Roots of Urban Renaissance

The untold story of Harlem’s gentrification and growth

City Terrain Development East Review Urbanism
The hidden story of Harlem's gentrification and growth. Seen here:
 125th St. in Harlem.
 (Courtesy [mementosis]/Flickr)
The hidden story of Harlem's gentrification and growth. Seen here: 125th St. in Harlem. (Courtesy [mementosis]/Flickr)

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
$39.95

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