R.I.P. Black Harlem?

On January 5th, the New York Times published a story entitled “As Population Shifts in Harlem, Blacks Lose Their Majority.” The article started a firestorm of commentary on listservs and in my twitter feed so I thought I’d throw a couple of things out there. Many are treating this article as if it’s a formal obituary reading R.I.P. Black Harlem. Before we inscribe Rest In Peace, what if it meant Rise in Power Black Harlem? Not following me yet, I think the article missed at least 5 key things.

1) Captain Obvious to the rescue

If you have walked around Harlem in the last ten years, this story should not or does not surprise you. Everyone I passed the link or story around to who has lived here for a while responded with amusement, confirmation, and continuing with their day. Why? In part because demographic shifts get picked up by the census after people experience it in their everyday lives. The standard “quick and dirty” test of racial segregation within NYC that I give my students is the “train test.” I ask them, “Where do you get on? Where do you get off? What type of people (ethnicity) get off at your stop? When can you get a seat?” These questions lead them to think about demographic change in terms of race, ethnicity, economy, and space. In short, ride a train and you’d know that non-“Black” folks have been streaming uptown for a while now.

From IRAAS Harlem History Photo Essay

2) The Great White Fear

The article features a lovely picture of a White man, Joshua Buachner and his 2 year old daughter. It’s amazing how a docile picture of brownstone can create such a panic. The responses I saw highlighted the booming White surge in Harlem. Well kids, look at the numbers! First, the article plainly states Central Harlem has received a boom, doubling so now that means 1 in 10 residents in Central Harlem are White! Whoa! One in 10 … yeah, that’s right let it marinate … oh wait, not running scared? Right! The percentage of White residents was so low that a doubling lead to 1 in 10. If you look at the graphs provided, you’ll see there is a significant uptick but not one many are concentrating on. And trust me, 1 in 10 should make you think when you get of at 125th that you got off in the Upper East Side. Perspective is everything.

3) Urban Amnesia

The article pretty much steps over the entire history of redlining and other forms of systematic depreciation of Harlem properties and shuffling of the Black population into Harlem. Redlining served to keep people from buying property, served to make folks who had property sell instead of “riding the tide”, served to limit commerce in Harlem, and even carried a premium for services used by residents. Yes, there was significant outmigration, but this outmigration operated in concert with the “invisible hand” of financial incentives for some and disincentives for others. In reality, Black Harlem has really been leased space. A significant number of Black folks were able to buy, but many if not most Black folks in Harlem did not own; they rented. The result is that the owners left, the renters stayed, and Harlem’s economic depression continued for far too long. The out-migration and in-migration (depends on who you ask also known as gentrification) is not happenstance. Yes, everyone has individual agency and choices, but one’s choices are shaped by larger forces.

4) Black is, Black ain’t?

The article stresses the decrease in “Black” families, which the author never defines but we can take to mean largely African-American families (people of African descent who were part of US chattel slavery). In passing the article mentions the increasing numbers of Black residents who are not African-American such as West Indian and Continental African immigrants. This expansion of the African diasporic presence can be seen in food choices, neighborhood institutions, and has undoubtedly added to the flavor of Harlem… but what about the “other” folks? You know, the ones the article gives short sell to? The most rapidly increasing groups in Harlem according to the chart are the “other(s).” And I’d bet, though I don’t have the data, this is an increase in Latinos, particularly Afro-Latinos. The article quickly mentions that the Latino population is at an all time high in Central Harlem and Harlem at large. It seems that that for the past 30 plus years, Latinos have been moving in and occupying neighborhoods throughout Harlem without large alarm and cover stories. Uptown has a bustling Afro-Latino population which should not continue to be overlooked. If you are a student of Harlem, you know there has been tension but also very fertile ground around race and ethnic solidarity between African-Americans, Continental Africans,  Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, etc. This could represent a greater Pan Afrikan possibility … or panic, it’s up to us to decide.

5) Whose/Who’s Harlem?

The next steps for Harlem are in motion. Yes, there is an increasing White presence, but to me the more important part is that there is an increasing Latino presence, particularly Afro-Latino population. These are the moments when Harlem residents have a chance to redefine what it means to be Black Harlem. While in the 20th century Harlem witnessed the extreme flight of Whites and its Blackening, the process does not have to be reversed. Everyday when I walk around Harlem and the Heights I see the beauty of the Diaspora. A key to maintaining our stake and status in this historic “capital of Black America” is looking for links of solidarity around affordable housing, living wages, and community. Black Harlem has always been what its residents made it out to be. Ownership has never been the bedrock of the community, instead its the vibrance of our people that creates beauty in the midst of struggle.

5 thoughts on “R.I.P. Black Harlem?

  1. Georgiann Sunga says:

    I really enjoyed this! I would have to say this is an awfully informative post that deserves mentioning elsewhere. This is for 2 types of people:current writers who are considering a new career,and people trying to take to become a writer.


  2. giemmevi says:

    Very good article, finally a precise and objecticve analysis of Harlem’s demographic evolution. Quite obviously the NYT article is quite sensationalist. Demographic shifts are evolutions that, as you said correctly

    “…get picked up by the census after people experience it in their everyday lives.”


  3. Lou says:

    Useful analysis. Should the Dutch decry their loss of ‘Haarlem’ in 1700’s? And later the loss by some Italians of their uptown? What is a given in city neighborhoods: change within 2-3 generations.  You’re right, Harlem in a way has always been rented by those present. Everyone of us is just passing through somewhere. No one person or group gets to own anywhere forever  except maybe the dead in cemeteries.


  4. Agyei Tyehimba says:

    Excellent and insightful article! I am proud to say I was born and raised in Harlem. I came into my own during the 80s when Harlem – although plagued by white-prompted violence, drugs, and gangs – still had a strong cultural presence. I attended First World Alliance gatherings and was taught by the likes of James Smalls, Leonard Jeffries, Dr. Ben, John Henrik Clarke, and many other notable elders, intellectuals and activists; Una Mulzac ran Liberation Bookstore, and Black vendors on 125th Street sold everything from oils, African fabric and art, historical videos, old school Hip Hop tapes, and (quality) Black literature. The Schomburg Library grew into a full-fledged research facility under the able leadership of Howard Dotson. Harlem is safer now, and many of the formerly dilapidated buildings have been renovated, but at what cost? We must launch a movement to reclaim Harlem, and once again make it a community that reflects OUR issues and interests!


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