November 29, 2012
The purpose of this paper is to explore a retrospective and introspective view of Central Harlem by some of its most respected leaders. From its historic past to its present gentrification, this paper explores social systems within the conceptual frameworks of its geographical and non-geographical context, human ecology, structural and conflict theories. Interviewed are Rev. Dr. Al Sharpton of The National Action Network, Ms. Inez Dickens, councilwoman for District 9, Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Grandson of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad and Director of the Schomburg Library as well as 5 resident old-timers who frequent Showman’s Lounge. As a result of these interviews, the consensus is that the process of gentrification has largely affected the community.
There are two definitions for communities: 1) geographic vicinities and 2) as a number of people who have common ideas, interests, and loyalties with one another (Kirst-Ashman, 2011, p. 266). For the purpose of this paper, an in depth look at both definitions will be analyzed in terms of their applications to the boundaries of Central Harlem, the members who have lived within these boundaries for decades and those who are currently being displaced because of a change in the composition of the community.
Historic Central Harlem
The village of Central Harlem is geographically defined as bordered by the Harlem River on the north, 5th Avenue to the Harlem River Drive on the east, Central Park on the south, and Morningside Park to Edgecombe Avenue on the west (New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, 2011). “Originally settled by Dutch farmers as Nieuw Haarlem, the Manhattan street system, planned in 1811, has altered Harlem’s appearance from a valley of farmland to a residential area. In stages, Harlem’s hills were leveled; streams were filled; and transportation was improved. Urbanization began with the building of the Croton Water Aqueduct in 1842 down present-day Amsterdam Avenue and the IRT (Inter-borough Rapid
Transit) subway line was built in 1904. Throughout the 1900s various ethnic groups migrated to different sections of Harlem, giving more definition to East, West, and Central Harlem.” (NYC Teaching Fellows, 2011) Ultimately, Harlem was transformed through a vast perspective of commonality of ideas and interests among African Americans, who migrated to New York after World War I. The post-world war Harlem, of the 1920’s, was a decade of rebirth during a time known as the Harlem Renaissance; for the first time Black writers, intellectuals, artists, and musicians won renowned fame for their contributions to world culture. However, their definitive goal was to find outlets for group expression and self-determination as a means of achieving equality and civil rights. (NYC Teaching Fellows, 2011) Unfortunately, entropy in the community began during 1929, with the crash of the stock market, the Harlem Renaissance began to fade and the depression deeply penetrated the community. The first American race riot was sparked in 1935 in Central Harlem and was a community-wide response to racial discrimination in jobs, education and in hospital staffing, as well as citizens’ complaints against police. The answer by the Federal government was a period of investment led by the first public housing development in the country paid for with Federal funds. Subsequently, the impact of “the projects”, and what was intended to be urban renewal, stifled the Central Harlem community socially and economically. This form of housing also “…contributed to the growing isolation of an immobile and impoverished “underclass” which lacked the skills and support services to adapt and prosper in New York's changing postwar economy.” (Center for urban research) Entropy was prevalent and the community as a systemic process was in disarray.