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Uptown Boomtown

Race and real estate, New York's two greatest passions, cross paths in Harlem, as a community that's been rebuilding itself at warp speed attracts enlightened bargain hunters from downtown.


The best sad songs are set in empty houses. But the mood today inside a barren townhouse at the crest of a hill on Convent Avenue at 148th Street is more complicated. One couple is moving out, reluctantly leaving behind a happy past. One excited family is moving in, imagining the possibilities.

Leaning against a fireplace mantel in the sunny, oak-paneled living room is Philmore Anderson, the 35-year-old general manager of an Internet music joint venture. He and Fanshen Cox have called this five-bedroom, 3,200-square-foot rusticated-limestone building home since 1996. "One of our first dates was me showing her this house," Anderson says wistfully. "Now she's my fiancée."

There have been other big changes at this address. "Everybody thought this property was a risk; everybody thought I paid too much," Anderson says. Now he's selling for $660,000, the highest price per square foot ever for a Harlem townhouse and an appreciation of $200,000 in four years. "I still question whether I should have sold it or not," Anderson says, "but the house needed new energy. I've taken it to the next level, and I'm now turning it over to the Levys to take the community to the next level."

Downstairs is Amos Levy. He's 38, a managing director in the legal department at a major Wall Street investment bank who grew up in Princeton, New Jersey. He'd been living in the West Eighties near Riverside Drive with his second wife, Carla, the 41-year-old executive editor at Fitness magazine; his 8-year-old daughter; and their calico cat, Pumpkin. Their 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom co-op rapidly grew too cramped ("We kept having all these Blandings moments, opening closets and things falling on our heads," Carla says). The Levys thought about staying on the West Side and considered Park Slope but fell in love with this house uptown.

Now Levy, in his banker's navy suit, is here for a pre-closing ritual, the walk-through. Talk of "taking the community to the next level" seems like more responsibility than Levy can contemplate at the moment, when he's struggling just to remember the garbage-pickup schedule.

"There are questions," says Benjamin. "But there is so much money being poured into Harlem, and so many people have so much at stake, it cannot fail."

"We spent a lot of time prior to the bidding, and during the bidding process, making sure we came up here at all times, walking around, taking a cab up, walking around late at night," Levy says so softly his words are faint from two feet away. "I think the quality of life is good. I wouldn't have come to Harlem if I wasn't going to be comfortable. Things have improved here." He pauses and glances around the empty room. "They better have, or I've made a major mistake."

the obvious headline here -- "Black Man Sells Harlem House To White Man!" -- is the wrong one. While it's true that increasing numbers of palefaces are pushing north of 110th Street, the deeper significance of Anderson giving way to Levy is about class, not color. Suddenly, Harlem is a desirable residential option for corporate lawyers living on the Upper West Side and doctors residing in Connecticut. Civil rights for this new crowd -- black, white, and Latino -- means equal access to Starbucks and a DSL connection.

The febrile real-estate market is drawing buyers and renters who never would have considered the neighborhood even five years ago, and it's pushing them beyond the eternally desirable enclaves of Striver's Row, Astor Row, and Hamilton Terrace. A three-family brownstone on West 131st between Seventh and Eighth Avenues (Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass Boulevards) that would barely have commanded a six-figure price tag five years ago was just sold by broker Margaret Adams for $435,000. In 1995, the going rate for a fire-damaged shell on 127th Street near Madison Avenue was $40,000; in December, what's left of the building went for $280,000.

"The good change that's happened as of late is that the rental demand among my friends has really skyrocketed," Philmore Anderson says. "Friends wanting rental places in Harlem, recent college graduates who have been out on Wall Street or in the entertainment industry for a couple of years. Whereas five years ago, people were just interested in buying into Harlem. There's this whole cultural shift taking place. Harlem is now safe enough; there are enough basic services, enough beautiful places. It used to be just my male friends were comfortable up here; now a lot of our female friends are comfortable having an apartment up here."

Harlem rents still look like a bargain compared with, say, the East Village's, but the climb has been vertiginous. Three years ago, a landlord was crazy to ask for more than $1,100 for a three-bedroom in a brownstone. Now the rent is $1,800.

With no shortage of takers. Harlem, which lost 30 percent of its population in the seventies, is gaining residents -- for the first time in 50 years. The 2000 census will show central Harlem's population leaping by a stupendous 22 percent since 1990; blacks will account for roughly 80 percent of the neighborhood's population, down from 88 percent at the start of the decade. "The Bradhurst area, which in the eighties had 0.4 percent of households with annual incomes over $50,000, now has 10 percent with incomes over $75,000," says Lionel McIntyre, an associate professor of urban planning at Columbia University. "The increase in real household income in the past decade is at least 10 percent -- for all of Harlem. This is a major structural shift."

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