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Health, Sports & Psychology

Harlem

Updated Thursday 5th June 2008

Harlem is transforming. The 'capital of black America' has made it through the cultural ferment of the 1960s, the disinvestment and urban decay of the 1970s, the rampant crime and crack house era of the eighties - only to find that its greatest threat could be the investment now pouring in to New York's famous black neighbourhood.

Enraged in Harlem: No Dew, Nor Rain protests Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

Harlem is finally gentrifying: The brownstone apartment houses that line Marcus Garvey Park are being gutted, re-fitted and sold for upwards of $3 million – even during the Credit Crunch; Columbia University has hired the architect of the Pompidou Centre, Renzo Piano and has plans to spend an astonishing $7 billion to expand its campus there; and 125th Street, which used to be a no go area for whites, now holds the offices of the Bill Clinton, former President of the United States.

But what of the Harlem's long term residents? For years they had to put up with rampant crime, burnt out buildings, rubbish strewn streets and very limited services – with rising rents, can they afford to live in the new Harlem? 'Fusion' restaurants, delicatessens, wine bars and smart coffee shops have moved onto 125th Street – along with the white and black professionals who use them. Starbucks café tables now line the street corner where Malcolm X used to preach.

Is the very culture of Harlem – radical centre of politics, music and religion now under threat?

In a special edition of Thinking Allowed produced in association with the Open University, Laurie Taylor travels to Harlem to explore the changes.

He meets outspoken minister Reverend James Manning, who has organised a black boycott of Harlem businesses to try and halt the area's economic revival - the No Dew Nor Rain campaign. Laurie also speaks to sociologist Lance Freeman who thinks gentrification is the key to Harlem's salvation - and the only way to revive inner cities. Finally, Laurie hears from historian Michael Henry Adams, and his claims that the wholesale rebuilding of the area amounts to a process of ethnic cleansing, one which will drive the black people out of Harlem.

Laurie Taylor in Harlem Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Laurie's thoughts on Harlem

"I first began to dream of Harlem nearly forty years ago when I used to play and replay the Johnny Hodges version of that beautiful wistful Duke Ellington tune Drop me off in Harlem. But although I knew all about the wonderful exciting artistic Harlem of the 20s and 30s which made the invitation in that tune title so apposite, I'd never actually walked the streets of the place until I went to New York to make this edition of Thinking Allowed.

"I found I had very mixed feelings as I walked down Malcom X Boulevard in the heart of Harlem for the very first time. It was wonderful to see some of the legendary places, like the Apollo Theatre and the Lennox Lounge, but not so good to see that they were now sights to be pointed out to tourists on double decker buses.

"And although it was also good to learn that the area was no longer plagued by drugs and crime I was soon told by the locals that there was another new threat on the horizon. The beautiful brownstone houses which lined so many of its avenues were being bought up by outsiders. Starbucks had moved in. Harlem, which had once been the vital exuberant artistic black Mecca of the world, was being taken over by outsiders, by the bourgeois.

A cultural tragedy? An inevitable process of change? There was an almost unanimous feeling that something of Harlem was being lost for ever, but the truth, as I found, was somewhat more complicated.

Take it further

Read more about gentrification and the history of Harlem

Really get under the skin of urban living: Study Understanding Cities with the Open University

Listen again

Listen to the Harlem programme

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