I Know Harlem…

Why Uptown Gentrification Makes Sense to Me

Story by Lemuel Reddick. Photos by Mikhael Simmonds.

I live in Central Harlem between 7th and Lenox. My street is filled with newly renovated brownstones and people of all colors. According to the census, the percent of white residents has gone up 400 percent in the last decade. These days chain stores fight for space on our main strip, which looks like an urbanized Times Square. Nice restaurants like Red Rooster and The Cecil attract diners from below 110th Street. We’re even getting a Whole Foods soon.

I hear people complaining about gentrification all the time. But not me. I like this new Harlem.

It is a very different Central Harlem than when I was growing up in the nineties. Then it was home to decrepit and bordered up buildings, as was most of the community. Many corners had drug dealers, gangs, pimps and hookers working them. The late rapper Big L put it bluntly: “one three nine and Lenox is the danger zone.” His mural covers the side of the building on 140th and Lenox.

Back in the day, Harlem Hospital, a block away from where I live, was widely considered one of the worst hospitals in the city. It was unsanitary, the ER crowded with gunshot victims and drug addicts. There was no Dunkin Donuts on 136th street and Lenox, no International House of Pancakes at 7th Avenue and 135. In place of the IHOP was the abandoned, boarded-up shell of Small’s Paradise, a famous night club from the Harlem Renaissance. Popeye’s on 125th used to be a raggedy bodega that rarely had much food stocked on its shelves.

No big-name stores wanted to be on 125th Street, where Red Lobster, DSW, Marshalls, Staples, H&M, Banana Republic and other prominent stores do business. In the 90s it was home to abandoned buildings, crack addicts and drug dealers, and from the east side to the west side, the whole strip was vandalized with graffiti. Trash was strewn everywhere and street vendors occupied every block during the day. Housing projects like Drew Hamilton, Ulysses S. Grant and the Polo Grounds in Harlem were riddled with crime and violence daily and were never safe to be near.

When Mayor Rudy Giuliani took office in 1993, he aimed to “clean up the streets.” And he did. He cracked down on both major and minor offenses in Harlem, and the new millennium welcomed a significantly decreased crime rate. Many of the criminals that were controlling our community went to jail and a new era dawned on the neighborhood. As I got older, the once desolate buildings underwent new construction. They transformed from neglected properties to more upscale businesses and apartments and a new Harlem was beginning to take a new shape. The migration of white people uptown kept the trend going.

“What Harlem now means to me is that I’m not worried about being held up at gunpoint by a crackhead wanting his next fix or group of gangsters trying to rob and jump me.”

People complain that Harlem is no longer a Black Mecca and old-timers are getting pushed out. I don’t like that either. But what Harlem now means to me is that I’m not worried about being held up at gunpoint by a crackhead wanting his next fix or group of gangsters trying to rob and jump me. I can feel safe walking the streets whether day or night. That isn’t to say I don’t have to be careful coming home at night, but I feel much safer in doing so. I hated the old Harlem, the crime and dirty, drug-infested streets. White people have contributed to the construction of revamped properties, and I am okay with that. They want a better quality of living and even though the rent for the new apartment buildings comes with a heavy price tag, it makes the environment feel much cleaner and more secure.

Yes, Harlem still has its share of thugs and hoodlums. People still act crazy when it’s warm out but it’s nothing like the nineties where you could hear gun blasts all through the streets. That Harlem does not exist anymore. It’s different, but it’s a good thing. I welcome the prospect of the neighborhood only getting better. As time passes, people of all ethnicities who want a high quality of living will assist in that process, and I will be here to continue to witness Harlem’s growth.