What will happen when Harlem becomes white?

While many black residents, old and new, are thankful for the new amenities that gentrification brings, others worry that an emerging brand of black pride could do away with the community’s politically nourished roots, writes Rose Hackman

Harlem gentrification
Harlem gentrification: a new renaissance? Illustration: Shannon Wright

Harlem is gentrifying.

Get off at 125th street’s A subway and walk south. As you go, you will spot luxury condominiums in between brownstones and walk-ups. If you want to, you can stop off at a designer flower store or a hat boutique. On your walk, you will almost certainly spot more than a few white, middle-class-looking faces – something that would have been inconceivable 20 years ago.

Couples can now be spotted in and out of bars and restaurants along Frederick Douglass Boulevard, locally renamed “restaurant row”. Outside of 67 Orange Street, a small craft cocktail speakeasy, reality television crews have been known to ask customers to sign off releases so that their faces can be used on film. The bar is a staple of Harlem’s “new” renaissance, where young, hip, black customers have adopted local venues to spend their downtime.

Gentrification means that demographics are changing, and Harlem is getting whiter. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of black residents fell notably, and white population share grew, particularly in central Harlem where white residents increased fivefold.

Harlem renaissance: so chic.
Harlem renaissance in the 1920s: so chic. Photograph: Public domain

But when it comes to economic development, the story is much more complicated than white people moving in, black people moving out.

At the heart of Harlem’s gentrification are black residents old and new, many of whom are thankful for the new amenities and nighttime options. A very particular brand of black pride is being curated, sold and embraced – a move that is at the same time celebrating and threatening the very core of a dynamic black heritage and culture.

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