I’m trudging through Monique M. Taylor’s Harlem: Between heaven and hell which looks at the role of the black middle class and gentrification in Harlem. Harlem, has a special place in AfrAmerican and American cultural history, so there is that attractive and laudable past that attracts middle and upper middle class blacks.
In the first chapter Taylor writes how Harlem came into being via a real estate bust. Speculators bought up properties in Harlem around the turn of the 20th century because the Manhattan subway or street car (I’m not clear which) was coming up to Harlem and well, you know. Too many houses constructed, too high of a price, and then the bubble popped. Sound familiar? In this economic crisis ” many landlords were willing to rent properties to blacks. … Others shrewdly took advantage of white prejudice. The hope was that by placing blacks into certain properties, neighboring whites would vacate their properties and free them up at extremely low prices.” Around the mid to late 1910s Harlem became a majority black neighborhood. Then by 1920 notable and influential black organizations had established or relocated themselves in Harlem. Over time the positives that Harlem is known for flourished.
However, while there was this great Harlem Renaissance taking place, the glory outshone the negative side of Harlem. The unemployment, the crowded living conditions, the poverty and segregation. The famous Cotton Club was for white patrons only. The realities of the negatives resulted in large homes being carved up into smaller units to crowd poor people into and when the glitter of Harlem’s shine started getting dull a depressing ghetto began to show underneath.
The background is needed to understand the black middle class who come to or returned to Harlem to ‘restore it to it’s former glory.’ As I was reading the stories of the black mid class (let’s say buppies for short) fixing up properties I noticed something. They are making the buildings reflect their pre-black neighborhood past, while lauding the Harlem Renaissance period. You mix your time periods long enough they meld into one, so that it is easy to imagine people like us (buppies) living in the grand houses and participating in the Renaissance. No one in the book, so far, has confused the periods, but the thinking seems to skate very close to it.
The book is very interesting in addressing class. But class seems to be too clunky and static a term. Taylor does show in one example how the relationship between buppies and poor blacks goes from we are all one to those sorry so-and-sos. Maybe more about that later.
Taylor, Monique M. Harlem: Between heaven and hell. University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis, 2002. p. 5