While I was not born in the United States, I spent the bulk of my formative years in Harlem. I went to elementary school on the north end of Amsterdam Avenue and middle school on Convent Avenue. While my mom was still getting comfortable speaking English when I was younger, she found solace in the robust community of African immigrants from across the Francophonie that operated in Central Harlem.
Harlem has given me and my family a lot. And for that reason it remains near to my heart, a fact that manifests itself in both small and big ways. My Dipset fandom, while occasionally admittedly a bit overwrought, is sincere and a consequence of living around the infamous Rucker Park neighborhood from 1998 onward. But I also acknowledge as readily as possible that I wouldn’t be where I am today without a lot of hard work, a lot of luck, and the availability of community resources such as Harlem School of the Arts, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Harlem Educational Activities Fund, local chess and after school programs that were plentiful at the time, and even my local library. The common thread of all of these items is that these were all things that my very low-income family could readily consume for free, including the occasional Cam’ron sighting.
With all that said, I moved back to NYC in 2012 for what I had convinced myself would be a short stint. It is now the second half of 2016, and I am currently looking at my lease renewal to continue my fourth year of living in my cozy one bedroom…in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
I love Harlem, but Harlem doesn’t necessarily love me anymore.
My mom still lives in the neighborhood I grew up in, and I visit her most weekends. To be fair, most of that stretch of Harlem hasn’t changed much; that’s mainly a consequence of the proximity to large sprawls of projects with long associations of violence such as the Pologrounds that have served as a deterrent for private developers. Regardless, at least once a month, I stop off on 125th street, or 116th street, or even the western end of 145th street, and recognize less and less square footage that I could once map out with my eyes closed. Hand-pulled noodle shops, custom sushi restaurants, and higher end grocery stores have overtaken what where formerly desolate stretches of Frederick Douglass Boulevard, catering not to the longtime residents of the community, but soliciting a new wave of residents, consumers, and price points; much of which was recently detailed in Michael Henry Adams’ “The End of Black Harlem.”
Dystopian title aside, the article made a good case detailing the erasure of so many core parts of Harlem’s legacy in favor of catering to a more affluent, Whiter, clientele. But one point that struck me was his conclusion, in which he calls back to a greater legacy of Harlem…by celebrating at Red Rooster, an establishment that was opened in 2010 on the premise of “elevated” soul food and precipitated a wave of additional “elevated” Black locales, such as Corner Social, Chocolat, XYZ lounge, and so on.
To put it coarsely, the longstanding community members to whose interests we claim to be interested in defending give less fucks about fancy grits than I do in adhering to a vegan lifestyle. Ultimately, the Black consumer market that this new wave of restaurants is attempting to adhere to is a unique segmentation within the current swath of Black residents in the neighborhood — namely Black urban professionals, generally with a bit more disposable income than lower income counterparts.
This segmentation doesn’t just specifically apply to the notion of “transplants.” While Harlem may be my old stomping grounds, the fact remains that if I were to decline my current lease renewal in favor of trying to find a one-bedroom in my neighborhood, from a realtor perspective, I am a completely different type of consumer than I would have been 10 years ago. As a result, I would get shown different apartments in different neighborhoods, and pushed to different price points.
Does this make me a gentrifier? Some perspectives would say yes, and I fully understand the reasoning of coming to that conclusion. On a base level, higher income begets higher rent, and can adversely affect current residents. But accepting that on its face would, in my opinion, completely eliminate any critical context in which we apply the lens of race and urban planning in America. Our understandable need to both label things and leverage terms that we have come into comfort with can, at times, preempt our need to think deeper.
The last few decades have had Black men and women getting educated at increasingly higher rates, which lends itself to increased median incomes and buying power. But in major metropolitan areas, that increase often only equates to a notable but not significant increase in available resources. Structural racism still exists, and depresses the purchasing power of even the Black professionals a few ticks higher in income gradients. It’s not as if the bulk of these social circles can afford to live in Chelsea but are actively choosing to take up space in Harlem, for instance. To a further point, in our 21st century effort to achieve collective wokeness, the desire to have Black enclaves of space where we feel comfortable to be ourselves extends to where we want to reside, and the fact remains that in most urban sprawls, neighborhoods with the higher concentration of Black neighborhoods tend to correlate to a lower median household income. None of this absolves “us” of the impact we may have in the communities we choose to call home, but it does ground and color a conversation that tends to divide residents into either victims or enablers.
As a current Flatbush resident with a income notably above the mean for my neighborhood, this is a fact that I am conscious of and keep in mind when deciding what sort of resident I want to be. I personally made the choice not to be a passive member of my community and engage in a meaningful way. That doesn’t mean that I’m knocking on neighbors’ doors apologizing for accommodating a possibly higher rent than some of my older residents. But it does mean I make a point to patronize local storefronts when I can, respect the traditions and rhythms of the neighborhood, and form honest relationships with my neighbors when organically possible. I’m not saying that I don’t shop at Target, but I do what I can to reinvest in the neighborhood that I currently choose to call home.
So, “Can Black people be gentrifiers?” Yes, if you insist on being lazy with the word. Words are purposeful, intentional, and bear weight and intrinsic context. While these classifications can simplify, I find that they force us to make a choice in situations that there simply isn’t one, ultimately forcing an identification that I don’t necessarily find to be particularly organic or fruitful. The great thing about the English language is that it is by no means a static existence. There is space for it to grow to accommodate more contemporary circumstances that reflect emergent social conditions with the appropriate gravitas. Constricting ourself to the limited taxonomy that we are currently afforded would have prevented intersectionality theory to take flight, after all. And while I am far from a sociologist or academic scholar of any sort, I do think it’s in all of our best interests to think critically of what terms we assign to each other, why we do it, and how we can be more conscious of our general footprints within whatever communities we choose to call home.