Nearly every neighborhood in New York City has had its fair share of ups and downs over the decades. Yesterday's demilitarized zone is today's luxury condo haven. Double-wide strollers wheel down sidewalks where yuppies once feared to tread. This has been the pattern everywhere from the East Village to Hell's Kitchen—and don't even start with Brooklyn—but nowhere has the resurgence of development and renewed real estate interest been quite as clear as it has been in Harlem.
Once the headquarters of such African-American cultural giants as W.E.B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, Langston Hughes and Duke Ellington, Harlem was a hotbed of music, literature, and cultural exchange during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s. Later on, Harlem became the birthplace of hip-hop, a musical innovation that changed the way we entertain ourselves - much like jazz did in the early 20th century.
Along with its rich contributions to American arts and culture, the name Harlem has also been synonymous with "ghetto," and the neighborhood has long been a poster child for urban decay and blight. That part of the picture is changing, however. These days, with a Manhattan real estate market that knows no ceiling, outsiders and natives alike are investing in Harlem, banking on the neighborhood's ethnic culture, stunning architecture and rich history.
An Historic Icon
West Harlem includes the Upper West Side of Manhattan from 96th to 168th Street, bounded by Frederick Douglas Boulevard to the east and the Hudson River to the west, and technically includes the smaller neighborhoods of Morningside Heights, Manhattanville, Hamilton Heights and Washington Heights/Inwood.
Hamilton Heights is bordered by the Hudson River to the west and Bradhurst Avenue to the east, West 135th St. to the south, and West 155th St. to the north. Sugar Hill is the area between Amsterdam and Edgecombe Avenues, West 145th to W 155th St., and is a part of Hamilton Heights. The community gets its name from founding father Alexander Hamilton, who lived the last two years of his life in the area, when it was mosly farmland.
Harlem has historically been known as a strong African-American and Latino community, but it wasn't always so. The community's historical pedigree extends from Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers whose Harlem house has been turned into a museum, to Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant, whose tomb (which includes his wife and horse) is in Harlem, to the famed Harlem Renaissance.
A century ago, Harlem was a semi-rural bedroom community for Wall Street executives. Then it was a melting pot of a working-class neighborhood. Now it is increasingly the home of young professionals. According to Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, chairman of Community Board 9, Manhattan, the community really began to urbanize in the early 1900s, when the subway opened up the area for development.
"This was the suburbs, where people from Wall Street would escape the city," Reyes-Montblanc says. "The architecture here is really upscale, and the apartments are very large and comfortable. I've seen it change from a blue-collar neighborhood to a place that was really bad. Now it's getting back to what it used to be. Crime in the community has gone down to levels lower than in the 1960s."
Harlem's wealth of architecture and culture has made the place a destination point for many generations, says Carole N. Griffin, president of the Harlem-based Griffin Real Estate Group. "We've still got jazz up here," she says. "Over the past 10 years, Harlem has come alive again."
Part of the liveliness is due to the variety of parks that are focal points of the community, such as Mt. Morris Park, Morningside Park and St. Nicholas Park. Harlem's Rucker Park, an early home of street ball legends such as Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Irving and many others, typifies the importance of such recreational spaces to the community. "We've got parks every five to ten blocks that are in wonderful shape," says Griffin.
The community's official population of 112,000, taken from the 2000 census, is close to the steady population of 110,000 residents of Harlem that has changed little for the past 50 years. Until just recently the community still had only about 110,000 residents, but estimated numbers of undocumented immigrants living in the neighborhood indicate a much higher population.
The last decade has seen an influx of new population and a rash of new development, according to Jeff Brooker, the president of Webb & Brooker, a long-established Harlem real estate brokerage and property management firm. New affordable and market-rate co-op/condo developments have flourished in the corridor from about 111th Street to 145th Street. "It's clearly affordable when compared to other parts of Manhattan and I think that's what it's real attractiveness is."
Another draw is the introduction of a variety of trendy new retailers, that includes shopping centers, supermarkets, movie theaters, and establishments like Starbucks, Old Navy, and New York Sports Club, for example. "We're seeing the real kind of mix in retail that you'd find elsewhere in the city that heretofore had not been available uptown," says Brooker. "That's a significant change in my view as to what the community offered in the past. The new housing stock is clearly dominated by these new co-ops and condos."
In 2008, Harlem residents and visitors will have the opportunity to shop at Target, which has six stores in the city and two more under construction. Developed by Blumenfeld Development Group and its joint venture partner Forest City Ratner, Target will serve as the anchor tenant, along with Home Depot, at East River Plaza, a new shopping center located at the former long-vacant Washburn Wire factory site.
New Melting Pot
The new mix of people in Harlem reflects New York City's socioeconomic diversity, as well as some of the diversity of its cultures. Artists, commuter families and young professionals live alongside blue-collar workers of many different backgrounds. Much of the community still is comprised of the working poor, says Reyes-Montblanc, noting that Harlem is home to 140 Housing Development Fund Corporation (HDFC) co-ops, with 40 more such communities in the works.
"Because we have a lot of undocumented people living here, the [population] numbers are in flux," says Reyes-Montblanc. "My estimate is that there are currently 130,000 to 180,000 people in Harlem."
While the undocumented residents of the neighborhood reflect a trend of non-legal immigrants rooting themselves in communities nationwide, it's also true that generations of Harlem residents have been new immigrants. That's part of the current appeal of the place.
In the 1920s and 1930s, many of the poorer white residents of Harlem moved out of the community as more well-to-do blacks moved in. These days, non-Hispanic whites again are moving back into the neighborhood. Non-Hispanic whites are a fast-growing segment of Harlem, which was made up largely of African-Americans but now is majority Latino, with just over 50 percent of its residents claiming Latino ancestry. African-American residents make up about 25 percent of Harlem's populace, while whites account for 20 percent, and Asians and Arabs account for five percent of the residents, according to Reyes-Montblanc.
About 500 to 600 longtime neighborhood families still own brownstones in the area, notes Reyes-Montblanc—adding that some people in the community are not embracing the influx of upper middle class residents.
"[Longtime residents] are noticing the revitalization of the neighborhood," Griffin agrees. "Some like it, and some don't."
Perhaps the greatest enticement for new families to move into Harlem is the amount of housing they can get for their money. The area is a booming place because of its beautiful architecture and comparatively affordable prices, says Griffin.
"People like the bang-for-the-buck value, and the size of the place that they can get," she says. "A great number of young professionals and younger families are moving into the neighborhood."
One-bedroom condos in Harlem average 750 to 900 square feet and range from $450,000 to $650,000, says Griffin. Two-bedroom condos range from 1,000 to 2,000 square feet, and cost from $675,000 to $2.2 million. Three-bedroom condos in Harlem tend to be about 1,400 square feet to 2,500 square feet, and range in price from $800,000 to $2.5 million. Four-bedroom condos go for $2 million and up, according to Griffin.
"Our condo prices in West Harlem are probably 30 percent lower than the rest of the city, and the condos are larger," says Griffin said.
New developments like the Langston, the Lenox, and the Lenox Grand have all the hot new amenities like 24-hour concierges, gymnasiums, and landscaped roof gardens. The 10-story Dwyer building at St. Nicholas Avenue and 123rd Street, consists of 50 tony loft units ranging from about $500,000 to just over $1 million with sweeping views of Eighth Avenue and Central Park. The new 111 Central Park North, a glass-faced, 19-story condo complex set to open by fall 2007, includes two duplex penthouses, a fitness center, a party room and a public, wraparound garden terrace.
In addition to its housing, parks, history and people, Harlem also boasts several cultural institutions. In addition to being the home of Columbia University, the community is also the home of City College, Teacher's College, Bodnar and Union Jewish Theological Seminary, says Reyes-Montblanc.
Columbia University recently announced that it will expand into the neighborhood's old Manhattanville manufacturing zone. The 17-acre area is north of Columbia's Morningside Heights campus and consists of four large blocks from 129th to 133rd Streets between Broadway and 12th Avenue, including the north side of 125th Street, as well as three properties on the east side of Broadway from 131st to 134th Streets.
Columbia's goal is to have a comprehensive proposal limited to those blocks which "gradually creates a new kind of urban academic environment that is woven into the fabric of the surrounding community," according to the school's website. "This would produce more than 6.8 million square feet of space for teaching, research, underground parking, and support services, while creating new facilities for civic, cultural, recreational and commercial activity—as well as improved pedestrian-friendly streets and new publicly accessible open spaces—that reconnect West Harlem to the new Hudson River waterfront park now under construction. This kind of smart growth would not only generate thousands of new University jobs, but also result in many more local economic opportunities in the decades ahead."
A mix of Columbia University students, residents of the neighborhood and local businesses are against the development.
In March, Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer revealed a rezoning proposal for much of Harlem that he said would preserve the neighborhood.
"I support Columbia's desire to grow to meet its 21st century educational and research goals," Stringer said in a press release. "However, in the past, projects of this magnitude have swept away entire neighborhoods, and we must use the powers of zoning to ensure the expansion will not trample this vibrant community. I am concerned about how the expansion will affect the residents and businesses in the expansion area, but it is not enough to focus only on the footprint of the development. We need long-range planning that accurately assesses and addresses its far-reaching impact. And that impact is certain to reach far beyond the 17-acre expansion zone."
Stringer's rezoning plan calls for creation of a West Harlem Special District, from 125th Street to 145th Street, west of Convent Avenue. The area surrounding the Columbia expansion would become a preservation area, with special zoning rules to encourage the long-term preservation and stabilization of the Harlem community.
"We need a rezoning that doesn't just address Columbia's needs, but instead plans comprehensively for the entire West Harlem community," Stringer said. "A West Harlem Special District will give this community the zoning protections it needs to coexist with, rather than be dominated by, Columbia University."
As the robust Manhattan real estate market continues to push the boundaries of the most in-demand neighborhoods outward, areas that for years have hovered just off the radar of developers and brokers are becoming hot properties. Harlem is such a neighborhood, and for better or worse, its changing fast. From pastoral farmland to cultural hotbed, to iconic ghetto to modern-day melting pot, Harlem has gone through many incarnations. Now, as development and revitalization gain a new foothold, the neighborhood seems poised for its next act.
Jonathan Barnes is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.