“People like us have always been in Harlem,” says her husband. “We never worried about the ups and downs.”
Arthur Mitchell, founder of Dance Theater of Harlem, makes a similar point about the continuity of Harlem’s cultural institutions as we watch a pair of implausibly limber young dancers work out at the group’s studio on West 152nd Street. “Boys Choir of Harlem, Jazzmobile, National Black Theater, Studio Museum in Harlem, Apollo Theater, the Schomburg Center— they’ve all been here for 30 years or more,” Mitchell says. “And I founded DTH in 1968. I was born in the community, and I’m bringing it home.”
Still, few Harlemites doubt that the community has changed in the past decade. The city encouraged the improvement when it began transferring some of the Harlem properties it possessed to developers, often for as little as $1, and financing renovations. One shining example is West 140th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. As recently as 1994, it had been described as the worst block in Harlem by the Daily News; of 36 tenements, 8 had been abandoned to drug dealers and most of the others were eyesores. “I was reluctant to peep my head onto that block,” says Ibo Balton, director of Manhattan planning for the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
But the block responded quickly to an infusion of $33 million in city reconstruction funds. Today, it’s pleasant. The buildings’ fire escapes are painted aquamarine. The sidewalks are clean and lined with trees.
As in other urban neighborhoods, crime is still a problem, but, as elsewhere, Harlem’s rate of crime has dropped. In south Harlem’s 28th precinct, the murder rate fell by 80 percent over the past eight years, rape by 54 percent and burglary by 84 percent. In central Harlem’s 32nd precinct, murders numbered 56 in 1993, 10 in 2001 and 6 in the first nine months of 2002.