Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Price on Harlem Gentrification

Author Richard Price spoke at the New York Times' "Cities for Tomorrow" conference earlier this week. He talked a bit about gentrification in Harlem and "that eternal argument: Is this good for Harlem or bad for Harlem?"

NY Times photo

He said: "The big picture is: Everything that's happening now in Harlem, everything that's being built in Harlem is with someone like me in mind, preferably 30 years younger than me. The born-heres? They're looking around and seeing new restaurants, and high rises going up, and new trees planted, and they know it's not for them. It's like: You're in the way..."

"It's like white people discovered Harlem like Europeans discovered America, and the Indians are going, 'Really? What are we standing on, cream cheese?' ... So whatever's exciting and new is a little bit of a death knell."

He talked about the recent closure of Pathmark and the opening of Whole Foods on 125th Street: "The minute that Whole Foods went up--game over."

And he had some sound advice on how to be a decent neighbor in a gentrifying part of town, including "learn manners" and "patronize businesses that were there a hell of a lot longer than you were." Also: "Be a good guy. Have a heart."

Watch here at minute mark 16:15.


Scout said...

As with all NYC neighborhoods, it's not a bad thing to discuss a history that goes further back than our brief lifetimes.

Harlem was native American farm and hunting grounds from prehistory until 1637, when the Dutch "acquired" it and it became Dutch-American farmland. (The southern border of what was called Harlem at that time was roughly where 74th Street is today). Beginning in 1831, the large farms (poorly managed by the white folk, who depleted the soil) were sold off and cut into small suburban/semi-rural quasi-genteel plots, which, with the advent of elevated trains, became middle and upper-middle class urban neighborhoods, with the Polo grounds and an opera house. Overconstruction of poorly-designed apartment buildings in East Harlem led to a large influx of lower-income Jewish and Italian families around the turn of the century. Around the same time, Harlem experienced a large real estate crash, and African American families took advantage of this to escape racism in other cities (particularly from the South) and create a safer enclave in Harlem.

Thus, Harlem has only been what most people (with a lack of historical vision) see it as for about 100 years. It was genteel farmland for more than twice that amount of time, and native American homeland for more than 10 times that duration. Which means, I would speculate, that anyone wishing to "preserve" some sense of "authentic" Harlem would be well advised to campaign for the return of that land to the descendants of the Lenape.

Otherwise, the wheel just continues to turn. Expecting otherwise calls to mind the cry of the Angel (Tony Kushner's symbol of conservatism) to humanity in Angels In America: "Stop Moving!!"

Jeremiah Moss said...

Michael Henry Adams said it best: "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."

Scout said...

I'm quite sure I wouldn't identify the rich Native American culture that existed for several thousand years in the area as "white," as the Adams quote appears to do.

Jeff said...

I think all the historical "Harlems" arecequalky significant, Dutch, jewish, italian, black, but the black and spanish harlem both have greater current significance AND are still here-- not historical footnotes. The "culture" coming in is a NON-culture, a socially sterilizing influence that will destroy ALL traces of past history and bring an homogeneous, corporate salted earth that will, for a time, be habited by well heeled transients and then fade, leaving a wasteland behind. If we cant stop the developers now, we have to have laws that tie their economic responsibility to these places to deal with that future.

Anonymous said...

You guys are so full of shit. How can you view history through the lens of contemporary mores?
i assumed you and your readers were educated and intelligent people. Good grief what a bunch of jerks.

Unknown said...

I loved Richards example of the young wide eyed artist coming to look for cheap creative space and then the real estate developer smelling cappuccino. Then everyone gets pushed out. How true that is! The point is that never has there been such an inorganic transition of neighborhoods. This is not the evolution of an Irish neighborhood turning into an Italian/Jewish neighborhood which then evolves into a Hispanic neighborhood or even a homosexual community. What is happening today is an unethical slash and burn tactic created solely by greedy developers who aim to destroy all previous permutations of what NYC used to be about. New York has always had mix of culture and class living side by side with art and manufacturing, but all is being erased at light speed now by the short sighted developers who think the wealthy class can continue to live and grow in a vacuum. Their damage is permanent and when it all crashes they will leave behind a collection of empty glass and steel structures on a scale so big that even the greatest minds wont know how to fix it or to fully re-purpose it! I guess we can let the Lenape have it back when that time comes. Everything that comes around, goes around.

King Ning said...


I agree. That is the problem. Today's perceived norms weren't yesterday's. You can't make objective observations, or offer valid opinions, on previous historical eras by inserting contemporary critiques into the discussion. One has to understand history within the social, political and moral contexts of a particular period.

Jeremiah Moss said...

Thank you Richard. I have explained this so many times, and people keep insisting, "New York is always changing, etc.," not understanding--or refusing to understand--that the change we've been dealing with, especially over the past 15 years, is on a completely different level and of a completely different sort.

Scout said...

I think Richard Federico's description of NYC changes is apt for the past 200-300 years; however, the Native Americans of the 17th century would, I'm sure, disagree that the change that they witnessed was "organic." It was totally a "slash and burn" of its own style.

Change will change - even the nature of change will change. Technology and globalism are changing everyone's lives and environments everywhere in speedy and radical ways; ways that are difficult to fully understand.

But if we want to be in control of cutural city/nation-wide change (a gargantuan task), it will be crucial to understand how it works differently today than it did when Jane Jacobs, for instance, helped stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway in 1962.

JOR said...

I thought Scout had vanished forever, yet here he is back at it again.

Unknown said...

Scout, I get your point about the land before it was New York and also that change is inevitable. I understand that greed existed way back in the day the Dutch set up trading posts on Manhattan Island (probably to make a lot of money). However, even if we were to take your example into consideration, you are talking about pre-modern times when NYC was wild and roamed by nomadic native tribes. Is it like what is happening now? Sort of, but not quite the same. It was simply modern Europeans with a more advanced culture invading a new land (for them) with less advanced inhabitants and far more nature than people. This was unfortunate for the Indians for sure, but even the European takeover was a more organic development then what we have today. First off it was totally undeveloped land and because of that it was open for invasion, plundering, and development both culturally and physically. I'm not saying the natives did not have a culture, but it was no match for the sophisticated advancements of the Europeans. Your argument would be more comparable to a scenario where advanced life forms from another planet invaded earth and overwhelmed us with their technology, bizarre cultural practices and abilities we never could have imagined! Then to top it off most of us catch an alien virus and we die off in droves. At least that scenario makes sense as that is what would most likely happen when two different worlds meet. I would also argue further that the European invasion has proven to be successful and sustainable as first Dutch businessmen came, then The English, and then eventually other Europeans looking for a better life with more opportunity. Each one of these waves of people contributed to the development from wild hunting land, to farms, to villages, and finally to the metropolis known as New York City. It's called progress and modernization, and to your point that is inevitable and can't be stopped, nor should it be. However, It has always been my argument that what is happening today is not a natural progression, nor is it sustainable, or even interesting. It is a false flag of speculation by the wealthy corporate interests groups who are playing with the city like its an actual game of Monopoly! They are not building on the culture anymore, they are building bank accounts while destroying the vibrant fabric of the city which ironically was the bankable part in the first place. They know this form of corporate genocide is not better for the city, and they know its a manufactured bubble that won't last. They aren't stupid after all, just greedy, which is where the selfish unethical part figures in. They don't care about tomorrow for the city, only today for their financial portfolios. It's a rich mans game of hot potato, only when the music stops they will drop the potato and run while we will be stuck holding the bag. Your Native American land grab comparison is compelling and was arguably wrong at the time, but that time is now ancient history and it's not realistic to think the Indians would still be here today hunting and trading furs with the modern world. However, when it all crashes maybe the Natives will return to claim their land back. The High Line can be the new Lenape trail, and the penthouse balconies will be ideal for hanging and drying pelts!

Brian said...

There have been some pretty rapid changes in NYC neighborhoods over history. A lot of ups and downs. There is Spanish Harlem, Black Harlem, and there used to be a Jewish Harlem and Italian Harlem in the 20th century. Wikipedia has a good summary of it. Change is different today, I agree. But in NYC change was very rapid, wicked and drastic on the neighborhood level in the 20th century as well.

Reader said...

"And he had some sound advice on how to be a decent neighbor in a gentrifying part of town, including "learn manners" and 'patronize businesses that were there a hell of a lot longer than you were.'"

I have some sound advice for Richard Price: Don't stereotype black people in your dramas. Exhibit A: "The Night Of." Remove the beam in your eye before presuming to criticize other people.

It really rankles me that he is judging others for insensitivity when what he's doing is just as bad, and possibly worse because an HBO drama reaches an international audience.

Scout said...

Richard Federico writes "This was unfortunate for the Indians for sure, but even the European takeover was a more organic development then what we have today."

Unfortunate? I fear that we may not be able to find common ground for discussion if you call a genocide "unfortunate."

He continues: "First off it was totally undeveloped land and because of that it was open for invasion, plundering, and development both culturally and physically."

"Undeveloped" is a relative term; and there is no reason why "undeveloped" land (which was still land in use) can be validly and morally stolen from its occupants. That's a classic White Man's Burden argument.

Pat said...

Read "The Island at the Center of the World" by Russell Shorto.

Andrew Porter said...

I wish people would not equate Change with Progress. World War Two brought a vast amount of change to Europe, but Nazis conquering other countries was certainly not Progress.

Also, I *really, really* wish people would learn to paragraph.

Enormous blocks of text are so hard to read.

Lastly, within a few short years, when the tides creep ever higher, most of NYC is going to be over. It will become the place where people go to pull metals and building materials from the encroaching oceans.

Unknown said...

Scout, Let me put this plain and simple, this is a forum about saving the cultural, intellectual,and historically relevant spaces of what we know as NEW YORK CITY proper. Do you understand that? This is not a blog about the land before NYC.

Jeremiah did not create this forum to lament things like the disappearance of wild berries that grew near the shoreline at the base of Manhattan Island only to be replaced by what the Algonquians called "plantain weed" brought here by the European colonists. The fauna of our North American shores in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries changed rapidly as English settlers introduced numerous plants (both intentionally and accidentally) that rapidly colonized the land. That historical footnote was a very real issue at the time, but definitely off topic for this blog and the problems that need addressing today.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy reading your comments as I enjoy hearing everyone's New York experiences and views, but sometimes I feel you get off topic in order to provoke the readers here.

Scout said...

Richard Federico, all due respect, but dismissing my point of views as "getting off topic" shows a distinct LACK of respect. It seems to me that you want to freeze a semi-mythological New York City that existed (for you) at an important point in your lifetime, and have absolutely no interest in the New York of any other time, or indeed of anyone else's memory. To attempt to halt change, even change that you loathe, is as quixotic as trying to return Manahatta to the Lenape who owned it only 400 years ago (which to my mind, would be a far more admirable act than preserving restaurants and stores 30 years old or younger). Disagree if you like, but that opinion is not "off topic," nor am I disagreeing with you merely to provoke. A bit of civility and respect will go a long way in a discussion; attempting to shut someone up by dismissing their opinion as "off topic" is merely a Donald Trump-style tactic.

JOR said...

Ignore the troll, Richard, ignore the troll.