Increasingly, uptown folks are asking, “What’s going on in Harlem? Is it changing too fast? Too slow? Is it losing its black identity?”
Step back a moment, revisit history and remember that Harlem evolved from groups who lived here previously. Many of them left legacies that placed the community on the world map: The Lenape Indians labeled the island Manhattan. The Dutch named Harlem. In the late 19th century, European architects built stately apartments like the Graham Court, plus townhouses and brownstones whose exquisite designs take one’s breath away and make our housing stock the envy of millions.
When blacks arrived in Harlem, they brought food, fashion, dance, music, religion, poetry and art, creating a vibrancy that turned this community into the heartbeat of black America. Harlem is a powerful magnet to people around the world. The community is steeped in history, culture, excitement and its own funky dissonance. But Harlem is not the same place it once was. These photos show how the view has changed in front of my old house on Edgecombe Avenue. Is this progress?
When I was a child, Irish and Polish kids attended school with me. Then for the next 30-40 years you’d rarely, if ever, find a white kid anywhere in Harlem, much less a public classroom. Today you see African, Hispanic and mixed race children. Also some white students with Irish, Polish, Jewish, Scottish and other European heritages. Many new and affluent blacks have come “home” from the suburbs or other cities. They want to return to their roots. Some established residents don’t like these changes and, in many cases, are afraid they’ll be displaced by black and white neighbors who buy brownstones or $500,000 condos in refurbished or new buildings.
Is it good for Harlem to have a monied class who uses acronyms like NoHa and SoHa (north or south of 125th Street) to differentiate between upper and lower Harlem?
Change happens. Sugar Hill used to be called Coogan’s Bluff. Some folks didn’t like renaming Colonial Park, Jackie Robinson Park. Even if George Washington owned slaves, why cherry pick away Harlem’s colonial history? Why not let kids know Harlem played an integral role in the Revolutionary War; that the Battle of Harlem Heights was fought and won in their neighborhood, possibly in what used to be Colonial Park? Make sure they know that Harlem is 150 years older than America. The Dutch owned slaves too. Will Harlem’s name someday be erased if a faction decides it doesn‘t like how the Dutch treated minorities?
Since change is going to happen, perhaps it can be done right, by engaging all constituencies and still preserve the soul of Harlem. That’s a tall order when money talks and the divide between rich and poor keeps widening. But it’s not impossible or too late. After all, this is Harlem and it bounced back from the 1970s-’80s heroin devastation and the 1990s crack epidemic. The question now is how will it handle SoHa and NoHa?