Travel

The gentrification under way in Harlem is delivering a new population drawn to the history but disconnected from it. By Nathan Smith.

A walk through Harlem

Brownstone row houses in Harlem, New York City.
Credit: Russell Kord / Alamy

In Wes Anderson’s film The Royal Tenenbaums, Margot Tenenbaum, played by a gaunt Gwyneth Paltrow, spends her days hiding out in the family bathroom. She watches daytime television on a small portable TV (hung precariously over a claw bathtub) while secretly puffing through multiple packets of cigarettes. 

I thought of Margot and her bathtub after my friend pointed out the house used in the film, a rather imposing brownstone that jutted out of the corner on a wide tree-lined street in Harlem. A former editor of mine, a new resident of the neighbourhood, had invited me to explore the increasingly gentrified district with him for the day.

Like Margot, I had been taking baths, too, cooling off in my West Village Airbnb bathtub while reading a copy of City on Fire, a bulky book fictionalising life in 1970s New York, in the wake of the sultry summer heat. As a new arrival in New York, a trip to Harlem seemed like a good chance to find some connectedness to a city I was hoping to call home and to write about.

Harlem, for a century identified with the African-American community, and an area once renowned for its cultural influence and then its social problems associated with economic disadvantage, has lately been reshaped by the slow but sure process of gentrification typical in many Western cities. As elsewhere, this has seen many of its former residents priced out and forced to move away. My casual guide had moved there only a year earlier, following many other young professionals out of the overcrowded down- and midtown areas for the drift north. As with Williamsburg in Brooklyn, or Astoria in Queens, the arrival of the inner urbanites means Harlem is being pulled into its parent culture.

As we walked through the Harlem streets that afternoon, I witnessed the construction scaffolding framing many of the area’s ageing buildings and overshadowing the many old street-corner stores.

An anomaly of earlier history soon greeted me. The original house of one of America’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, stands in stark contrast with the many faded brownstones nearby and storefronts-cum-cafes lining the street. Pastel-coloured and seated among proud green lawns, Hamilton Grange National Memorial now serves as a historic landmark to attract tourists.

Hamilton is now the subject of one of Broadway’s most popular musicals, bearing his name. I intermittently checked my email through the afternoon in the hope I had landed a “lottery” ticket to that night’s show, but remained unlucky.

The Hamilton house – so imposing and proud – has been moved twice, and felt as if it were occupying unwanted space. A Southern-looking sprawling estate, it was planted in the centre of an area of New York whose own history seems to be slowly eroding away.

Nearby, there was the Abyssinian Baptist Church, an important African-American house of worship and later refuge for many New Yorkers during the heights of the HIV/AIDS crisis. My companion explained that in the new Harlem, such sites had lost some of their cultural significance and were now serving as tourist landmarks for visitors seeking to access the former Harlem.

Saying so, he betrayed a kind of self-consciousness about such places shared by members of the newest wave of residents. So much so he kept repeating, “Remember, I’ve only been here a year”.

We moved on from the dense gridlock of East Harlem to the nearby edges of Manhattan, to see a popular boardwalk area for new Harlem locals to ride their bikes and read on park benches, to momentarily look away from the city centre itself, which seemed to monopolise their world.

Walking down a slender path, completely eclipsed by an imposing wrought-iron bridge that shrouded this desolate pocket of the neighbourhood, we were greeted by a series of abandoned warehouses – broken windows and graffiti tags – with chipped images of citrus fruits adorning their entrances. Apparently they were former supermarket-processing plants, which used to ferry fruits and vegetables through Harlem and greater Manhattan, to supermarkets and corner stores. About a decade ago, the owners moved their plants to the nearby Bronx.

As we traced the edges of the Harlem River along this lush boardwalk, I noticed a group of brown buildings sitting directly opposite us on the other side of the river – the Manhattan Psychiatric Centre. My boss and I stared across at the congested complex of towers on Wards Island, where Harlem River joined East River and surrounded it like a moat. The view was spectacular, with the sun enlivening the surface of the murky waters and lending a warming vitality. As with other locales around here, the psychiatric centre was not exempt from cinematic history. “I think they actually filmed some hospital scenes for The Exorcist there. When the priest’s mother is locked up,” my boss said.

As we walked back towards Harlem proper, he spoke about the memoir he’s writing – a confessional about his exciting times in the New York journalism industry back in the 1990s. A couple of local boys skidded past on their bicycles, excitedly racing each other towards the corner bodega store. I asked whether there were many of these milk bars left. “Not as many as when I first arrived. Really everything is up for grabs – they even bulldozed the church that held Malcolm X’s funeral.”

I couldn’t shake the feeling of Harlem as being situated in a paradox: both spectacle and sanctuary; real streets and film set.

A laundromat came into sight, where my boss pointed out a long line of homeless people standing with rusting shopping carts, all overloaded with discoloured plastic bottles and cans, waiting to use a vending machine attached to the building. My boss explained that this was one of the last such places in the neighbourhood where homeless people could deposit discarded plastic bottles and cans into vending machines for a five-cent coin return. Many worked in pairs, one feeding the bottles into the machine while the other stood guard over their supply.

I couldn’t help but think about how Harlem had always felt more like an idea to me, a place entrenched in its past. But standing there, I found it to be a nexus underlying greater sociocultural tensions shaping New York today: class, privilege, race, occupation, ownership, wealth. Much like Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Harlem is now one of New York’s desirable inner districts, an area “occupied” by a new class of New Yorkers who want to acknowledge its history but are aware they can’t claim ownership of it.

As we finally nestled into the booth of a nearby coffee shop to cool off from the humidity, I thought back to that scene with Paltrow in the Harlem brownstone, occupying the bathtub and self-consciously waiting for something to happen, or waiting for nothing.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 6, 2016 as "Harlem shuffle". Subscribe here.

Nathan Smith
is an arts and cultural writer based in Melbourne.