Harlem and the Definition of "Neighborhood"

Langston Hughes in Marcus Garvey Park (lawrencejournal)

Langston Hughes in Marcus Garvey Park (lawrencejournal)

NextCity had a piece recently about local artists and community members attempting to preserve the home of poet Langston Hughes in Harlem. One of the beacons of the Harlem Renaissance, he lived on 127th Street in an unassuming brownstone. The writer’s house has been on the National Register of Historical Places since 1982. It has also been on the market since 2003 (then listed at $1m, now it is at $3m according to Streeteasy.) The groups attempting to save the home have not been able to raise that kind of money and its future remains uncertain.

The attempt to preserve the Hughes home offers an opportunity to discuss a larger set of questions: what is a neighborhood and who gets to define it? Every neighborhood (in this sense, the arbitrary physical boundaries) has three constituencies that contest its definition: the past, the present, and the future. How these ‘groups’ interplay, overlap, and evolve create a neighborhood’s sense of itself and its direction. It’s rarely simple or stable. Harlem is a stark example of this.

Harlem is experiencing the same development and displacement pressures that many neighborhoods are in New York City. What stands out about Harlem, and why Langston Hughes home is so important, is its unique identity as a center of Black American culture. Indeed, this is likely an attractive quality for many developers and new residents. However, Harlem was “black” and most new residents are not.

The deep, challenging questions here offer no easy answers and no clear policy prescriptions. How can we preserve the history of Harlem in the face of rapid economic growth? How can we preserve the present-day identity? Can its current residents benefit from the arrival of new residents or is it a zero-sum game? Is Harlem merely a historical center of Black culture or does it still have a role in modern Black culture? What about the future of Black culture? Does it need Harlem? What about the future of Harlem? Does it need the old Harlem or the current Harlem?

I recognize that it’s problematic to write about any group’s culture or community as an outsider and I want to make clear that I don’t, and definitely can’t, speak for or about Black culture with any direct experience or deep knowledge. And some of those questions are more anthropological than what I’m discussing today anyway.

Regardless, I have always appreciated the role that Harlem has played in the history of America, how it has, perhaps uniquely among American neighborhoods, represented a practical as well as symbolic hope for many Black Americans, particularly during the Great Migration.

It is a neighborhood that embodies the duality of the American experience — on the one hand it is a product of the heights of opportunity found in America, whether through business, artistry, or spirituality. On the other, it’s very existence, always conditional, was a product of the basest impulses found in America — racism, economic exploitation, and systemic neglect. I struggle to think of a single other neighborhood that so concretely calls this complexity to mind.

The singular role Harlem has played in New York and American history is unquestionably worth preserving. As in the case of Langston Hughes’s home, the physical locations where people and events shaped our history are living memorials to, and also living connections with, those people and events. We need these physical reminders to understand the broader ideas that those places reflected and produced.

But historical preservation has costs — for the owners of designated buildings, who lose out on the economic potential of the site, to the city for monitoring the process and removing potential tax revenue, and to the residents who potentially see higher housing and development costs, particularly if an entire neighborhood is listed.

It is also true that historical preservation can be used as a political weapon against development for those who are connected and savvy enough to do so. Harlem residents have been late to that game, but over the last 5 years have been attempting to catch up. There are 9 proposed historical districts in Harlem currently in some stage of planning or review (in addition to the two currently recognized historical districts in Sugar Hill/Hamilton Heights and Mount Morris Park.)

As a history nerd and an urbanist, I am perpetually torn between the instincts to preserve and to create. We are dangerously ahistorical in America, which pollutes our political discourse. Preserving physical history is only a small part of addressing this issue, but it is critical.

But we can’t live in a museum, either. Harlem is a living entity that has an equally bright and complicated future ahead of it. Preventing any further growth will only increase the pressures of gentrification, which do nothing to help the plight of current residents.

It’s easy to picture Harlem as some sort of West Village North in a generation by following this path. Preserving the historic look of Harlem becomes more about rewarding the owners of those properties (and future owners who can afford the increases in value) rather than preserving the history those properties created and witnessed.

There are plenty of people that don’t see a problem with that. Capital should flow where it has the most potential to grow, they say. This is a healthy product of a capitalist system, they say. And it’s true that a neighborhood left alone in the market will inevitably be defined by which constituency (the past, present, or future) has the most capital. That isn’t always the future and it isn’t always pro-growth. But is that what should define a neighborhood in the end?

Ideally, in the case of Harlem and New York City, you’d be able to balance all three constituencies. You’d have a more balanced economy that brought opportunity at all levels of income. You’d have a more dynamic housing market that decreased rent burdens across the city and allowed more diversity of housing in a given neighborhood. You’d have the ability for people to climb economically while still living in the same neighborhood and still being stakeholders in its future. You’d have room to preserve a neighborhood’s history, physically and socially, while allowing for growth and evolution.

We’re a long way from those scenarios. And there will always be trade-offs even in the best of circumstances. Maybe Langston Hughes’s home is bought by someone who wants to turn it into a museum. Maybe a family who wants to live there for the next 50 years buys it. Maybe it’s bought by a developer and eventually demolished for a Whole Foods. What would be the best or worst outcome? I wish that there were simple answers.

New York is an old city and Harlem is an old neighborhood. The diversity of architecture and landscape, the diversity of people and ideas, sounds and smells, are the products of the hard-fought, ceaseless passage of time. It takes decades, even centuries, to build up a neighborhood and a collection of neighborhoods. 

Surely what Harlem ‘was’ one hundred years ago would shock people who had lived there before that time. What Harlem became in the 1960s and 1970s would shock the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance like Langston Hughes. What Harlem is becoming today is perhaps shocking for many people who have lived there for a long time. What it could become tomorrow might shock even the newer residents. Maybe that’s unavoidable. Maybe it has to be. 

Langston Hughes grappled with this problem as well. “Let America Be America Again” sums up the realistic and aspirational views of a neighborhood, or even a country, that is perhaps forever changing while forever failing to change enough:

O, yes

I say it plain, 

America was never America to me,

And yet I swear this oath;

America will be!