Coming Up Harlem

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

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Tony and France-Yanne Dunoyer, originally from French Guadalupe, moved to Convent Avenue three years ago into an 1890 eclectic Victorian house that they have slowly restored. A worker spent almost a year refinishing the elaborate interior woodwork. An electrician installing wiring for sconces discovered a large, double-sided fine mahogany pocket door hidden in the walls. On weekends, the couple hunted for the antique furnishings, which, along with the 1904 Steinway grand piano in the music room, now fill the spacious house.


As Harlem steps into the 21st century, many residents worry that its new prosperity may bring a loss of identity and community. Moreover, some residents are being left behind or displaced, they say. “It’s troubling that the working classes and people who have been here a long time can’t buy property,” says William Allen, the activist and Democratic Party organizer. Louisy-Daniel, the gallery owner, tells of a neighbor who had to vacate her apartment when the landlord raised the monthly rent from $650 to $2,000. “We’ve been put out,” the woman told her. Kira Lynn Harris, an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum, bluntly articulates a question on the minds of many: “Is Harlem slipping out of the hands of black people?”


Indications are that the community’s makeup is changing. Suggs, the broker, estimates that half of her recent home sales are to whites, Asians or Hispanics— more than double the rate five years ago. Still, most Harlem renters are black, and the community’s elite town house blocks remain largely in the hands of African-Americans. On Convent Avenue between 142nd and 145th Streets, several richly detailed houses sold in recent years went to black people, including a baronial corner house featured in last year’s hit movie The Royal Tennenbaums. And while a lot of major development in Harlem is funded by firms that whites control, a Harlem-based company run by African-Americans, Full Spectrum Building and Development, is constructing a 128-unit condominium at 1400 Fifth Avenue. Among other things, the $40 million project will be the first building in Harlem with geothermal heating and cooling.


A longer view of the race issue is taken by Michael Adams, author of the newly published Harlem Lost and Found and one of the community’s most ardent preservationists. Adams tells of attending a dinner party in a fastidiously maintained, century-old Harlem town house. One guest griped about a newly arrived white family on his block who had complained about noise coming from a revival meeting. Another guest bemoaned white neighbors who called the police about a loud party. “Why don’t these people go back where they came from?” someone asked.


“None of this would have been said, of course, if a white person had been at the table,” Adams says. “As I listened to their complaints, I imagined hearing voices in this same dining room eighty years ago. The words were the same, only the colors were reversed.”


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