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Harlem Gentrification Case Study

After studying rent increases in New York City, NYU’s Furman Center has released a report that labels 15 neighborhoods as “gentrifying” — out of 55 total.

In this case, gentrification is defined as areas that were relatively low income in the 1990s, but since have experienced high rent growth.

“The term ‘gentrification’ is often used to describe a number of different aspects of neighborhood change. We wanted to create a definition that allowed us focus on dramatic rent growth, which is the change that is of greatest concern in lower-income neighborhoods,” Ingrid Gould Ellen, faculty director of the NYU Furman Center, said in a press release.

While rents have increased across New York City, according to the Furman Center, the rise has particularly burdened low- and moderate-income households in all neighborhoods, with “the share of recently available rental units affordable to low-income households declin[ing] sharply in gentrifying neighborhoods between 2000 and 2010-2014.”

In the 15 neighborhoods classified as gentrifying, between 2000 and 2014 (for the end of the period of study, the report draws on data from the American Community Survey 2010-2014), average rents increased by 30 percent. Topping the list, the Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighborhoods saw average rent increase by 78.7 percent between 1990 and 2014, compared to 22.1 percent in the city as a whole.

Even the nine neighborhoods identified in the report as non-gentrifying — low income in 1990 and low income now — saw a 16.1 percent average rent increase between 2000 and 2014, having experienced a drop in average rents in the 1990s. Neighborhoods across the city saw an increase in the number of households that are rent burdened, with non-gentrifying neighborhoods bearing the brunt.

Incomes in the 15 gentrifying neighborhoods identified in the report — including Central Harlem, the Lower East Side, Astoria and Sunset Park — also went up, while incomes in the remainder of the city’s neighborhoods largely did not. Between 1990 and 2014 average household income in the gentrifying neighborhoods rose by about 14 percent, compared to an 8 percent decline in non-gentrifying neighborhoods like East New York and Coney Island, and steady incomes in higher-income areas like the Upper West Site and Fort Greene.

The gentrifying neighborhoods are defined not only by their starker rent increases, but also by their demographic shifts. They’ve seen greater growth than non-gentrifying areas in their share of residents who are young adults, college-educated, and living alone or with roommates. While the rest of New York has seen a decline in the percentage of the population that is white, the gentrifying neighborhoods saw an increase.

”As demand grows and neighborhoods become more economically and racially integrated, longtime residents may benefit from new neighborhood amenities, reduced crime rates and higher housing values,” said Ellen in a statement. “However, rising rents threaten the long-run diversity of these communities.”

Despite accounting for only 26 percent of the city’s population, the gentrifying neighborhoods also absorbed one-third of all housing units added in New York City from 2000 to 2010. But increased stock didn’t contribute to affordability: The share of recently available rental units affordable for low-income households declined sharply in gentrifying neighborhoods between 2000 and 2014.

The 15 neighborhoods identified as gentrifying today are the same ones bled of their populations during a mass exodus of NYC residents between 1970 and 1980. Over 800,000 people left that decade, with nearly 80 percent departing from the low-income neighborhoods that would later gentrify. Those neighborhoods also lost over 128,000 units of housing during the 1970s and 1980s. Higher-income neighborhoods regained their 1970 population levels by 1990; non-gentrifying neighborhoods did so by 2000. But in 2010, the population in gentrifying neighborhoods was still 15.8 percent lower than it was in 1970.

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Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.

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Architecture should never be excused from conversations on gentrification, but building design often takes a back seat when we consider the various forces behind neighborhood change. Ultimately gentrification engages so many issues—of city planning and policy, of income and racial inequality, of housing discrimination—that it’s impossible to tackle one without bringing in the others. Through this lens, architecture becomes part of a much larger conversation about our cities, and also a powerful tool in efforts to make rapidly changing neighborhoods more equitable.

A gentrification story that lends itself easily to study and dissection can be found in Harlem, an Upper Manhattan enclave that emerged as the best-known African American neighborhood in America following the Great Migration of the early 1900s. One hundred years later, the neighborhood—still a stronghold for New York’s African American community—is also home to multimillion dollar townhouses, big-box retail, a soon-to-open Whole Foods, and a dramatic uptick in white residents. What happened? The latest author to tackle the subject is Brian D. Goldstein, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of New Mexico. His book, The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle over Harlem, takes a multipronged approach to tackling that loaded question.

Astor Row in Harlem. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

In his book, Goldstein explains how Harlem became a sort of testing ground for government-backed redevelopment throughout the 20th century—an often-hostile effort that sowed the seeds for more grassroots, community-led development. This push and pull between the government’s ambitions and community-based organizations persisted through the decades before the neighborhood essentially become a case study for “New York City Gentrification 101.” But the most fascinating question posed again and again by Harlem residents, and echoed throughout Goldstein’s book, is what the streets of Harlem should look like, who should design them, and who gets to inhabit them.

It would be a disservice to the book to boil down the many factors at play between Harlemites and the city government to decide that fate of the neighborhood. Goldstein makes the argument that Harlem’s recent wave of gentrification is a result of effective community-led developers who brought new mixed-income housing, supermarkets, and shopping malls to the neighborhood—which in turn brought a growing middle-class, and then upper-class, population. His point, essentially, is to debunk the idea that the gentrification of Harlem was solely imposed by outside developers and investors.

Harlem Commonwealth Council Local Development Group Corp. flyer. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Goldstein makes a convincing argument to prove this—he traces the strength of these community organizations to ARCH, a radically innovative community developer founded in the mid-1960s, then details the proliferation of community development corporations (CDCs) in the following decades. It’s worth noting, however, that if these organizations are to be “blamed” for the gentrification of Harlem, they were founded in response to a city government with Robert Moses–like tendencies to bulldoze communities and replace them with “towers in the sky,” or to ignore the needs of the neighborhood altogether. Harlem always has been a radical neighborhood in that it has flourished even as the city government treated it with disregard—and it has hardly lost that energy today.

Goldstein, an architecture professor, is sure to point out cases of innovative and notable architecture and architectural practices, of which there are many. Not all are considered successes. In 1966, when the city opened Intermediate School 201, designed as a “showcase” for modernist architecture and curricular innovations, parents protested. As Goldstein explains, “Initially, the city had touted the intermediate schools as models of racial integration, but little in the initial planning of I.S. 201 in the early 1960s suggested that administrators were pursuing that objective with conviction.” The same year, at a vacant lot known as Reclamation Site #1, a proposal for a modernist state-office-building complex designed by the African American–led firm Ifill Johnson and Hanchard caused controversy. Local activists considered the block-long project a threat to Harlem’s identity, as well as their aspirations for community control—a flyer released in 1969 asked, “What’s to be built on Reclamation Site #1? Something for black people or a state office building for white people?” Both projects illustrate that architecture in Harlem has often gone beyond simple building design—the process has long engaged questions of race, inclusion, and community needs.

So it’s a welcome history lesson that the book highlights the work of J. Max Bond Jr., an architect and the first African American director of ARCH, who pushed forward a vision “of an alternative urban future centered on [Harlem residents’] daily lives.” Bond celebrated the “black aesthetic” in architecture, integrating the language of Black Power into ARCH’s work. It’s around this time that the concept of “activist architects and planners” took hold—professionals and amateurs who saw their work as deeply integrated with radical forms of participatory democracy. In that vein, Bond established a program in 1968 to help bring African American and Latino talent into the hardly diverse world of architecture.

The strength of ARCH highlights how things shift when community-centered organizations have agency over neighborhood development. Goldstein puts it this way: “[The] concern was with representation, with the resonance between those who made decisions about the shape of New York and those impacted by such decisions.… [It] was the idea that a designer’s race or ethnicity mattered, that people of color—whether professionals or amateur activists—were particularly attuned to the needs of neighborhoods like Harlem, and that they could thus uniquely plan their future.”

But as anyone familiar with the world of New York real estate knows, much development with public interest is the result of a number of compromises. Harlem’s community development corporations, for example, were still highly reliant on outside partners and city funds, often threatening activists’ dreams of local self-determination. With ample public funding, some CDCs were able to spur large-scale, profit-oriented projects along 125th Street, Harlem’s main drag, but the projects lacked the community engagement once prioritized. The arrival of these new projects also coincided with a rush of newcomers to New York, who pushed gentrification to its limit not only uptown but in Brooklyn and Queens.

But the practice of architecture and planning engaged with matters of race, equality, and empowerment persisted, and even offered a blueprint to other African American neighborhoods like West Oakland in California and Bronzeville in Chicago. In the conclusion of the book, Goldstein recounts a 2001 event in which J. Max Bond Jr., no longer with ARCH, asked, “In what image will Harlem be re-created?” It’s a question New Yorkers will never stop asking of their neighborhoods. But Goldstein illustrates well how Harlemites not only asked, but thoroughly engaged. Although the results were mixed, it’s impossible to deny how the neighborhood was radically shaped by the opinions, persistence, and ingenuity of the people who actually lived there.

The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle over Harlem
Brian D. Goldstein, Harvard University Press

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