Gentrification: Same Story from Harlem to the Bay

When I was walking a friend home in Harlem near 118th and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard in May, a mumbling, stumbling man crossed our path. I caught a few of his words.

“Back in the day, a white person would get robbed at this hour in Harlem,” he said, among other things. (I’m white; my friend is a black grad student; the man was black.)

I was annoyed on a personal level, but I did not feel surprised or wronged. I can hardly blame people in the neighborhood for feeling more than a little uneasy about the incredibly rapid changes that are happening in Harlem, especially south of 125th Street. Harlem has long been the capital of Black America and a beacon of culture in America’s most repressive times, even though it has also seen (so I read) its own ups and downs. And suddenly, it is becoming full of chain stores and upscale cafes full of outsiders.

I thought of the mumbling man when I read about “root shock” in Harlem in this article in the Times. One of the most startling things in this article is one longtime Harlem resident’s claim that he was happy that shootings happened in May, because it would at least scare off the newcomers.

I got to thinking: A big part of the problem is not only that the neighborhood is becoming more expensive or that new people are moving there, but also the insensitivity of some of the people who are gentrifying. (As a white grad student, I’m one of those people, whether I like it or not, though I am trying not to be so insensitive.)

Rather than adjusting to the neighborhood and accepting the existing stores and institutions, people want to bring what they are comfortable with to the new environment and keep Harlem’s African American culture as a sort of decoration on the top of their routine of wine-bar- and Starbucks-patronizing.

It’s like, if you move to Harlem, fine, but can you not walk your poodle while chatting on your cell phone and sipping Starbucks and throwing all the symbols of your white, outsider power and oblivion into everyone’s face?

I think sentiments like those of the guy who said he was happy there were shootings actually come, in part, from people living through Harlem’s most hopeless days, and knowing all the pain and struggles and strength it took to stay in the neighborhood when crack cocaine was at its peak, and then seeing that history erased and other people building their fantasies of cheaper good living on the ruins of that. (Here’s a great video clip on about the same subject.)

I’m not sure people who live through gentrification and hate it — and that includes me in my native Bernal Heights, San Francisco — really know what they want or how they can stop big changes, in the context of a capitalist society.

But I am sure that if the neighborhood was being changed in a way that respected what was already there and had some continuity with the past, the anxiety people felt would not be so acute.

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