Coming Up Harlem

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

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Community activism has also fostered recovery. In the late 1970s, state bureaucrats announced plans to convert a row of town houses fronting Mount Morris Park into a drug rehabilitation center. Mount Morrisites banded together and fought the plan, which was dropped. In 1984, the state established a minimum-security women’s prison directly on the park’s west frontage. Then, in 1990, the state moved to expand the prison into nine adjoining (and vacant) row houses. The neighborhood objected, and prevailed. Now those once-targeted row houses are being turned into condominums.


Abandoned properties persist on the best blocks, including the elite Strivers’ Row, but the value of much Harlem real estate has risen sharply. In 1987, a large Federal-style house on Hamilton Terrace sold for what was then a record price of $472,000. This year, a smaller house around the corner is under contract for $1 million. Nearby, a row house in “triple mint” condition sold for more than $2 million.


One hallmark of the second harlem renaissance is the return of young black people. Unlike their antecedents in the first renaissance, who lived behind “invisible lines and bars,” as the writer Eunice Roberta Hunton put it, well-to-do African-Americans investing in Harlem these days could live just about anywhere. They offer a spectrum of reasons for preferring Harlem.


“I think of myself as a nation builder,” Arizona-born Shannon Ayers explains of her motivation for coming to Harlem and opening a spa in a newly renovated, Empire-style building on Lenox Avenue, near the whitebrick town house she bought in 1998.


“I’m very attuned to my ancestry, so my spirits brought me here,” says city planner Ibo Balton of his move in the early 1990s from the Bronx to a rental property in a former school building on St. Nicholas Avenue. “It’s just a place I needed to be.” As a sign of the increasingly upscale times, the civil servant quips that he was probably one of the highest paid persons in his building when he got there but is now arguably the lowest.


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