Coming Up Harlem

A revival of the fabled New York community inspires pride and controversy

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The 1920s renaissance was notable for jazz and literature, but it also embraced a newly formed black professional class of doctors, lawyers and architects. Nonetheless, opportunities remained limited for African-Americans in Harlem ; a double standard prevailed, with black laborers and entertainers generally working for whites. The Apollo Theater, which opened as a burlesque house in 1913, had white-only audiences until 1934. The Cotton Club, another legendary musical venue, displayed murals of a plantation with slave quarters. “I suppose the idea was to make whites who came to the club feel like they were being catered to and entertained by black slaves,” wrote bandleader Cab Calloway. William Allen, a fourth-generation Harlemite and a community activist, says blacks in the 1920s were performers, not customers. “They were not the owners of real estate,” he says. “It was like a Broadway production where the actors had no equity.”


Nor did Harlemites have much choice in employment, often having to settle for menial labor in the neighborhood’s many white-owned stores. That disparity changed somewhat after Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.’s boycotts in the 1930s, conducted under the banner “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work.”


Gerrymandering prevented Harlem from getting black Congressional representation until 1944, when Powell was elected to the first of 12 terms in the newly configured district—a career marred in the end by allegations of misused campaign funds and a reprimand by House leaders that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled was unconstitutional. He was defeated in 1970 by Charles Rangel, Jr., a Harlem native, who is now serving his 16th term. “My grandfather was lucky,” says Rangel. “He was able to get   a civil service job as an elevator operator at the criminal court building. Like a lot of other guys my age, I got the hell out of Harlem by joining the Army.”


As a congressman, Rangel pushed for the creation of “empowerment zones” in battered urban areas, with federal funding and tax credits to fill the vacuum created by the absence of private lenders. In 1992, Bill Clinton signed empowerment legislation, which, matched with city and state funds, provided some $300 million in investment capital in Harlem. The money has percolated into commercial, educational and cultural projects. Rangel was also behind Clinton’s move to 125th Street, in July 2001. “I’d suggested Harlem to him while he was still president,” says Rangel, “but it seemed to go right over his head. Later, when he was catching hell for the expensive office space he took on West 57th Street, he called me to ask if Harlem was an option. I said, ‘Does the sun shine?’ He called on a Thursday. On Monday morning, I took his people to see the top floor at 55 West 125th Street. The owner kept saying there was one little problem, which was that a city agency had already leased the space.” Rangel and Rudolph Giuliani made the problem go away.


Clinton arrived at a time of rising disquiet among old-line Harlem businesses, which faced rising rents and new competition. “One thing that bothered me about my coming here was that it was likely to increase upward pressure on rents,” Clinton told me as we rode though Harlem in an SUV with his secret service detail. But Clinton’s consulting program for small businesses aims to boost their revenues and offset the increased costs that often accompany a hot market. “These businesses had low rents, but low revenues too,” he said. “They have to update how they operate or they might not survive. If this pilot program has the results I expect, then we’ll expand it all over New York and elsewhere in the country.”


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