On the Block

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The day I interviewed to become a tenant organizer was the first time I stepped foot in Harlem. It looked like a slum to me, with boarded-up storefronts and front yards full of trash. But the part that really made me think twice about working late hours was the wooden boards and cement blocks where so many windows should be. The number of abandoned buildings was astonishing.

Then I noticed that underneath the peeling paint, rows of townhouses boasted graceful architectural detailing, recalling a time when Manhattan above 96th Street was a fashionable address. Very quickly, I began to see Harlem as many strangers do, with a vision of history and potential: a faded landmark district, fit for tour buses on the way downtown after gospel music at Abyssinian and lunch at Sylvia’s. All it needed was money.

But after spending months walking the blocks of central Harlem, talking to tenants and digging up building records, I started to see the real story–that residents were worried, tenant organizers and advocates overwhelmed, and rents skyrocketing. Everyone who knew the neighborhood was aware of impending change, but nobody knew how to control it or even exactly what “it” was.

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Part of my job as an organizer and researcher was to prepare reports that tenants and block associations could use to understand what was happening. For each building on a given block, I found out who lived there, who owned it, how much it owed in back taxes and what shape the building was in.

The specifics I dug up showed a neighborhood in the middle of something more complex than a one-way trip from decrepitude to renewal, and they question some conventional wisdom about urban revitalization. In Harlem, tenants have always been able to hang onto their homes, despite living in the midst of abandonment, drugs and decay. In the late 1990s, a powerful real estate market, on top of city policies that encourage middle-class home ownership, may defeat the tenants even as it renews the neighborhood.

For now, crack houses rub shoulders with half-million-dollar landmark brownstones, and longtime tenants welcome the redevelopment that may eventually push them out of their neighborhood. One of the blocks I examined, much like all the others, is 120th Street between Adam Clayton Powell and Malcolm X boulevards. It’s a typical south Harlem block, with a long, uniform row of three-story townhouses–a shady street with wide stoops and an old-fashioned feel.

So far, the residents of 120th Street don’t feel like gentrification has been a bad deal–in fact, nearly all of them are pleased at the way things are shaping up. But it’s New York City’s politicians and its real estate market that are creating the future of this block, not these tenants. In 10 or 20 years, this neighborhood may well be transformed. And the forces of change are visible right now, in the townhouses and on the stoops of West 120th Street.

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Robert Taylor was baptized on the corner of 120th and Lenox, at Mount Olivet Baptist Church and he’s spent 46 of his 47 years living on 120th Street. He says that at one time or another he’s been a super in nearly every building on the block. He knows the history of this block like his own, reeling off a list of landlords and bad mortgages and repossessions for each townhouse: That owner won’t rent out apartments or sell her house because she can’t afford to fix it up. In that one, the 105-year-old tenant on the ground floor is being harassed by the owners, who are struggling over the title to the building.

He points to the yellow bow-front facade of 121 West 120th Street, where he lived for four years until he decided this winter to quit doing drugs and move to Orlando to clean up. “God took me out of that building,” he says. Taylor says that you can’t buy drugs on the block any more, but his neighbors say that as recently as six months ago, 148 was an active crackhouse. Taylor just got back from Florida, and being back home is a mixed bag. Many of the people walking by hug him. Others, who call his name from across the street, he ignores.

It’s not just Taylor–people on 120th Street know each other, sharing gossip that most downtown Manhattanites think only gets passed around in small towns. That came across vividly on one afternoon I spent on a brownstone stoop with Elkie Sihdab, a slender, businesslike woman who runs a small hotel on the block. Each person strolling by got a familiar hello, and many stopped to chat.

Sihdab’s patience has paid off. Five years ago, with a loan through the Historic Properties Fund, she renovated her 1891 townhouse, fixing up its rising-sun stained glass windows and brass detailing. She paid $40,000 for it in 1982–about a tenth of what it would go for today–spent $75,000 converting its 10 single-room efficiencies into three family-size apartments in 1994, and today rents out much of it to tourists at $40 a night. Sihdab’s savvy entrepreneurship and concern for the neighborhood are both clear from the way she talks about the many opportunities for restoration and the impressive credentials of her favorite contractors.

It’s buildings like hers that have led to the popular belief that a once-forsaken neighborhood is being reborn. The New York Times ran three articles on this theme last year, praising the “hearty group of urban pioneers who fought to restore” Harlem.

It would be satisfying to leave the story there: neighborhood saved. Score one for the pioneers.

But it’s not so simple. New York City owns 35 percent of the property in Harlem, according to Deborah Wright, chairwoman of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, and its housing programs have been at least as influential as individual investors in central Harlem’s revitalization. Instead of providing the affordable housing that the private owners aren’t, the city has helped steer the neighborhood away from low-income rentals and toward home ownership.

On 120th Street, the city owns nine of the 60 buildings on the block. Its chief influence has been to duplicate what the private market already does–produce housing for middle-class people who want to buy homes. There’s one tenant cooperative at the end of the block; there are also three city-owned buildings slated to be converted into three-family townhouses.

Two of those, 102 and 106, are now under construction. They’re being rehabbed through the Homeworks program, through which the city helps secure developers and below-market-rate mortgages for people to buy and fix up city-owned buildings. According to a development insider, one of these two has been bought by a West Indian woman and the other by an interracial family, white and Chinese, from the Upper West Side.

The two brownstones sold at market price, for $348,450 each. In order to qualify for the program, you have to earn over $54,000 a year, be able to put 10 percent down and have thousands of dollars on hand to cover closing costs. To clear the mortgage, the new owners will probably have to charge tenants at least $700 each month per floor. The going rent on a floor-through on this block is now $1,000.

But the average 1997 household income in Harlem was just over $24,000 a year. On 120th Street, 26 of the 41 occupied residential buildings are SROs, and more than half the block’s renters live in “kitchenettes,” studios that rent for $200 to $350 a month.

That gap between what renters now pay and what new owners must be able to afford is serious, but it doesn’t seem to worry some Harlem leaders. At a public forum, I asked Wright–a former commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development–about the gap. “At the end of the day, you can’t really stop gentrification unless people own,” she said. “People will have to take seriously the opportunities to work to increase their income so they can own.” Wright’s opinion is powerful; she stands to control some $300 million in government money in Harlem.

Right now, 16 of the block’s buildings appear to be owner-occupied. Buying a townhouse was much easier 10 years ago, when many of the buildings sold for $25,000. City property records report that the two most recent private sales on the block were for $265,000 and $345,000, and a local realtor says that the next will be for $375,000; these new owners certainly aren’t poor.

The renovation of 152, a spiffy brownstone with polished brass lamps and new cast-iron filigree gratings, is typical of the return of the black middle class. The owners are lawyers from upstate who rent out huge one-bedrooms for around $1000 a month. Their father lives on the first floor, the third is rented to a Columbia graduate student and the fourth is occupied by a Time Warner marketing specialist. The previous owners tried to get loans and a mortgage to fix up the property in 1993, but it wasn’t until 1997 that lenders thought the Harlem housing market was strong enough to provide the funds.

Though the middle class is moving in, most people here live more like Robert Card, who tries to keep 139 in decent shape. The townhouse, its peach-yellow wash of paint now flaking, was bought in 1952 by the “Orange Benevolent Society,” still honored in gold-painted letters on the glass above the door. The city still lists the society as the owner, but tenants say the real landlord abandoned the building two years ago, piling her belongings into a van in the middle of the night and vanishing.

Since then, Card, his daughter and two other remaining tenants pay the oil bills and maintain the building. Though their rooms are well-kept, the paint in the hallways is peeling and there are leaks in the roof and from the fixtures in the common bathroom. It’s a lot of work but a cheap deal–they haven’t paid rent in two years.

Card has been trying to turn the building into a low-income co-op, but since the landlord has vanished there’s little he can do. Here, too, city policies make a huge difference in a building’s fate. Five years ago, before the city stopped seizing tax-delinquent properties, Card’s building would have been a likely candidate for a tenant-ownership program. Instead, the city created a system in which private investors take over and auction off buildings that carry lots of tax debt. This is where Card’s building is going, and it means he and his neighbors have little chance of staying once it gets sold off.

Just across the street at 118, the new middle-class owners of an SRO–a young African-American husband and wife–aren’t any more settled. They decided to buy their first home in the neighborhood because it’s “a very residential section of Manhattan, accessible to many enjoyments. Broadway’s a hop, skip, and a jump; all the trains come uptown,” the wife explains. “Mount Morris Park is a gold mine. Commercialism’s gonna boom as soon as major corporations establish themselves here. It’s gonna be beautiful.”

They bought the SRO in 1992 for $105,000, planning to convert it into apartments. Instead, the owners have found themselves in the middle of an ugly legal battle which is why they didn’t want their names used in the story. The two remaining tenants don’t want to lose their homes, and the owners know that they are accused of “trying to force out a local artist”–one of the occupants is a sculptor who has lived and worked in the neighborhood for decades.

The fight has drained energy and goodwill from both parties, and the new homeowners feel guilty. “I admire the woman’s work,” avers the husband. “I love her being in the neighborhood.” But, he says, the family can’t pay the bills on the money from these tenants’ rent alone.There are “valid reasons why people can’t afford the rent, but owners have that too,” he explains. “I am accepting the risk. If it goes down, I’m out. All they have to do is move.”

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Before I was done with my research, I got another tour of the block. My new guide, 26-year-old Edward Poteat, probably understands the future of 120th Street better than anyone. He ought to, since he stands to profit from it quite well. Poteat grew up on 110th Street and Fifth Avenue and came home, after attending Yale, to work in real estate.

Poteat started in the business in 1994, with friends who were taking over their grandfather’s failing management company. Original owner Victor Horsford had pieced together his enterprise out of properties he’d acquired one by one after arriving in Harlem from Antigua in the 1930s. His heirs have expanded into a full-service real estate operation, Horsford & Poteat, working out of one of their grandfather’s old brownstones.

Poteat walked me down 120th Street, showing me the block through a realtor’s eyes. He says prices have jumped dramatically in just the two years he’s been around. Rent for studios has jumped from $550 a month to $650 in the past year alone; shells that his company had been able to buy for $50,000 are now selling for $120,000.

The new residents, he says, are “definitely middle class and upper working class, not the typical Section 8 subsidized housing crowd. They’re middle-class blacks from Queens, downtown Brooklyn and the northern Bronx who want to move home. They grew up here, or their mom lived here.”

Poteat’s perspective is bigger than this one street: he’s chairman of Community Board 10’s Housing Committee and a developer for one of the city’s Neighborhood Entrepreneur Program sites on 149th Street. And his vision for 120th Street has a lot in common with city government’s. He pictures Harlem full of working families and good opportunities for middle-income black home ownership. Gentrification, for him, is another word for a future. “Harlem was going nowhere before ‘gentrification’ hit it,” Poteat says. “If I have to lose a squatter to get a family, so be it.”

Michelle Solomon is a student at NYU Law School.