Story: Harlem Sees Slow Changes in Long-Term Rezoning Plans


By Genevieve Long Belmaker and Tara MacIsaac. This story was first published in The Epoch Times and The Daily Casserole with funding support from the Spot.Us community.

NEW YORK—Some call it revitalization, while others call it gentrification, opportunity, or inevitable change. Whatever the label, it’s happening in the heart of Harlem.

The city began working with committees and community representatives in 2003 to develop a rezoning plan for Harlem’s historic 125th Street, the district’s main street that girdles Manhattan from the Hudson River to the East River. Five years and over 200 meetings later, City Council approved the Harlem rezoning plan in April 2008.

The vision for changing Harlem is long-term, according to the City Planning Commission. It includes zoning for commercial mixed-use to promote the growth of restaurants, shops, and arts and culture venues.

Fast forward to 2010, the economic recession has become a huge speed bump on the road to making the city's vision for Harlem a reality.

Of all the proposed developments for Harlem, one successful venture is the information center on 125th Street inside The Studio Museum Harlem. Colorful fliers near the entrance advertise the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market, Harlem on Sunday (think Gospel music), Food and Cultural Tours, and the Smoke Jazz and Supper Club.

The fliers make Harlem seem like a thriving tourist hub of cultural activity and sightseeing opportunities. But walk down 125th Street, and the area looks largely the same as it did in 2008 when City Council voted to pass the rezoning plans.

Supporters from the arts community say that rezoning plans have not gone like clockwork, but it hasn't been a total loss.

“The rezoning in many instances has had many benefits,” said Voza Rivers, chairman of the Harlem Arts Alliance. Rivers feels rezoning has opened the door to promote indigenous culture in Harlem, but things have gone backward in terms of funding.

“How are these [arts and cultural] organizations going to exist to take advantage of these opportunities?” asked Rivers. He fears that spaces opened up to the arts may get filled by the highest bidder.

The vitality of Harlem is still rooted in the daily lives of long-time residents and small business owners. The anticipated influx of new development and tourist attractions isn’t there, despite the new zoning that makes it more feasible. What’s most obvious is what hasn’t changed. The long-vacant Mart 125 and Victoria Theater remain empty and ramshackle.

Street vendors line the core of Harlem from St. Nicholas Avenue to Park Avenue, selling incense, essential oils, and Caribbean and Gospel music. Small storefront shops hawk their goods on the sidewalk with loud voices and product displays. Ladies chatter to the hairdressers through a beauty salon window while their hair is braided or weaved.

The understated signs of transition to a revitalized—or gentrified, depending on who you ask—Harlem are hard to spot, but do exist. Almost every corner has a bank, like the one next to the Popeye's chicken restaurant. A man in a suit walks out of Starbucks with his coffee cup in one hand and a briefcase in the other.

The subtle changes that have already crept in have local residents worried.

“People around here are used to 50-cent coffee,” said Mr. Von, who was born in Harlem and has lived there his whole life. “They can’t afford $4 for the cheapest coffee in Starbucks.”

Mr. Von is worried that a lot of the local businesses will close up as more retail stores like Starbucks move in. At least one business owner has already been impacted.

Mr. Sikulu Shange owned and operated the Record Shack for 30 years on 125th Street near Frederick Douglass Boulevard. The store had a 40-year history as a local institution before he took it over. He now has a wall of CDs inside a jewelry shop a couple blocks from his old location.

“I was one of the victims of rezoning. I had a small store in a very lucrative space,” said Shange. “I only have a wall now. The secret of selling music is for people to see it. You have to line it up and display it.” He speculates that his role as a vocal opponent to the rezoning may have hurt his attempts to maintain his territory in the changing space of Harlem’s core.

In the 1970s, 30 percent of Harlem was city-owned, according to a City Planning Commission official involved in the rezoning, who asked not to be named. As developers buy land in the area, they also buy clout. “Brokers are leery to take me in because I put up resistance,” said Shange.

Shange specializes in blues, jazz and gospel—genres integral to Harlem’s culture. Though one can find this music elsewhere in the city, Shange argues you can only find the mainstream hits in other stores. People used to come to his store from New Jersey, Connecticut and even Pennsylvania to find a comprehensive selection of gospel tracks.

Success stories are found alongside the woeful tales of displacemet. Financial assistance and loan forgiveness programs were created to help small businesses in the area relocate to 125th Street.

Lynnette Velasco, special assistant to Harlem Council Member Inez Dickens, points to Watkins Health Foods as an example of a local business experiencing success after rezoning.

Watkins Health Foods was established at 55 W. 125th Street in 1951. It has moved to 45 W. 125th Street after rezoning, but has also been able to open up a second, larger location on 116th Street through government assistance, explained Velasco.

Velasco insists that property owners and lower-income people are not and will not get pushed out of the area.

“If you bought this property you own it,” said Velasco. “We can advocate. We try to frame change so that it does not hurt poor people, so that it creates jobs. I can’t sit here and promise that a, b, or c will happen. We’re going to work on behalf of disenfranchised people.”

As developers have started to build, the funds to fill those buildings with cultural shows, entrepreneurs, and other tenants have nearly dried up, and many of the buildings remain half-built or vacant.

“A lot of the tenants they thought were coming, aren’t coming,” explained the anonymous city planning official.

Opponents of the rezoning agree.

“It’s like a football stadium without the team,” said Craig Schley, congressional candidate for the city's 19th District and former president of Voices of The Everyday People (VOTE People), a group that fervently battled the rezoning.

The arts community that the rezoning purported to help is a prime example of tenants slated for occupancy of developments in the area. The rezoning plan includes a stipulation that buildings of a certain size must include arts and entertainment facilities. An arts bonus was also established, the first of its kind in the city. The combined force of these edicts in the rezoning plan are projected to create 80,000 square feet of new non-profit visual arts performance space, according to the City Planning Commission.

Long-vacant lots like the Mart 125 and the Victoria Theater were supposed to be filled with the sights and sounds of the jazz, Caribbean and African cultures that once thrived in the area, but that hasn’t happened.

“Certain funds have already been raised for these projects, but the market is the worry now,” said Voza Rivers, chair of the Harlem Arts Alliance and co-director of Dwyer Cultural Center. “State, city and federal funds have been cut and unfortunately, the arts are always a little lower on the priorities.”

The short-term loans the groups had taken out at banks against the grant money leaves them “on very fragile ground” according to Rivers.

Others who are closely tied to the community agree.

“Frankly, the white folk have a recession, we have a depression,” said Howard Dodson, Chief Historian at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The HAA presented Dodson with an Arts Cultural Leadership award during the arts advocacy week in Harlem in early October.

Dodson argues that any real renaissance in Harlem will come from the inside.

“Harlem is inextricably linked to the African and African Diaspora experience,” he said. “Others may come and go. Others may be present here. But Harlem has been established as a place where African and African Diaspora people live, create, celebrate our centuries-long, our millennium-long history and heritage.”

Indigenous residents now share the space with a different demographic moving up from an overcrowded midtown Manhattan. Though many local residents feel they are being pushed out, the city claims rent-protection and inclusion zoning protect the lower-income population from displacement.

Inclusion zoning offers funding to developers willing to make 20 percent of their units accessible to lower income residents. According to the City Planning Commission, 92 percent of the buildings in the area are rent-controlled.

In spite of such measures and the city’s claim to be working with the community on shaping the future of the area, many local residents continue to feel marginalized.

Timothy Stockton, a long-term resident and employee at the Studio Museum on 125th Street recounted seeing a young black man on the street corner yelling, “Don’t sell Harlem to white people!”

“The only color of Harlem now is green. It’s whoever has the money,” said Stockton.


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