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Uptown Boomtown


Inis moved to Graham Court fourteen years ago, when more than half the apartments were vacant and crack and heroin dealers prowled the hallways. Now the courtyard mailboxes carry names like Danny Glover and Quincy Troupe alongside those of pensioners, and rumors of co-op conversion swirl.

"Five years ago, I could have bought a house in Harlem, but not now," Inis says. "I can't afford it. And I'm basically middle-class. Unless you're upper management and making close to $300,000, I don't think anyone else can afford it, either. Because a shell on 119th Street went for $250,000. And I'm talking about no roof, no windows."

She's determined, however, not to let this boom pass her by completely. "I'm a social character, and I know lots of folks in Harlem, so I hear about things," Inis says. "I'm always looking for my little niche, so I went three months ago and got a real-estate license. Now if I hear about a house, I need to sell it."

In 1990, movie producer george Jackson used Graham Court as the all-too-believable setting for a crack factory in New Jack City. Ten years later, a company Jackson co-founded is just as keenly capturing the moment: Urban Box Office Network is the first major Internet business to move its headquarters to Harlem.

Jackson died suddenly in February at the age of 42, but his partners have just signed a lease for 100,000 square feet at 126th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, where commercial space is 40 percent cheaper than in Silicon Alley. The company expects to move its 300 employees uptown by the end of the year. UBO creates and distributes music, video, and chat targeted at a market it calls "the urban mindset."

"We do a lot of animation that we stream over the Internet," says UBO president Frank Cooper. "We just keep coming across illustrators, writers, filmmakers, musicians who happen to live in Harlem, and to have access to that talent pool is a huge advantage for UBO. About 20 percent of our employees live in Harlem already, and they say it's getting tough to find apartments."

UBO's employees are exactly the people Ibo Balton is after. Today Balton, HPD's director of planning for Manhattan, steps out of his battered city-issue sedan on Frederick Douglass Boulevard near West 121st Street, opposite the brick bones of a mini-Flatiron Building. Officially called Triangle Court, it rotted for twenty years. Then the Housing Development Corporation, an offshoot of HPD, sold it to private developers with the provision that some apartments be set aside for lower-income residents.

Now the Triangle's gracious red stone façade has been sandblasted, and it is the leading edge of an astonishing four-block resurrection. Work is rapidly heading to a May finish on the Triangle and four larger city-owned buildings directly to the south; two adjacent privately owned buildings, also being rehabbed, bring the total to 196 new apartments. Balton steps inside 2210 Frederick Douglass, a grand five-story building between 119th and 120th Streets, accompanied by the beaming private developers, Robert Ezrapour and Eytan Benjamin. Benjamin points out where they'll be installing microwave ovens; the kitchen wine racks and Internet wiring are already in place. This 1,100-square-foot apartment, ready for June occupancy, will rent for $1,400. What kind of tenants does Balton expect in the market-rate units? "People with American Express cards in their wallets," he says.

Balton, long before any real-estate agents were spinning this neighborhood as "north Manhattan," saw the Triangle as a critical architectural and philosophical bridge between Harlem's two redevelopment poles. One extreme is the government-intensive triage that's reclaimed a block of West 140th Street, with the city spending $50 million gut-renovating devastated tenements before recruiting private landlords, who are required to take on some low-income tenants. At the other pole is the naked capitalism fueling prices on brownstone blocks like those of Convent Avenue.

The Triangle and its neighbors are supposed to hold the crucial center. While Balton rattles out public-policy theories about the collateral benefits of market-rate housing, his colleague Luis Ramos leans over and tells me, "None of this would be happening if Ibo hadn't saved the Triangle Building -- twice."

The Buildings Department had scheduled meetings between the collapsing Triangle and a wrecking ball. Now Benjamin, the developer, stands beside the wondrously reimagined property and predicts a surplus of applicants. Never mind the still-pitiful supply of consumer services in Harlem. "Who needs a video store?" he says. " delivers above 110th Street!"

Still, Benjamin will admit to a few qualms. "Anytime a new territory is being developed, there are questions," he says. "But there is so much money being poured into Harlem, so many people have so much at stake, it cannot fail."

For harlem veterans with a sense of history, all of the activity, all of the heady pronouncements, begin to take on a certain eerie déjà vu quality. The cover of this very magazine asked, can harlem be born again? -- in November 1984. Back then, a white lawyer who'd renovated a five-story Mount Morris Park brownstone was the poster boy for gentrification. The Koch administration was puffing up its low- and middle-income housing schemes. And Percy Sutton smilingly perched under the Apollo marquee, promising the theater's imminent return to glory.

No one saw a national recession and a crack plague on the horizon. Those two blows helped knock the foal's legs out from under Harlem's mid-eighties revival. What's different this time? Alan Greenspan, for one thing. But HPD's middle-class-ownership mantra is also a major change in approach.

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