, except for more people; more dirty streets, more noise, higher prices and taxes, and nostalgia for the distinct city--and series of mini-cities--that New York City once was. Who wants that other than wealthy real estate interests, including private not-for-profit universities basically acting like global corporations?

Jeremiah Moss said...

Very well said John. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Did this nitwit really compare Harlem to Paris? Maybe Detroit, the former "Paris of the West" would be a more apt comparison.

Anonymous said...

This copied post/article is a joke. Harlem to Paris, Rome? lol!!!! NYC itself is, because of all of the things that make it up, but Harlem just a part of that, so let's not go overboard. Also, it seems as though this is from someone who seems detached from the area, hanging on to an ideal he believes (wants to believe), and with an angle to publish. I read the student's article, and it is much better articulated with solid points. Not to mention the fact that this almost sounds racist - "these white Harlems were insignificant." What if someone wanted to "preserve white culture" somewhere? That outcry would be loud. Things change....and a bunch of "white stuff" has been demolished all over the city too. Much of the "important" or significant things will all be there, and there will be character throughout Harlem. Talk about history and culture without being demeaning to other races. I don't understand why people can't do this. All races can appreciate the culture and history of an area, but areas also have to move forward. There is a way to write this article and talk about the great history and culture of Harlem without this line of statements....

Anonymous said...

I too believe in reviving the true history of Harlem. Let's tear down all the those hideous hi-rise housing projects and replace them with housing for people who want to positively contribute to society.

Unknown said...

Lots of uninformed and angry people posting on this article many who don't have a working knowledge of history. Save Harlem NOW!!

Unknown said...

Anonymous is very bitter and it shows. These people come out of the woodwork with venom at the ready when black people speak up. Also, to this person, public housing was not built for minorities. Jewish, Irish and Italians occupied them until the government lifted them out of poverty.