Harlem Black Businesses & Residents Getting Pushed out? Time for Harlem to Gentrifiy-It-Yourself

by Gloria Dulan-Wilson

I wonder if Marva Allen knew that she was the part of a growing trend when she announced that she was closing HueMan Book Store back in July of this year?

Activist and author, Dorothy Pitman-Hughes certainly nailed it with her recently completed book, “I'm Just Saying, It Looks Like Ethnic Cleansing,” when she pointed out the concerted effort on the part of the so-called powers-that-be to thwart the development and ownership of Black businesses in Harlem; and the rising tide of gentrification.

Everybody knows that Harlem is the target of gentrification! That Black people are being systematically pushed out of the community by so-called high end developers. The passengers on the M102 Bus, the M7, the M101, the A-Train, the D-Train, the F-Train, and on the sidewalks of Harlem certainly nail it every day when they complain about how expensive apartments are; how they are being pushed out of their communities, how the mayor does not care; how New York City is being set up for the rich only.

Interesting, isn't it that everybody pretty much knows what's happening; nobody (at least Black people) likes what's happening, but so far no one has stepped up to do anything about it.

Isn't is interesting, as well, that the New York Daily News recently penned an article about the huge numbers of businesses being pushed out of Harlem due to inordinate rent increases. And, as if to validate that, Barbara Askins of Harlem's BID's, states that the rents, which have gone up from $50 to $75 per square foot, may possibly go up to $175 per square foot by the end of the year.

It's as if they are co-signing pushing Black businesses out of Harlem, as opposed to doing their job of helping them stay in business and stay in the community. Likewise, the penchant of Harlem residents to merely discuss and complain about the pushing out of businesses, as opposed to demanding that their elected officials do something to stem the tide of this latest onslaught, means they too are co-signing their own demise.

Absent any activism on the part of the residents; the lack of local leadership and the lack of cohesive, concerted efforts on the part of Harlemites (those who claim to love Harlem and continued to live there over the years), implies that they have pretty much accepted this demise as a self fulfilling prophecy.

When I met recently with an Harlem elected official about saving HueMan Books from closing, his response was that "it was not a non-profit organization, therefore they could do nothing." Really??? It's the first I've ever heard of that little edict. While other elected officials in other areas are actively working alongside their local businesses to keep them viable and in the community. Now, suddenly, in the Black community, our businesses have to be “non-profit” before they can help them. Perhaps they need to take a tour of Kingston Ave., in Brooklyn, or Williamsburg, or Eastern Parkway; or take a walk around the many areas where there are East Indian businesses thriving, and ask them about the involvement of their elected officials in their expansion. That insipid statement boggles the mind.

I hope I'm either scaring the be-jeebers out of you, HARLEM, or you feel guilty for not having taken a stand; or you're motivated to come together with your neighbors and friends to begin to stop the evisceration of Harlem before Black people become nothing more than a memorial plaque in the middle of 125th street, stating “this is where Black people used to live”, before it turned completely white.

It kind of obviates the myth of Harlem being the mecca for Black people, if the citizens of the Mecca themselves are doing nothing to keep it in tact and progress at the same time.

The August 1 edition of the Daily News listed several business that are currently closing, or have closed already in Harlem. There are probably many others that are flying low under the radar that we are also losing. But this the roll call thus far:

Executive Fashions
Photo/Optical Shop
Harlem Lanes (Bowling Alley)
Hue Man Book Stores
MoBay's Uptown Restaurants
Delancey Leather
Center Nails
Uptown Flava
McDonalds 215 W. 125
Dr. Jays
Eden Furniture Store
Olympic Tower
Christmas Store
King Party

Not mentioned in the article:
The Seville Lounge
Record Shack (Shikulu Sange)
St. Nicholas Pub (147th St.)
Lenox Lounge (under threat)

Look around and see how many of the original businesses remain in Harlem. Look across Harlem's main thoroughfare – i.e. 125th Street - and see how many Black owned businesses are there. How many are there remaining along Adam Clayton Powell, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, St.Nicholas, Madison, Fifth Avenues, Amsterdam Avenue, Broadway and see how many Black owned businesses are there.

Rather embarrassing when you think of how many there were. And if you take any notice of the recent primary election, where we nearly lost Congressman Rangel in a very close election, you might also want to think about what's happening overall with the Black residents of Harlem, who have likewise been forced to move out of the community, thus reducing the votes he would ordinarily have received.

It's more than just the fact that, as one realtor stated, “the businesses might not have paid the rent”, it's more like the rents are being jacked up so high, they can no longer afford to pay the exorbitant rates, do business and turn a decent profit. They are being deliberately forced out of business.

Now is the time for me to shout: WAKE UP HARLEM!! YOU ARE ABOUT TO BE DRIVEN INTO EXTINCTION!!! But what good would it do? You already know this.

When you have elected officials who have no compunction of giving half of your neighborhood to Columbia University for some sort of genetics lab, and you re-elect them anyway, it simply means that you either don't care, or you're ignorant, or you are not the Harlemites you claim to be.

When the so-called institutions that are set to preserve and expand your community are rendered powerless either through sell outs or attrition, it means you are either dead from the neck up, or you aren't the Harlemites you claim to be.

Other businesses – Chinese, East Indian, West Indian, African, Jews, Japanese, and communities, have gone above and beyond to maintain their cultural and community imperatives. They are not relying on the powers that be to do for them, what they have to do for themselves. They come here ready to roll up their sleeves and meet the challenges of making it in America. So far, however, it seems that African Americans in general, Harlemites in particular, have not the wherewithal to do the same.

As Malcolm X said, we appear to be prepared to “suffer peacefully”, we've been novacained into silence. While we're keeping up with the Kardashians, watching the Real Housewives of Atlanta and Jersey and the NBA, and so on, the real world around us is being stolen right out from under us.

As MoBay owner, Sherone Chin-Barnes stated, emphatically, “I don't understand what is going on with Black people. We tried to do everything possible to be of service to the community. But when it comes to supporting each other, 'we don't like we; we don't love we!'”

It's an old theme that's been bandied around for decades, Black people don't like each other; don't trust each other, don't work together. (again, per Sherone: "you cannot take a donkey and make it into a stallion," well, at least not without its' cooperation). Hence, we're easy pickings when it comes to being pushed around by the so-called powers that be. We are the ones who are least likely to come together and put a stop to gentrification. We talk about it, we complain about it, but we do nothing to stop it.

In fact, one owner who has recently closed their doors, was afraid to make a statement to the effect that they were a victim of gentrification for fear that it might alienate some of her funders. Mores the pity. It might have made a critical difference in bringing to bear the assistance that would have helped them maintain their company.

Where is our Blackbone Harlem? Where is the Blackbone for people in general. It's, of course, not just Harlem that's being bulldozed into oblivion, it's happening other Black communities across the US.

Unlike Sylvia's Queen of Soulfood Restaurant, a mainstay in Harlem for more than 50 years now, where Sylvia (and the Woods family) actually owns the building in which her world famous venue is housed, most businesses are the victims of bad advice. In their penchant to cut a deal, they opt for a 10 year lease instead of negotiating for 20 years. When, to their amazement, they actually succeed and build up a successful business in Harlem, the 10 years is up, and it's time to renew their lease, they are hammered with increases that effectively cannabilize their profits, thus forcing them to close their doors because they cannot sustain the lease and the business at the same time. Some how or other it never occurs to them to bring in a co-venture to allay some of the expenses, and keep the business going. Nor doe it occur to them that they probably should have bought the building a long time ago, rather than to have continued to lease. Somehow or other in Manhattan, at least, Blacks don't seem to think they are supposed to own anything. What's up with that?

It appears that most businesses only last as long as their lease agreements, which are usually 10 years in length. It starts out reasonably enough, and the business owner usually does quite well during that period. However, the renewal of the lease becomes such a jolt, usually increasing between 30 to 40%. While the business do quite well at the initial agreed upon lease, when the amount suddenly jumps to between $30,000 and $70,000 per month – IN HARLEM!!! - it is clear that they are being gouged out of the community. The rates are not rates that most Black businesses can afford.

The Empowerment Zone, the BID, the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, Assembly representatives, City Council reps, community based organizations, even our Congressional representatives, are only as effective as we require them to be. Even the mayor has to step off if we really put our feet down, collectively.

So it's time for a major paradigm shift; and it has to start with us. We have to claim our community for ourselves. We have to stop paying others to do our doing for us. We really do have the financial wherewithal to own Harlem. That was proven by Kermit Eady when the Black United Fund was able to raise money through automated payroll deductions, and renovate over 400 units in the community, while others were making excuses, or ignoring us altogether.

Therefore what I propose is the first ever Gentrify It Yourself Program for Harlem, where we gentrify our own communities, rather than letting outsiders come in and do the improvements, push us out and reap the benefits.

We can do as good a job as the outsiders in upgrading our communities – actually better! This is the 21st Century. We're not just off the plantation any more. We are educated. We have computers and the internet. By now we should have enough creativity, skill, savvy and vision to take those areas that have become run down, and using a combination of consolidated funds and investments, grants, skills, and on the job training - where we train and hire our own BLACK out of work residents and youth, transform our community into a neighborhood reflective of our heritage, culture and – yes – sophistication.

Like the Jews, East Indians and other cultures, only hire contractors and architects who look like you. But tie their feet to the fire in terms of quality work. The ousted businesses can form tenancies in common, co-purchase abandoned properties and develop a design concept that makes it possible for a restaurant to co-exist with a nail salon, and a men's haberdashery – or something like that. We can start new corridors of profitability, so that 125th street or Malcolm X Blvd are not the only areas thriving with new businesses.

Take a walk along Canal Street, and you find countless numbers of Chinese merchants who share spaces with each other, so that each business is interdependent. You have jewelry next to purses, next to suitcases, next to electronics – and they probably don't pay more than $1000.00 per month each for their share of space

It's time to think outside the coffin (er, uh, box) Harlem (and Brooklyn, Oklahoma, Kansas, California, DC) – before you're gentrified and eminent domained off the planet.

It's time to GENTRIFY OUR OWN COMMUNITIES. We need to come up with our own “Do-It-Yourself Gentrification” protocol. Businesses can co-venture in purchasing vacant buildings, so the burden of expenses are shared across the board; with each business taking a floor, or a “stall”, and cooperate in the renovation of the properties to suit the needs of their businesses. (Ooops! I said the “s” word. I know that one of our biggest issues is “sharing”. That has to be a latter day mental illness for Black people. We certainly could not have made it Black in the Day without Sharing; but somehow, it's fallen out of favor. Well, time to pick that quality back up, dust it off, and begin using it again.)

We need to look at our dilapidated communities with the same critical eye an investor would, when deciding what to do to “upgrade” the neighborhood, and do the upgrades ourselves; but instead of pushing the people out, let's enlist their assistance, and have their sweat equity become part of their remaining in their improved homes.

If you as a business owner can afford to pay $6,000 to $10,000 per month to lease a property; you and other business owners can take those same funds and use it to service a mortgage on a property you co-own as tenancies in common. You then can co-manage the property or hire your own (BLACK) property manager to run it while you run your business.

Do the math: If you're paying $6,000 per month lease for a space:
$6,000 x 12 = 72,000 per annum x 10 years or 120 months = $720,000 x 6 (businesses) = $4,320,000 which is actually three + times the cost of a mortgage to purchase a building in Harlem. So for a third of that amount $1,440,000 – using the tenancy in common principle, Black businesses can purchase and operate in their own buildings, rather than paying out to an entity that will kick them out in 10 years. (and please don't let the realtors tell you that with a tenancy in common people can cross your property without your permission. There are legal docs drawn up to detail those rights – it's another smoke screen used to keep us misinformed and uninformed, and ignorant. Wake up and smell the sulphur, folks!)

A practical example of this paradigm shift would be as follows: a restaurant, nail salon, clothing store, boutique could co-venture in the purchase of a property. Likewise a hardware store could co venture with a furniture store and decorators salon. These are being done in other communities with great success.

In reference to the residential side of the gentrification coin, Black New Yorkers need to stop paying rent to these rapacious landlords and parlay those funds together to co-purchase buildings before they're all gone. And, quiet as it's kept, there are several in Harlem that have not sold, that are sitting vacant and abandoned, while the whites are waiting for someone else -white – to come into your Black community and buy it.

There is a New York State Law entitled Project Reclaim that makes it illegal for properties to sit abandoned in the communities, while the owners who have failed to sell leisurely take their time about the disposition of these properties. The problem with the law is that no one is making our elected officials enforce it. It was introduced into the New York State Assembly by then assembly member Hakeem Jeffries, and was passed while David Paterson was still governor. Now we need to make them put some teeth into it.

Take a visit to a community in DC, called the Adams-Morgan area, where Brownstones have been converted into mixed use properties – with commercial businesses on the ground floor and basement level, and residential living on the upper level. The street is well kept, the area is popular, the people are thriving, and the neighborhood is intact. It reflects the culture and ingenuity of the people who reside there. Can we do any less? Obviously we can, or the gentrifiers would not be pushing us out. Do we need to do more? Absolutely!

Like Walt Disney, we need to look at blight as an opportunity to do something new, different, and spectacular, but this time we are doing it together and for ourselves. (sorry if you don't like the Disney example – but anytime a man can take a line drawing, make it walk, talk, color it, and build an entire empire from it in areas other people would never have ever considered, to me he is a genius, and someone to learn from. Are there other geniuses? Of course: Marcus Garvey springs to mind; but Disney is more graphic).

We can set up special on-the-job training program so that the contractors, architects, laborers, and occupants are 100% African American, the way our latino brothers and sisters have done in the Washington Heights area.

We have to stop talking about why we can't do it, and start putting together the means by which it is done. And, it's not always just about the money. Sometimes it's about the heart, the spirit. Where is our vision?

We can enlist our churches, our educational centers, our locally based organizations, and the community itself to get together on this Do Your Own Gentrification project. From the inside out, not the outside in.

And if the so-called representatives we currently have are not on board with this, it's then time to get representatives who are, who will stand up for Harlem in the City Council, who are not bribable, and who will go down with us rather than roll over on us to curry favor from others. We need the get our Blackbone back. The Blackbone that made Harlem famous and viable in the first place.

Let's put together Block to Block contests for Harlemites to participate in for improving their community for themselves. Let's find the realtors who are not just out to make a fast buck on a commission, who will give us the inside scoop on the properties that are available for co-venture, so that we are no longer on the late show.

Someone commented recently that New York is just about the money. That's only partially true. There would be absolutely no money without the New Yorkers who live here. The lifestyles of the rich and ridiculous may play well on TV, but as the economic downturn of 2008 has proven, chances go round all over the place. And the ones who remain are those with heart. That's us - Harlem! So don't let them have another chance to subjugate you to marginal living.

We, who have survived hundreds of years of oppression and marginalization can no longer afford to be on the tail end of the situation. We have to begin to head up our own self-salvation – from our communities, to our schools, to our investments and institutions. It's now or forget about it!

So instead of the Farewell to Harlem epitaph, let's come up with a re-imagined Harlem that we Gentrified ourselves, from our own vision, sweat equity, investments, and actions.

We can do it! The question is, will we?

(PS: FYI: My credentials: In addition to being a blogger, I am also a realtor, appraiser, notary public, former executive director of an affordable housing program in Brooklyn, and former Housing Coordinator for the City of Jersey City - these are not just opinions, they are based on research and experience.)

Stay Blessed &
Gloria Dulan-Wilson

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