On my way to Nelson Mandela Community Garden, I make a stop at the Whole Foods on the corner of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Boulevards for a bathroom break. I’m not able to hide that I am in a rush. I make my way to the back of the luxury supermarket, past displays of gluten-free chocolate chip cookie mix, past the Cuban coffee bar. A line extends out from the short hallway, two bathroom doors on each side. I join three other people waiting in line. There are four doors, we’re now four people in line, waiting for one toilet. At the front of the line is an older black man leaning on a cane. The old man tells me that he doesn’t have the code to the bathroom, tells me that nobody does. But then a white woman steps towards us, a Whole Foods receipt in hand. She opens one of the doors and disappears behind it. I turn to a Whole Foods employee, a young man as dark in hue as those waiting in line. He tells me there isn’t anything he can do. She has the code.
It is a trite thing to say that Harlem is changing. Harlem has changed. The scene at the Whole Foods is but a microcosm for larger forces of change at work in Harlem, a neighborhood that, despite its history and cultural importance in black America, is no longer a majority black town. It is not a matter of whether high-end supermarkets, so new around here, serve the community, but which community.
A clue to that question may be found in a recent dustup between Mayor Bill de Blasio and the founders of Nelson Mandela Community Garden. Dubbed “Harlem’s wildflower haven,” the treasured urban oasis was started in 2014, after Rene Calvo, the frontman of the local band The Goddess Lakshmi, and other residents petitioned Community Board 10 for access to a cement lot on 126th Street, near Frederick Douglass Boulevard. The place had been empty for thirty years. Calvo and his co-petitioners depaved the abandoned cement lot by hand. Their labor of love sought to restore the neighborhood’s aquifer, and help to preserve a sense of community, in a fast-gentrifying Harlem. It was a last-ditch bid against the odds. It succeeded.
But only three years after it opened in 2014, Nelson Mandela Community Garden is set to live out its last days. The wildflower haven is to be sold to private developers, as part of Mayor de Blasio’s plan for affordable housing. The mayor’s plan promises 80,000 affordable housing units by 2024, including 29 units inside a skyward edifice, to rise on the lot upon which Nelson Mandela Community Garden currently lays.
A tech boom in Harlem […] could prove the nail in the coffin of the Old Harlem.
The mayor says the units should go to those who earn between 80 and 130 percent of the city’s Area Median Income, something between $69,000 and $110,000 a year for a family of four. The median income in Harlem, now, is $34,400. The building would also house Silicon Harlem, a tech incubator with a plan to make Harlem the destination for startups in the city, lured by a state-of-the-art Web infrastructure for the neighborhood and its constituents.
San Francisco is an ominous case study for what could go wrong here. The tech companies did bring in a tremendous amount of innovation, high-paying jobs, and cultural infusion. But housing prices rose so fast so high that it is nearly impossible for blue-collar workers to find housing of their own in the Bay Area. A tech boom in Harlem, in tandem with housing shortage of the kind de Blasio’s affordable housing scheme vows to shield us, could prove the nail in the coffin of the Old Harlem, the one conjured upon the invocation of names like Duke Ellington, Adam Clayton Powell, and W.E.B. Dubois, names that loom over Harlem streets, now, only in the sense that they mark street signs.
Change is inevitable. And Harlem has gone through many mutations during its existence, from the rural Dutch village of Nieuw Haarlem to a poor largely-Jewish tenement town to the black mecca it became in the early twentieth century. But it would be short-sighted to look past the glaring truth that it is capital, in America, that determines where black and brown bodies land. Black Harlem itself only came into being a century or so ago, when real-estate speculation spurred by rumors of a streetcar line extension into northern Manhattan died down due to an uncertain completion date for the subway. Landlords, in order to fill their emptier-than-expected rooms, opened themselves up to renting to black tenants, and black real estate agents began funneling clients up to Harlem.
The neighborhood is an attractive locale again today, only because it supplies this capital of innocence.
Still, I wonder what it is, that makes me uncomfortable about the change afoot, now, in Harlem. A millennial, I wonder if it is a false affiliation with a Harlem that I never truly knew. Could it be that Harlem began to die precisely once the community began to rename the streets, to claim them, when Eighth Avenue above Central Park was renamed after Frederick Douglass, back in 1972? Seventh Avenue became Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, in 1974. And 125th has been known as Martin Luther King Boulevard since 1984.
Was it too much optimism upon which to build a wildflower haven? Were Rene Calvo and the community members who supported the petition creating Nelson Mandela Community Garden, too late to keep alive the utopia of a Harlem of the people, for the people?
The neighborhood is an attractive locale again today, only because it supplies this capital of innocence. Whole Foods, it is reported, spent close to 10 years dreaming up its designer food store on Malcolm X and Martin Luther King– and its senselessly cruel bathroom policy. It seems, now, all part of a drawn-out, impatient wait in the line to move into Harlem, and throw out the less fortunate members of our community— a pressing ambition barely contained behind closed doors. But unlike those of us who must wait on the line to use the one bathroom allowed non-paying store visitors, Whole Foods has always had the code.
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