Home Political Science & Law Journal Issue Article


2009/1 (No 132)

  • Pages : 228
  • ISBN : 9782707157386
  • DOI : 10.3917/her.132.0181
  • Publisher : La Découverte

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When Barack Obama announced in the middle of his election campaign his plan to create an office for urban policy in the White House, this was a major event. For several decades, large American cities had found themselves blamed for the greatest of evils: debauchery, violence, poor quality of life, poverty, chaos, and intense segregation. In the 1970s, this powerful stigmatization accompanied by higher economic growth led many middle-class Americans to flee toward the periphery, the suburbs, which were deemed better suited to family life. Since the 1950s, federal investments generously favored the development of suburbs through the construction of dense road and highway networks. The suburbs, as symbols of order, virtue, and stability, were seen as an environment favorable to the thriving development of both children and adults (Ghorra-Gobin 2003). Federal subsidies to cities, which flourished from the 1930s onward, reached a peak at the end of the 1970s, then suffered an abrupt halt as a result of the conservative revolution launched in the 1980s by the Reagan administration (Berg 2007). The flight to the suburbs of many taxpayers, often the richest, led to depreciation in the value of real estate in urban areas, with lower prices in turn favoring the settlement and concentration of poor and minority populations. Meanwhile, deindustrialization, the loss of commercial revenues, and a decrease in federal subsidies in the 1980s pushed cities into economic difficulties, with growing expenditures and shrinking revenues. In a context of fierce competition between cities and their suburbs and with the majority of voters, and especially White middle-class voters, now being located in the suburbs, the urban question disappeared from election campaigns.


Barack Obama’s announcement is therefore significant in that it marked the recognition of specific problems that arise in American cities, and especially in large cities, and of the need – even the desire – to understand these problems in a more global and coherent manner. Above all, it announces federal support for local development policies that often do not have the resources to support their ambitions. The question is thus to find out how Barack Obama intends to go about this issue and what type of policies he aims to implement. At the local level, the sine qua non of strategies implemented from the 1980s onward had the goal of encouraging the middle class, whose flight to the suburbs had greatly weakened the fiscal foundations of cities, to return, a process often characterized as “gentrification” (Smith 1996). Representations of these policies are highly antagonistic. While they may be effective from the standpoint of those in charge of cities and of the middle and higher socioeconomic groups, these policies are also accused of displacing poor populations and creating individual and collective traumas (Fullilove 2004). In effect, they highlight opposite outlooks on “city rights.” On the one hand, a neoliberal outlook defends the principle whereby residents should live where their resources allow them to live, out of which comes resistance to public interventions of a social nature. On the other hand, a more popular outlook considers that neighborhoods belong to those who live in them, not only during periods of disinvestment and abandonment but also during periods of reinvestment. This collective right must allow for the rethinking of the concept of the city in order to ensure greater fairness, an orientation that would be more attuned to human rather than to financial interests (Harvey 2008). In reality, gentrification is a dynamic process of territorial reconquest of previously disinvested neighborhoods by higher socioeconomic groups, who through their status and resources, exert financial pressure (primarily on the real estate sector), moral pressure (through the stigmatization or even the penalization of the customs of the native community), and cultural pressure (through the introduction of customs and practices that break with local lifestyles). For example, musicians playing in a Harlem park were moved to the other side of the park following complaints from new residents. Similarly, gatherings of young people on the steps of houses are seen negatively by new residents. In brief, beyond the increasing frequency of complaints – whether legitimate or illegitimate – by new residents and the issue of the compatibility of different cultures, their arrival is a major source of conflict because the new residents often call the police to settle their disputes with older residents.


In a context of continuous withdrawal by the Federal Government, many local governments have promoted economic development through public-private partnerships, laissez-faire markets, fiscal measures, and individual initiatives aiming to attract middle and higher socioeconomic groups into disinvested neighborhoods and thus raise fiscal revenues. These policies, which all lead to the economic revaluation of an area and eventually to its social and cultural transformation, have often exceeded expectations, transforming entire neighborhoods within a few years as new businesses, housing configurations, and range and types of services go hand in hand with a population that is socially and ethnically diverse, often to the detriment of the local population, which is typically poor and Black. Clearly, some residents profit from this process, in particular the few owners and the residents of public housing in that they are better protected against eviction. However, beyond an appearance of financial upgrading of their assets and their environment, many residents suffer the negative impact of the destruction of their social networks and neighborhoods (Poitevin 2008; Marcuse 2008).


In spite of the social costs of these policies, they enjoy great popularity among US city mayors. In the absence of alternatives, they enable the reinvigoration of municipal economies and the revitalization of neighborhoods. However, the key question is whether they solve problems or whether they simply shift them. It will thus be interesting to observe whether the Obama administration wishes to fit into the continuation of the current trend or whether it wants to offer new options in order to minimize the social cost of gentrification.


To demonstrate current power rivalries in cities and neighborhoods and to illustrate the complexity of the political management of these issues, this paper offers a case study of Harlem. This well-known New York City neighborhood is highly emblematic in that it has experienced profound transformations over recent decades. Far from the images of the Black ghetto that still haunt many imaginations throughout the world, Harlem is today a Manhattan “hot spot”, a neighborhood highly valued for its architecture, its location, and its culture. These changes are the result of numerous public-private partnerships and proactive public policies, of which the latest example is the redevelopment of 125th Street. In New York City, gentrification has become a systematic public policy for neighborhood revitalization, which results in part from an elitist outlook as well as from New York City’s international stature. One of the forms of control favored by public authorities consists of rezoning neighborhoods, namely redefining their authorized uses and their construction standards. The current mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, has thus been behind the rezoning of over 80 neighborhoods since he took office in 2002 (Gross 2008). It should be remembered that according to Forbes magazine (2008), Bloomberg is the eighth richest person in the US, that he heads of the eponymous information empire, and that he has a very close relationship with the financial and real estate sectors. It is in these circumstances that Harlem is continuing its metamorphosis (which was started by former mayors Koch and Giuliani) and has become familiar with various conflicts tied to its redevelopment. This paper will first offer an introduction to the neighborhood that will present two different representations, one positive and the other negative, of this famous neighborhood. In practice, the rivalries between the two positions hinge on their portrayals of the neighborhood: one is the historic African-American neighborhood, the other the prime location of the neighborhood within Manhattan. In light of these portrayals, we will examine two conflicts that have mobilized elected officials, municipal services, real estate developers, local associations, and traders' associations over the past five years. The first example, Columbia University’s expansion plan, will allow us to illustrate a gentrification project initiated by a private player, while the second, the rezoning of 125th Street, is a project carried out by the city itself. In both cases, strong citizen mobilization opposed higher economic interests.

The gentrification of Harlem: The challenge of renaissance


While Harlem is beginning to be known for its renaissance, it remained the most famous urban ghetto in the world for almost half a century.


The conditions of extreme segregation that lasted throughout the 20th century, combined with racism and poverty, led greatly to the significant deterioration of its architectural wealth, in spite of its magnificence. Splendid middle-class dwellings that had degenerated into hovels standing on vacant lots created a devastated landscape. Destitution and violence as well as drugs and crime proliferated, scaring off Manhattan Whites who never crossed the imaginary border formed by 96th Street. Today, these properties have been rediscovered and are highly valued. At the beginning of the 21st century, now renovated and restored, these homes are worth several million dollars.


As a Black and Hispanic neighborhood in a White island, Harlem has been a geographical anomaly for a long time. In fact, the dynamics of urban growth and Harlem’s ideal geographical location should have led to its development much earlier. The challenge of gentrification thus hinges on these two visions: on the one hand, the preservation of a Black neighborhood and a focal area for this community, and on the other, the reconquest and reintegration of this neighborhood into Manhattan itself.

The reintegration of Harlem into Manhattan, or the fixing of a geographical anomaly


A residential area set up for the White aristocracy in the 18th century, by the beginning of the 20th century and following a real estate crash, Harlem was destined to become the most famous black ghetto in the US. However, the construction of the subway, which facilitated the arrival of a White middle-class population, also explains the surprisingly close integration of this neighborhood in terms of shared road and transportation infrastructures. Yet the subway would also cause the downfall of developers who had over-speculated, bringing about the collapse of the market from 1904 onward. To avoid bankruptcy, some of these speculators decided to split up the dwellings and to rent them to Blacks, who for the first time, found themselves being offered decent accommodation. Segregation and racism then led Whites to flee the neighborhood. Finally, overpopulation, disinvestment on the part of owners and developers, racism, and poverty contributed to its rapid and gradual deterioration (Oren and Fabre 1971; Osofsky 1963).


Today more than ever, Manhattan forms the heart of New York City. The economy of the city, which is structured around the finance, insurance, and real estate sectors, creates strong demand for high-end and high-quality-of-life accommodation. As a result of sharp increases in the cost of accommodation over recent years in the city, a shortage of affordable housing is in evidence. In their search of more space and for living closer to the workplace and at more reasonable prices and now being partially liberated from racial prejudice, executives and yuppies have made Harlem a natural destination for these populations, especially as the suburbs failed to offer them the quality of life they hoped for. Being too far away, too quiet, and too isolated, the suburbs are being abandoned in favor of neighborhoods in town.


In addition, tourism, another pillar of New York City's economy, has been in constant expansion. As a result, tourists are claiming Harlem. Today, 125th Street is often their first – if not their only – stop in the neighborhood. To witness this phenomenon, one only needs to go there on a Sunday morning, when large numbers of tourists can be seen filling the churches to attend “authentic” gospel services, then taking sidewalk seats outside of the new coffee shops. These tourists can also be seen on the upper deck of those famous red buses, camera in hand, ready to capture the first scene illustrating their caricatured vision of Harlem. Yet the local potential of tourism is far from being maximized as tourists have too few things to see at present. According to Edwin Marshall, [1]  Interview, May 2008.[1] the official in charge of the redevelopment project in the Department of City Planning, one of the current challenges is developing locations and activities that will attract tourists in greater numbers and thus create revenues for the economy of the neighborhood and of the city as a whole.


The architectural wealth of the neighborhood as well as its tourism potential and economic dynamism, all of which are served by a dense transportation network, contribute to its attractiveness and its reintegration into the urban and economic fabric of Manhattan. To this end, the municipal authorities have implemented a massive reinvestment strategy that has taken the form of public-private partnerships, tax incentives designed to encourage construction, and specific economic actions through the Empowerment Zone [2]  The Empowerment Zone federal program put in place in...[2] initiative, but also as redevelopments, in particular that of 125th Street in April 2008.

“The most famous neighborhood in the nation’s most famous city” (Jackson 1999)


Harlem is a black neighborhood. Although it has not always been that way, this is what made it famous and what has run through the collective imagination for a century.


A central artery in numerous respects, 125th Street is very dynamic. Street merchants line this four-lane street, which features low-rise buildings offering views of large portions of the sky, a luxury in Manhattan. However, over the years, construction growth in the neighborhood has cut into this special feature of Harlem, and shadows have replaced light in many places. On the sidewalks, many African merchants sell incense, natural essences, masks, creams, and shea butter. They stand alongside young African-Americans selling illegally copied CDs and DVDs displayed on the sidewalk itself and offered for two dollars as well as sellers of t-shirts, posters, and pictures symbolizing Black power or the Civil Rights movement (with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King at the forefront), books on slavery, or even “Black art” paintings. This density is reinforced by crowds of passers-by, often Black but increasingly of different ethnic origins, young and old, men and women, who willingly stop at the stands or when they meet other people and talk. The crowds that pour out of the subways and buses take part in this street ballet. On 125th Street, the sidewalks are jam-packed.


125th Street, also named Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, plays a central role in the neighborhood in several respects. A place of interconnection between the Manhattan, Bronx, and New Jersey road networks, it is also the only street that allows the neighborhood to be crossed from east to west. In a sense, it is the neighborhood’s spinal column. Furthermore, it is an extremely important connection to Manhattan because all the subway lines have a stop there, which makes the neighborhood highly accessible and attractive, a mere twenty minutes from Times Square. Its symbolic and political significance is also very important. A place of public expression through protests organized there, it is also on this street that the neighborhood's elected officials as well as numerous government departments have their offices. Historically, the famous boycotts of the 1930s that had the goal of denouncing economic exploitation by Whites and whose slogans included “Don’t buy where you can’t work,” became political victories in this neighborhood. It is in the spirit of this tradition that we find a preacher waging a campaign for the boycott of all businesses on 125th Street, which are accused of collaborating with the gentrification project. In fact, this campaign has the goal of affecting the street in its most significant capacity, that is, as Harlem’s economic backbone. Even if businesses have been primarily owned by Whites (Oren and Fabre 1971), as with the properties in the rest of the neighborhood, changes over recent years and even recent months are evident: out with soul music and black music stores, in with Starbucks, H&M, and soon American Apparel. Finally, though less frequently than before, Harlem features the mythical locations of Black music such as the Cotton Club or The Apollo Theater. Also to be found there is a museum dedicated to Black art and several churches with gospel choirs that let their songs peal forth on Sundays.


Through this brief description of the street, it is possible to glimpse how central this street is to Harlem and therefore to the Black community of the neighborhood but also for Blacks from Brooklyn, Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, or Los Angeles as well as for individuals of African descent who have only heard about America through the word Harlem. The neighborhood’s renaissance and the accompanying transformation of its businesses, its buildings, its housing, and its population thus constitutes a major challenge for the Black community that, while it was previously marginalized by default in this neighborhood, today feels dispossessed of an area central to its identity.

Reinvestment as a response to urban problems


We have noted that Harlem has seen darker days. In the 1980s, the flight from Manhattan of Whites as well as of the Black higher socioeconomic groups that recent advances in civil rights had emancipated led to the hyper-ghettoization of Harlem. This devastated landscape, as dangerous for people coming in from the outside as it was for its residents, and a population wracked by the crack epidemic as well as poor health conditions and arson (started to claim insurance payments) have forced the authorities to react. In response to the problems of segregation and poverty, the Koch Administration developed first of all a housing construction plan involving demolitions and renovations, and new construction projects were made possible thanks to huge municipal assets accumulated following personal bankruptcies. Having thus found itself the owner of numerous lots, buildings, and houses, the city had significant scope for action. Additionally, the presence of a large number of vacant lots initially allowed the city to refrain from excessively displacing the population except at times of demolition of the least safe housing projects. Then in the 1990s, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, focused his attention on crime and disorderly conduct. In the golden age of zero tolerance, Harlem was literally cleaned up: drug addicts, dealers, homeless persons, and even street merchants were victims of police harassment designed to move them off the public space. These brutal methods contributed to making the gentrification of Harlem possible. The neighborhood then needed to attract higher socioeconomic groups by conveying a new image of Harlem and providing services that were better suited to the new population. Thanks to much gentler yet equally effective methods, Michael Bloomberg, the current mayor of New York City, has ensured conditions favorable to attracting developers, and it is on his watch that genuine marketing of the neighborhood centered around its renaissance has been developed. [3]  3Although numerous magazines featured this new trend...[3] This spreading of a positive image of revival, which went against traditional stereotypes of the neighborhood, let higher socioeconomic groups know that they were now welcome, even wanted, and that there were deals to be snapped up in Harlem.


It was around these two visions of the neighborhood that the power struggles within the 125th Street rezoning project and the expansion of Columbia University were catalyzed. The latter example in particular allows for a better understanding of the influence of a private player (the university) on the revitalization process and on the relationships that private players maintain with public players. Above all, it allows for an understanding of how the rezoning project managed to catalyze so much opposition and anger. Let us return to this conflict as a first step, before returning to the 125th Street conflict.


“Hurricane Columbia”


Harlem is home to Columbia University, one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the nation and probably in the world. While the presence of the university is a major advantage for the neighborhood, its image, and its dynamism, the neighborhood does not really actually benefit from these advantages, and this has been the source of many conflicts over several decades. In particular, the announcement of its expansion plan in the Manhattanville area of West Harlem in 2003 led to an acceleration of gentrification in this area and gave rise to significant action by citizens. The peak of this action was reached in November 2007, when a group of Columbia students began a hunger strike on campus to protest the university’s policies, including its expansion plan. While the leaders of local associations initially supported the hunger strikers’ actions, they subsequently had to intervene to ask them to stop their hunger strike when it became clear that negotiations would not include the subject of expansion (even though other demands were met).


Many studies show the leading role played by universities in neighborhoods in transition. By attracting populations with more significant resources and with tastes and lifestyles that differ from those of the local populations, and especially through rapid population renewal, which allows for steep growth in rents, universities are often major players in the gentrification of neighborhoods. This is especially true when, like Columbia in Harlem or New York University (NYU) in the East Village, they are the owners of numerous properties.


New York is a global city that, in the context of the emergence of new competing economies, must preserve its status and competitiveness. As a result, resources allocated to higher education, research, and new technologies are important. Columbia is an American Ivy League university, and one of the most prestigious universities in the nation. It attracts the best students from the US as well as other countries, which makes it a pool of intellectuals and scientists and a training ground for future world elites. At present, the university suffers from the narrowness of its campus. Unlike other large American universities, Columbia is not located on an immense campus filled with green spaces on the outskirts of the city, but in Manhattan, or more specifically in Harlem, and it is fully integrated into the urban fabric and constrained by geography since Manhattan is an island. The university thus drew up an expansion plan affecting the northern end of the neighborhood, in an area known as Manhattanville, taking advantage of the low density of this area and its industrial nature. The outcry was immediate. Committees of residents formed to protest this project and draw up a competing development plan through a neighborhood’s council that would guarantee keeping the local population in its current housing and provide support for small businesses and local enterprises.


The university’s project is substantial and foresees the construction of new administrative and classroom buildings as well as high tech research laboratories. The university already owns many buildings in the area, which it acquired over the years, sometimes through pressure put on tenants to force them vacate the premises. The problem for the university is that some of the tenants are resisting and are refusing to leave, even contesting the legality of Columbia’s actions and, supported by several associations, are refusing to be intimidated by university harassment. Their fear, which was heightened by the approval of the project (with a few modifications) by the City Council in December 2007, is the city’s use of eminent domain laws, which allow for the expropriation of the assets of people or businesses in favor of the public good. Today, these associations are contesting the notion that the expansion of a private university is covered by the definition of “public good.”


Yet the tireless involvement of resident associations over five years has not put an end to the project. Thanks to its financial resources, the university has succeeded in consolidating political support for the project by promising to invest in the community. Some jobs will be reserved for residents, a supermarket will be built, some scholarships will be granted to the few students from Harlem, some apartments will be reserved for families with limited resources, etc. However, the location of the new buildings will not change, and the dynamic of raising rents will not be reversed, which will continue to displace the most recent residents, who have inadequate resources.


It was in this context that the municipality proposed the rezoning of 125th Street and announced the construction of several thousand luxury apartments as well as the relocation of several dozen local businesses. As a consequence, it can be better understood why these two projects are seen as symbols of a coherent and systematic political strategy designed to displace the poorest and to transform the neighborhood’s identity. Furthermore, the adoption in December 2007 of Columbia’s plan by the city council allowed for the postponing of the challenge to the 125th Street project.

Rivalries and conflicts surrounding the redevelopment of 125th Street

Municipal objectives of the rezoning project


In accordance with the municipality’s wishes, which were expressed through a study conducted by the Department of City Planning (Final Environmental Impact Study, 2008), 125th Street will become a central corridor for the arts, entertainment, and the retail trade. The aim is to attract not only the local population but also visitors from other parts of the city, the metropolitan area, and the rest of the world. The city’s objective is to diversify the neighborhood's authorized uses and to improve their usage. Furthermore, it aims to support development as well as public and private reinvestments that have been aimed at this street for several years. The restructuring includes the recent establishment of stores, including the Harlem USA shopping mall, the Theresa Hotel and Victoria Theater renovation projects, Columbia University’s expansion plan, even a project to construct a tower that would serve as the home of the Baseball League.


The redevelopment, which affects several dozen blocks between 124th and 126th Streets, from the Hudson River to the west to the East River to the east, also plans for the construction of housing, including a small number of moderate-rent housing units and a substantial number of luxury apartments. As early as 1981, Edward Koch, the then mayor of New York City, created a task force charged with studying redevelopment proposals from private developers and local associations. In 1993, the neighborhood saw the creation of the 125th Street Business Improvement District. [4]  This is a private-public partnership in which merchants...[4] In 1994, the Federal Government created The Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, a program intended to create jobs and revitalize the neighborhood’s economy, while Harlem itself received $300 million. These programs created jobs, primarily in the service sector, as well as temporary jobs in the construction sector. In 1999, the program financed a shopping mall on 125th Street to the tune of approximately $11 million. Finally, in 2003, the redevelopment project finally adopted in 2008 had begun. [5]  This sequence of events was reported by the free Independent...[5]


125th Street had not been rezoned since 1961, when the city’s zoning plan was created, though many agreed that it was necessary to modernize its uses, to exploit the artery’s development potential and to a certain extent supervise future developments.


In New York City, the Department of City Planning (DCP) is in charge of the city’s plan and in particular of its rezoning plan. In theory, the department's duties are limited to regulating and controlling land use. However, through these basic regulations, it wields important powers and it is becoming the instrument of change for the modeling of the city. The diagram showing the players in the project illustrates the power relationships the various players maintain among themselves and their coordinated influence. In this diagram, it is clear that the DCP obeys the mayor and implements his agenda, in particular through its director, Amanda Burden, who was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The role of the department is limited to responding to the demands of a neighborhood council or a developer. Sometimes, however, the department pioneers projects, such as the 125th Street project. Additionally, some mayors are more proactive than others, as is the case with Mayor Bloomberg. The department has rezoned over 80 neighborhoods in just six years, which is an enormous undertaking in light of the length of some procedures and of the challenges that often emerge from the neighborhoods. This extensive plan integrates a systematic municipal neighborhood renovation strategy that tends to make the neighborhoods more attractive for the middle and upper classes in order to increase tax revenues and to accommodate these populations' demanding urban lifestyles.


Amanda Burden, who heads this department, is an important figure in the Bloomberg administration. As a member of the city’s establishment, she has personal interests in real estate. Having a close relationship with the mayor and the city’s elite, she is an important strategic agent in the achievement of their ambitions for the city, which is to attract the higher classes and extend elitist and cosmopolitan lifestyles and cultures. A few weeks before the rezoning project vote and in the midst of much turmoil, Burden announced that she also like to go out with her friends to the Apollo Theater but there were no good restaurants nearby where they could have dinner after the show. Although the disdain she displayed toward the population of Harlem resulted in a scandal, it demonstrated the absence of the will to preserve the neighborhood and its cultural identity, as is often argued. Rather, the aim is to standardize Harlem along with other Manhattan neighborhoods, such as the East Village, Times Square, Soho, etc.

The challenge


Specifically, the challenge relates to the consequences of this restructuring. In particular, the opponents of the project fear an acceleration of the neighborhood’s gentrification that would displace many residents and businesses but that would also model 125th Street as another Times Square. As Edwin Marshall, the official in charge of the project’s development in the DCP stresses, “gentrification would take place even without redevelopment.” [6]  Interview, May 2008.[6] According to the study conducted by the DCP itself as part of consultation with the population (ULURP procedure – Uniform Land Use Review Procedure), the project would displace 500 residents from 190 apartments, which is not a large number, and whose residents would be compensated by the construction of 498 apartments with affordable rents as well as 71 businesses from 125th Street. According to this study, this would not result in serious consequences for the neighborhood in that the products offered are widely available elsewhere in the neighborhood and in the city in general. Yet a total of 71 businesses spread along several blocks remains significant.

 - THE REZONING OF 125TH STREET: Municipal desire subjected to the test of democracy

The population’s fears emerged at a rather late stage in the process. Public information meetings and work sessions were organized at the start of the project in 2003. It was thus surprising, during fall 2007, to observe such turmoil even though this project had been in existence for close to four years. However, the calendar and imminent decision timelines as well as the lost battle against Columbia University’s expansion allowed activists to transfer their attention and forces in the matter. In addition, as several activists explained, all of these information meetings had not really been publicized, these activists had not been invited to attend, and the community as a whole had never been a real partner in discussions with the Mayor’s office. Having personally attended one of these meetings in 2005, I noticed at the time that those taking part seemed very close to the DCP and formed a somewhat closed network, and that few residents were present. Robert Jackson, [7]  Interview, March 2005.[7] the city council member I interviewed a few days later told me that this was due in part to tight schedules and to how hard it was for these people to come to the meetings. Many single mothers have to take care of their children, many people are still at work, and many others think that in the context of such a difficult life, a development plan in its embryonic stages is far from being one of their priorities. Today, the associations that have organized against the project conjecture that it was the DCP's responsibility to put citizen consultation terms in place in the neighborhood. VOTE People (Voices Of The Everyday People) even filed a complaint and tried to have the redevelopment vote rescinded since they felt that the ULURP procedure had not been respected. However, these steps led nowhere, due in part to a lack of resources.


The large number of associations focusing on residents, housing rights, rights protection, or assistance to disadvantaged individuals that sprung into action against the project organized numerous protests and public meetings and sometimes formed alliances such as the Coalition to Save Harlem. Their representatives attended all meetings organized by the DCP, the city, and the Community Boards as well as those where redevelopment was the order of business in order to make their voices heard. They wrote to elected officials and signed petitions, wrote articles in newspapers, talked about rezoning on radio and even on television, held press conferences, formed alliances with other neighborhood associations, even inundated their mailing lists with emails. Yet all of this was in vain.


Over recent years, development – both private and public – has been carried out on a more restrained scale, block by block or without public consultation. However, it has already changed the character of 125th Street. Many stores have closed and been replaced by stores that are more in vogue or by national or international chains such as H&M, Footlocker, Mac, Old Navy, Bodyshop, etc. Their emergence in the neighborhood was made easier by the fact that the majority of businesses rent their premises and are not owners. The example of stores selling athletic shoes or urban culture illustrates this competition between traditional and new businesses as well as the battle for Harlem that exploits its identity. On the south sidewalk of 125th Street, several “street wear” clothing and shoe stores can be found. These stores can be recognized by the clothes racks and the piles of shoeboxes they display on the sidewalks. Inside these stores, merchandise abounds before the clients’ eyes, with everything set out in chaotic style with signs listing rock-bottom prices. On the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street, Atmos, a small store that opened in 2006, sells clothing and athletic shoes worth several hundred dollars in a sober and ultra chic décor. The articles are few in number and are spaced out and arranged in an orderly manner. This example not only shows the rivalry created by the arrival of new competitors but also demonstrates the transformation of the target customer at which the business aims. In this case, it is probable that traditional shops will not be able to adapt and will disappear. However, another example consists of a store powerful enough to diversify and accommodate new market trends. In 2008, a Footlocker store that had just opened completely renovated its premises to create a space entirely devoted to basketball. The store reopened a few months later under the new name House of Hoops by Footlocker. This highlights the world of sport, but of a chic kind, in a store that resembles a museum. There can be found limited edition shoes, sponsor brands, and brands and collections created by athletes as well as team shirts. What cannot be found is the classic Footlocker store collection. Symbolically, this is a very strong indication that 125th Street, and consequently Harlem, is no longer reaching out to young Black people from the ghetto but to young people who have money, be they Black or otherwise, as well as to tourists. To a degree, these examples are emblematic. They give their blessing to a particular representation of Harlem and 125th Street as a center of urban fashion and a key location for all followers of urban cultures, in particular hip hop, and for young men coming from all over the world to find a pair of limited series athletic shoes or pants, sweaters, t-shirts, and other accessories at the forefront of trends. Yet what these stores also show is the transition toward a new, richer, and more demanding clientele. There are many available sellers, the premises are well operated, and the talk is not about decoration but about design. It is thus evident that conflicts between management and economic development, which aim at different sectors and respond to contradictory representations for which 125th Street is the theater, will only be reinforced by the redevelopment approved by the April 2008 vote.


Furthermore, the redevelopment hopes to encourage the opening of bars and restaurants for the purpose of attracting a new clientele, with a very different lifestyle, and to make Harlem a neighborhood as attractive as the East Village, Times Square, or SoHo, for example.

The central role of elected officials


The elected officials of Harlem (see the diagram above) expressed their disagreement with the plan during its early phases, and their political discourse is to a large extent one of anti-gentrification. Melissa Viverito, the elected official for East Harlem, started an anti-displacement working committee in her district in conjunction with the neighborhood associations. For his part, Robert Jackson became involved in the battle against Columbia University (though not firmly enough, according to some of his opponents), and he is deeply interested in housing matters and in those firms that evict renters deemed too poor or not chic enough. Inez Dickens does not follow quite the same path and is known for belonging to the Harlem establishment and for owning several buildings. Yet she expressed her disagreement from the very beginning. In the end, though, all three city council members, who were elected by the residents of Harlem, voted in favor of the project.


To understand why the Harlem representatives finally supported the project and ensured its adoption, we have to remember the context in which Harlem finds itself. As we have shown, this neighborhood was long acquainted with lengthy periods of disinvestment. The problems of violence having been settled, it was then necessary to improve services, businesses, and housing. Since these developments are necessary to Harlem, this does not allow elected officials to adopt radical positions and to refuse potential investments to any significant degree. Furthermore, their vision for Harlem definitely includes better-off social groups that introduce more diversity with the arrival of Whites. Though these officials may eventually regret the displacement of the vulnerable Black population and of local businesses, recent developments fit into their vision of progress for the neighborhood, which is finally regaining its important status within Manhattan. Attracting visitors can only increase the value of the neighborhood and generate additional revenues that are needed for the renaissance itself. These officials were thus able to support the project after long and laborious negotiations, through which Inez Dickens secured some protective measures for the residents of the neighborhood.


In fact, Dickens played a crucial role in the final weeks before the adoption of the plan. She negotiated her vote against a number of commitments and promises of financing on the city’s part. Her position was particularly important because she represents Central Harlem, the Black neighborhood par excellence, and the neighborhood’s historic and symbolic heart, where a Community Board that had firmly opposed the project has its headquarters. As these neighborhood councils (known as Community Boards) have a consulting role, and City Planning often listens to them, this presented an obstacle in the case of 125th Street’s redevelopment. In the event, Dickens’ voice was so much more important that the two other city councilors had little control. For his part, Robert Jackson (West Harlem) was emerging from a difficult struggle over the question of Columbia’s expansion and had finally obtained a number of concessions from the city, with which he was satisfied. He therefore could not afford to put a great deal of effort into 125th Street so as not to call these agreements into question. As for Melissa Viverito (East Harlem), what was at stake was a development project she initiated and defended in a partnership with City Planning and that included only affordable housing but that risked being called into question if she appeared to be too much of an annoyance regarding 125th Street. It was thus in these circumstances that Inez Dickens (Central Harlem) was able to emerge as a primary political figure. Finally, in order to understand the weight that local elected officials carried, and in particular Dickens, we need to bear in mind the fact that in New York, a tacit rule in the city council is that elected officials vote following the elected official affected by the project. Therefore, it was essential to secure Dickens’ positive vote. In fact, she negotiated her vote with an iron fist and she obtained a number of adjustments to the project, including a decrease in the maximum height of buildings to 19 floors from the initial 29 (far, it must be said, from the 13-floor maximum requested by the Community Board of Central Harlem), the payment of compensation amounting to $5,000 to displaced storekeepers, an increase in the number of affordable housing units (though this remains much lower than the number of luxury residences), and even the awarding of bonuses to developers (including in the form of additional floors) for the reservation of premises for cultural associations. Above all, she drove external projects forward. The renovation of the Marcus Garvey Park, the construction of an asthma treatment center, or the development of parking areas for tourist buses are some of the many different concessions obtained at the time of negotiations. Through its various departments, the city thus granted more than $650 million for all these projects. In the end, Dickens was able to vote in favor of the redevelopment of 125th Street while still being able to boast of having defended her community and fought for her neighborhood.


While the media’s attention to this conflict largely died down in the aftermath of the project’s adoption by the city council, a few associations have continued their battles, in particular through the courts. Whereas frustration and the feeling of powerlessness are palpable, resentment toward elected officials is also growing. To date, none of these steps has led to firm results, and activists have again drifted from their daily function of defending tenants.



In Harlem, proactive public policy that led to the economic development of the neighborhood and to undeniable improvement in its quality of life in terms of safety or cleanliness. This has generated a positive image of an area that was previously extremely stigmatized. Harlem has become very attractive. In this sense, the policies enacted have proved a success. However, these improvements took place at the expense of long and hard and sometimes violent conflicts, with a local population ending up dispossessed of its territory. Would it have been possible to guarantee economic development and investments in the neighborhood, the driving forces of the renaissance, while still retaining the local poor population? The conflicts presented in this paper show that matters of communication, participation, and civic rights are key, as is the issue of decision-making. In Harlem, the wishes of real estate developers and future residents have often been preferred to the wishes of the residents’ local representation through the Community Boards.


Politically, the elected officials of New York seem to benefit from gentrification, probably because it is easier to respond to the needs of the richest than to those of the poorest. Be that as it may, Michael Bloomberg simply changed the law in order to be able to stand for a third term as Mayor of New York. He enjoys great credibility and does not provoke hostility, as Rudolph Giuliani did during his tenure as Mayor. He thus stands a good chance of being re-elected, especially during these times of financial turmoil, when having a businessman in power can be reassuring for residents but especially for large finance and real estate companies, among whom a few prestigious representatives signed an open letter in support of Bloomberg’s candidacy (Associated Press, 2008).


While the State of New York has just confirmed the Harlem city council’s decision concerning the adoption of Columbia University’s plan, thus also confirming the possibility of the expropriation of the last remaining residents of the neighborhood (Kilgannon and Stowe 2008), Central Harlem seems to be significantly affected by the financial crisis and has seen a slowdown in its development (Dehncke-McGill 2008; Garmhausen 2008). Many buildings and luxury apartments are not finding buyers and are being converted into rental units or remain empty. Meanwhile, the homeless population is rising. Is it necessary to see in these developments limits to public policies of gentrification that lead to continuous speculation on housing values? What sorts of projects or sectors will be financed by the Federal Government and according to what criteria? How do these projects reconcile social diversity and economic development? How do they revitalize neighborhoods without excluding the population from the process or even destroying the existing community and without traumatizing the residents? The struggles and power rivalries stirred up by the gentrification of Harlem and many other neighborhoods in New York and other large American cities raise the basic question concerning the “Right to the City:” What are the targeted populations, and what should be done with the others? Such are the challenges the Obama Administration will need to address.


  • Associated Press, Prominent NYers run Ad Supporting Bloomberg, October 2, 2008.
  • Berg, B. New York City Politics: Governing Gotham, Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.
  • Dehncke-McGill, M. “Harlem renaissance meets slowdown,” The Real Deal, 2008.
  • Fabre, M., and Oren, P. Harlem: Ville Noire, Paris: Armand Colin, 1971.
  • Final Environmental Impact Study, 2008, Accessed from http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/env_review/125th_street.
  • Forbes Magazine. “The 400 richest Americans”, 2008, Accessed from http://www.forbes.com/lists/2008/54/400list08_Michael-Bloomberg_C610.html
  • Fullilove, M. Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, New York: Ballantine Books One World, 2004.
  • Garmhausen, S. “Harlem’s Makeover Stalls Out,” Crain’s New York Business, December 1, 2008.
  • Ghorra-Gobin, C. Villes et Société Urbaine aux États-Unis, Paris, Armand Colin, 2003.
  • Greenberg, M. Branding New York: How a City in Crisis Was Sold to the World, New York: Routledge, 2008.
  • Gross, C. Reshaping the City: Who’s Being Heard and Why, 2008, Accessed from http://www.gothamgazette.com/article/20080825/200/2619
  • Harvey, D. The Right to the City, Lewis Mumford Lecture, City College, New York, April 3, 2008.
  • Jackson, J. Toward an Ethnography of a Quotation-Marked-Off Place, Souls, 1, 1999.
  • Kilgannon C., and Stowe S. State Officials Approve Expansion by Columbia, The New York Times, December 18, 2008.
  • Osofsky, G. (1963). The Making of a Ghetto: Negro New York, 1890-1930, New York, Harpers & Row, 1963.
  • Smith, N. The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City, New York, Routledge, 1996.


[1] Interview, May 2008.

[2] The Empowerment Zone federal program put in place in 1993 under Clinton aimed to revitalize under-invested urban areas. In total, ten zones were selected across the nation and competition between cities was intense. The initiative constituted a specific action to be implemented by businesses and merchants in response to tax exemptions and incentives. Several hundred million dollars have thus been invested in Harlem over the past 15 years (Berg 2007).

[3] 3Although numerous magazines featured this new trend on their covers as well as in articles, other initiatives also emerged, including the opening of an information desk for tourists and the launch of a program of promotions in neighborhood stores during the end-of-year holiday season (Press release by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, November 11, 2007).

[4] This is a private-public partnership in which merchants and businesses pay an additional tax used to finance investments in areas deemed favorable to the commercial environment, including the maintenance of streets, sidewalks, and public spaces, security, marketing, etc.

[5] This sequence of events was reported by the free Independent newspaper, February-March 2008.

[6] Interview, May 2008.

[7] Interview, March 2005.



On the 4th of November, the citizens of Detroit elected Barack Hussein Obama by 97%. They are expecting a lot from this election. In 2008, the city suffered from two economic crisis: the subprimes first and the automotive industry now. Poor, segregated and blight, Detroit has been completely abandoned by the Republicans since the end of the Empowerment Zone Program in 2004. Thus one can understand why Obama’s proposal to create an Office of Urban Policy that would be in charge of the coordination of federal urban policies, aroused enormous hope among the Detroiters. But Obama’s task will be very difficult. In Detroit, each and every urban policies have, until now, failed because they came up against the inequalitarian dynamic of capitalism, the metropolitan fragmentation and racism. In the city of the fight for civil rights and afrocentrism, the production of space is without any doubt founded on the fear of the Other.



  1. The gentrification of Harlem: The challenge of renaissance
    1. The reintegration of Harlem into Manhattan, or the fixing of a geographical anomaly
    2. “The most famous neighborhood in the nation’s most famous city” (Jackson 1999)
    3. Reinvestment as a response to urban problems
  2. “Hurricane Columbia”
  3. Rivalries and conflicts surrounding the redevelopment of 125th Street
    1. Municipal objectives of the rezoning project
    2. The challenge
    3. The central role of elected officials
  4. Conclusion

Translated from the French by JPD Systems

To cite this article

Charlotte Recoquillon, “ Les enjeux de la revitalisation urbaine : Harlem, du ghetto au quartier chic ”, Hérodote 1/2009 (n° 132) , p. 181-201
URL : www.cairn.info/revue-herodote-2009-1-page-181.htm.
DOI : 10.3917/her.132.0181.

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