Harlem Song An Historic Neighborhood Rises Again

Harlem Song

Just about every neighborhood in New York City has had its ups and downs and its own particular stereotypes. Areas rise and fall as centers for culture or as fashionable places to live. For whatever reason, few places have been on the roller coaster longer than Harlem. Harlem is home to both jazz and hip-hop, the rich artistic history of the Harlem Renaissance, and the stereotypical concept of the urban ghetto.

As the Manhattan real estate market constantly evolves and with New Yorkers yearning for more space on the finite island to call home, Harlem is looking down the barrel of full-scale gentrification - for better or worse.

Early History

Established in 1659 by Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant and originally called Nieuw Haarlem after the old Dutch city, the area now known as Harlem was home to rich farmlands, and some of New York City's most illustrious families, including the Delanceys, the Bleekers, the Rikers, the Beekmans, and the Hamiltons. By the 1830s, however, soil was depleted and many of Harlem's sharecropping tenants abandoned their dwellings. The large estates to the west were sold at public auctions, transforming Harlem into a dumping ground for the destitute and downtrodden. Newly arrived immigrants in search of cheap housing and land found a home in Harlem's scattered shantytowns.

New and better forms of transportation and the rapid population growth of New York City at the turn of the 19th Century once again brought about another transformation: this time morphing it into a middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhood. The introduction of three elevated rail systems was the impetus for the residential development of the area, and virtually all the vacant land in Harlem was built upon between 1898 and 1904. Harlem was once again a viable place for the masses to live - though this was not where the story concludes with a fairy tale ending.

Overbuilding led to massive vacancies and over-inflated rents, which the neighborhood's laborers and domestic workers, simply could not afford. The undulating market once again called for drastic measures. Enter Phillip Payton.

Payton - an African American businessman - seized upon the potential development opportunity. Moving his realty company there, Payton played a key role in the development of Harlem's thriving black community. Payton began acquiring five-year leases on white-owned properties in Harlem and rented them to African American families at 10 percent below the market price. This opened the door to providing more affordable housing for blacks and other minorities. From its epicenter at 135th Street between Lenox and Seventh avenues, the neighborhood became an urban cultural center of black America. Harlem enjoyed several decades of stability, growth, and the development of a now-legendary music and literary scene, thanks to the work of such cultural icons as writer W.E.B. DuBois, poet Langston Hughes, and jazz musicians "Fats" Waller and Duke Ellington, among others.

This era became known as the Harlem Renaissance, lasting until the latter stages of the Great Depression. Although the deterioration of the neighborhood took several decades, in a way, the effects of the depression never really lefts the streets of Harlem until very recently.

The Changing Face of Harlem

Blown-out windows, graffiti-scarred buildings, and entire blocks left in ruin were byproducts of drugs, crime, and a weakened social fabric that seemingly transformed the areas around 125th Street into a demilitarized zone. By the late 1990s, Harlem was a neighborhood that was ready for a change.

As the prices of even tiny apartments in Manhattan rose throughout the 1990s, inveterate city dwellers began looking uptown at the 100-blocks and above in search of affordable housing and more living space. This trend, of course, did not go unnoticed, especially by entrepreneurs, businesses, real estate companies and a certain former President of the United States. "There's only so much real estate in Manhattan," says Joanna Simon, a senior broker with Manhattan's Fox Residential Group, "and people have to move upwards and outwards. [Bill] Clinton moving his offices into Harlem has had a hugely positive effect on the neighborhood. People think, "˜If Clinton is up there, we could be up there, too.' It was a very smart move on his part."

Real estate broker Klara Madlin also foresaw the burgeoning growth north of 125th Street. Madlin started her own brokerage firm in 1984, originally focusing on the Morningside Heights and Columbia University areas. She had so many requests for Harlem properties, however, that she started a spin-off business two years ago specializing in just that. Today, the area begins at about 97th Street and extends to about 154th, where it borders Washington Heights.

"Momentum is gathering," she says, "and Harlem is being both restored and rebuilt. The market has doubled - there just isn't enough product."

"The old brownstones are being gutted and completely refurbished," Madlin continues, "but a substantial amount of the original architecture is generally, being preserved. The architecture is incredible. One of the saving graces was the lack of interest in Harlem for so long - they just left the original architecture."

Simon agrees. "There's more and more change and restoration of these wonderful townhouses [in Harlem]," she says, "and people are considering moving north in Manhattan. These are areas that may have been considered dangerous 10 or 15 years ago, but that now are really gentrified."

Dilapidated blocks are giving way to new construction, replete with all the modern conveniences found anywhere else in the city. "There are wonderful restaurants, and it's become a much safer neighborhood. There are the most beautiful private brownstones in Harlem that were just waiting to be renovated, and now people are starting to do it. They're magnificent - and they're still bargains," says Simon.

"Bargain" is a relative term, however, and the "new" Harlem - or "Northern Manhattan," as it has become known to some people - does not come without a price tag. If you were fortunate to get into the area in the mid 1990s, a one-bedroom apartment might have cost you between $50,000 and $70,000, as opposed to just one year ago, when the same properties were selling for between $175,000 and $375,000. The difference in a two-bedroom condo and brownstones is staggering, says Madlin. A two-bedroom in 1996 would have set you back around $80,000 to $200,000; but, in 2001, they were selling for between $150,000 and $500,000.

For those in need of a lot of elbow room, Madlin suggests a gutted brownstone, which can start at $500,000 - or a renovated building, which will likely start in the upper $700,000s, with a few selling for $1 million. These prices might be discouraging for potential buyers who thought they were getting in while the market was soft.

While most of the new and newly-rehabilitated properties are condos and rentals, co-ops are also starting to filter into the area. Two buildings doing particularly well are the Grinnell - a prewar co-op featuring a center garden, a 24-hour doorman, and huge, nine-room apartments that start around $899,000 - and the Riviera, another prewar co-op, not as deluxe but just as stately with telltale large rooms and high ceilings, selling for between $350,000 and $500,000.

High End Luxury in a Rental

Over the years, the city has acquired a great many Harlem buildings - blighted abandoned properties that were languishing in decay. From 1986 and throughout the 1990s, city officials have been busy rehabbing the buildings, creating thousands of units of subsidized and market rate apartments for low-income and middle-income homeowners.

For example, a 230-unit apartment building is being constructed on First Avenue in East Harlem that will have a mix of tenants. Half of the apartments, ranging from studios to three bedroom units, will be leased at market rates of $1,250 to $2,500 a month; 20 percent will be leased to low-income tenants with annual incomes ranging from $16,000 to $31,400; and the remaining 30 percent are reserved for those with annual incomes ranging from $41,000 to upwards of $157,000 a year. Most of the apartments will range from 500 to 1,200 square feet, but the higher-end units on the upper floors will be larger in size. Planned amenities include a laundry room, an exercise room and a 110-car garage. Approximately 15,000-square feet of retail space is also planned along First Avenue. Another middle-income project, under development in the area of 144th Street, is Bradhurst Court, which will contain 126 co-op units, a 45,000 square-foot Pathmark supermarket, and 6,000-square-feet of retail space.

Also under construction and set to open in July of this year is 1400 on 5th, a 129-unit condominium development along Fifth Avenue between 115th and 116th streets, that is being built with environmentally-sound and energy-efficient materials. Two-thirds, or 86 of the condos, are reserved for buyers with incomes ranging between $53,000 and $103,000 per year; and three- and four-bedroom triplexes along 115th Street will be sold at market rate to buyers whose incomes exceed $89,000. Prices for the condos begin at $284,000 for two-bedrooms and range from $560,000 to $700,000 for the townhouses. The Madison Court Cooperatives, located on Madison Avenue, between 117th and 118th streets, is another new development in the area, being marketed to homeowners having minimum incomes ranging from $47,400 to $115,000 annually.

Demographic Shift?

Long a classic bastion of African American culture, Harlem has a rich history often made richer by Hollywood movies and Broadway depictions. While Harlem's "second renaissance" has raised some eyebrows and stirred debate among community leaders concerned with preserving the neighborhood's cultural integrity from an overnight influx of Starbucks and Gap stores, Harlem is still Harlem, despite the outside interest. A diverse group of families and young professionals are flocking into the area because of its relative affordability, putting down roots in a neighborhood that has a long and storied history.

According to Simon, "Harlem is well-geared to young people who are thinking of having families, or edging that way and thinking they can still afford this. Or they're already there, and they have kids, and they think "˜Hey, this might be a good place to bring up our kids - we can get a much larger apartment for less money in this area.'"

There are many sides to the "boom" however. While some lifelong Harlem residents are happy to see their beloved neighborhood finally reclaim some of the attention and cachet of days past, this newfound attention may end up pricing some people out of the market. So-called "middle-income" housing is based on an annual salary of $42,000 in New York City - a figure that exceeds the average Harlem household's income by nearly double. According to the city, rent and mortgage rates can exceed the median income of Harlem by more than 165 percent. Those who moved to Harlem early on in search of their own affordable niche are finding themselves priced out of many blocks - much like the old-timers.

What's New in the "˜Hood

Along with the new residents, the influx of big business has been a double-edged sword. Domino's Pizza, Blockbuster Video, and Starbucks Coffee may be an indication that an area "has arrived," but Harlem's mom-and-pop businesses are feeling the squeeze from these corporate competitors and now-higher-income patrons.

Renewed economic vigor notwithstanding, Harlem, says Madlin, is seriously in need of services like grocery stores and dry cleaning and laundry establishments. "They are starting to appear, and Harlem needs them," says Madlin. "It reminds me of what happened on Broadway."

Madlin points out that the new Harlem USA shopping mall with its nine-screen Cineplex and Old Navy store are two important recent additions to 125th Street, and she notes that there's more development on the way.

New restaurants like the Bayou, Sugar Shack, and Jimmy's Uptown have opened, and Harlem Song, a new musical which opened in mid-2002 at the legendary and newly refurbished Apollo Theater has brought a little bit of Broadway uptown. Efforts by Harlem Song's producers to bring those who would not usually make the trek to Harlem have proved successful. From concierge service to bus service to neighborhood tours, you can see a Broadway-quality musical for 75 percent of the cost of a downtown show, eat at a new restaurant, and park for free. As a neighborhood, Harlem has a long and arduous journey ahead of it, but if recent developments are any indication, it's well on its way.

David Garry is a freelance writer based in Manhattan.

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