By the end of this month, City Council will decide whether to approve a rezoning of Harlem’s main commercial thoroughfare that many consider not just another contentious land use matter, but a judgment that could forever alter the historic home of the African diaspora.
Because Harlem is widely regarded as the irreplaceable wellspring of black American culture, there is a painful sense among people who oppose a rezoning of the 125th Street corridor – which includes 124th and 126th Streets between Broadway and Second Avenue – that the changes touted by the Department of City Planning as a way to make it a more “vibrant commercial corridor” actually represent a threat not only to longtime residents, but also to a touchstone for people of African descent the world over.
“You’re talking about the geographic land mass which symbolizes the accomplishments, the struggle, the achievement and the longevity of the contributions of those of African descent,” said Dr. Vicky Gholson, a member of West Harlem’s Community Board 9.
Harlem’s cultural significance and storied streets, coupled with the past and present pressures of gentrification, make the stakes in this fight against change astronomically high for those who oppose it. If their fears are realized, there will be widespread displacement of residents, businesses and cultural institutions. Many also perceive a threat to the political power that Harlem has wielded. Some even see the plan as part of a broader scheme to remove people of color from New York City and other urban centers in the country.
Ask Sikhulu Shange, owner of the long-threatened Record Shack on 125th Street, and he will shoot off a list of social movements that began on the same street where he’s struggling to stay. Malcolm X, black nationalist Marcus Garvey and pioneering pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana all have come to Harlem, he says. Shange, who sells music from Africa and the African diaspora, has been battling to hold on to his store for more than a decade, and is now fighting to maintain Harlem’s character too.
“Harlem has been a focal point of liberation activities for Africa as well as for human rights and civil rights here in America,” said Shange, a South African in business in Harlem for decades. He now chairs the recently formed Coalition to Save Harlem.
At a town hall meeting called by the coalition on March 29, Shange attempted to put the threat of displacement into historical context. “We have been detained…from the continent of Africa to the American shores and now we are on the sidewalks of Harlem and somebody else is still trying to tell us that we are one-third of a human being. That’s no good!” he roared to a riled-up audience at the Oberia Dempsey Center on 127th Street.
In the view of Nicole P. Marwell, an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University, the rezoning’s reception is connected to past experience. “Historical legacies play an important role,” said Marwell. She noted that urban renewal has often been referred to as “Negro removal” since a large proportion of African-American communities have been impacted under urban planning structures. And Harlem residents in particular have faced displacement before.
In 1976, New York City’s housing commissioner, Roger Starr, addressed urban decay with a policy of “planned shrinkage” – draining the resources from disadvantaged areas in order to decrease the population. Redlining – banks’ denying of mortgages in generally minority neighborhoods – has historically been a roadblock for African-Americans wanting to buy homes in Harlem. In an ironic turnabout, now some residents feel under siege because many of Harlem’s blocks have become sought-after real estate.
To be sure, the 125th Street rezoning enjoys varying degrees of support in Harlem along with reaping criticism. The proposal is described by the Department of City Planning (DCP) as a way to “sustain the ongoing revitalization of 125th Street as a unique Manhattan Main Street, enhance its regional business district character and reinforce the street’s premier arts, culture, and entertainment destination identity.”
According to DCP, substantial public engagement and consensus-building went into the plan’s creation. The planning department has worked with the New York City Economic Development Corporation on a three-year planning process which included input from a community-based Advisory Committee made up of more than 100 local leaders.
The public review process officially began in Oct. 2007. After the proposal was certified by DCP in the fall, Community Boards 9, 10 and 11 (covering Harlem from west to east) cast their votes in December. CBs 9 and 11 voted for conditional approval of the plan, while CB10 voted for conditional disapproval. All three boards, however, agreed that there should be more affordable housing and anti-harassment provisions to protect tenants. They also favored a local business inclusion requirement in addition to an arts and entertainment one.
In January, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer recommended against the plan unless certain conditions were met, echoing concerns voiced by the local boards about building heights and affordable housing. City Council now has until the end of April to accept or reject the proposal.
The plan seeks increased density for commercial and residential development in certain areas, and offers inclusionary housing bonuses for the development of “affordable housing.” Affordability is calculated based on citywide median incomes, however, and opponents warn that much of the housing will remain unaffordable for current Harlem residents.
Brenda Stokely, a panelist at the town hall gathering as well as a union activist and community organizer, said, “We ain’t against development. We’re against development for people who didn’t live here, didn’t suffer through the fires, didn’t suffer through the displacement and demolishing.”
She says she has already been priced out of Harlem but her mother is still hanging on. “They have people peering through her window, coming around in groups like we’re some kind of animals in the zoo, checking out what they want to take,” Stokely said.
The city maintains the rezoning will not result in residential displacement. DCP spokeswoman Racheale Raynoff pointed out that 92 percent of the occupied housing in the DCP study area is already under some form of rent protection. “What this rezoning is doing is protecting occupied housing,” not the reverse, Raynoff says. “It is preserving the very elements that we heard through the public engagement, through more than 170 meetings. It has many elements in place to preserve what is special about Harlem.”
Brad Lander, director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, said he is not surprised by the reception the plan has received. “There are two totally different points of view on what Harlem needs,” said Lander, an urban planner who has followed the debate. “If you don’t plan for growth in a way that preserves the cultural identity and the sense of place, and you don’t do a very good job of ensuring that the benefits of development be broadly shared by the people there, then you should expect backlash.”
Lander, however, does not think that change need be so divisive. “There are ways of planning for growth that creates what folks want and preserves what’s great about neighborhoods, that could bridge the gap between the city and community,” he said.
Today’s 125th Street zoning is largely left over from 1961, a mix of commercial zoning for medium-density residential and commercial development, as well as high-density mixed-use commercial areas. There are no height limits on developments.
The zoning change would implement a height limitation of between 160 and 290 feet in the highest density areas, and 70 feet at the low end. It would require businesses such as office buildings and hotels to place restaurant, retail and entertainment venues on the ground floor level of their buildings and also includes a requirement that 5 percent of any 60,000-square-foot building in the project “core” be reserved for arts and entertainment uses like galleries, bookstores, restaurants and clubs. There is also a bonus for nonprofit visual and performing arts institutions. Still, the environmental impact statement submitted as part of the proposal notes that as many as 71 businesses will be displaced.
But one of the arguments made to support at least some form of rezoning along the corridor is that if nothing is done, the lack of height restrictions, affordable housing and business protection in the current zoning will allow gentrification to continue unchecked.
At an April 1 hearing before the City Council’s subcommittee on zoning and franchises, City Councilwoman Inez Dickens said she would vote against the plan unless significant changes are made, but refused to walk away from negotiations. Councilmembers Robert Jackson and Melissa Mark Viverito – who represent west and east Harlem, respectively, while Dickens represents the center – have both said they will follow Dickens’ lead.
Raynoff said DCP is involved in “good faith discussions with Councilmember Dickens” and is optimistic they will reach an agreement.
“Overall I felt that the mayor’s rezoning plan favored the developers and did encourage overdevelopment,” Dickens said. “I said no. After long hours of discussion, they understand that I do mean no and if I do not get the protections and community benefits that my community must have, there will be no rezoning plan signed into law.”
She insisted, however, that “the current [zoning] law must be changed. It offers absolutely no protections for my Harlem.”
Monique Ndigo Washington, a poet and member of the Coalition to Save Harlem, however, fears that any rezoning based on the proposed model will speed up the process of gentrification already underway – threatening not only cultural institutions but also the political power the area has attained. “If the community changes then naturally the political leadership is going to change,” Washington said.
While the Coalition to Save Harlem simply wants the rezoning proposal rejected, Dr. James Davis Manning, pastor of the ATLAH World Ministry Church, is employing an economic strategy for reversing gentrification in Harlem. Manning started a group, “No Dew, Nor Rain,” that calls for a boycott of businesses and institutions from 110th Street to 155th Street, east to west, “river to river.” Manning’s controversial rationale is that hurting all businesses, including those owned by blacks, in the short term will, over the longer term, cause a de-gentrification that will return Harlem to its roots. Such a move would not bode well for business owners like Shange, owner of the Record Shack. Shange has, however, called for a boycott of the big-box chain stores on 125th Street. Despite the different approaches, critics all seems to agree on the long-term goal of staying put.
Mindy Fullilove, a professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia University, as well as a founder of The Root Shock Institute – which studies the displacement of populations – says displacement affects both individuals and groups, and when people are displaced numerous times the impact is magnified.
“Places are deeply important … for our psyche,” Fullilove says. Loss of home can result in disorientation, alienation and nostalgia, as well as the destruction of social networks, her research shows. If it happens numerous times, “each of the displacements comes on top of a weaker set of social relationships and a diminished set of resources.”
Displacement as the result of the 125th Street rezoning is still just a threat, not a reality. But Marwell, the Columbia sociologist, says that when it comes to land use, resistance is often more strategic than it appears.
“If something goes forward, it precludes anything else happening there,” she said. Opponents block disfavored uses “in hopes that they’re eventually going to be able to get the use that they actually want. They really are looking to turn land use toward their own advantage, which is frankly the same thing the other side is doing.”