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Whose Harlem Is It?

2007 65 East 125th Street   

It’s not about identity politics or cultural preservation, she tells me. It’s about math. “You ask the average African-American resident of Harlem,” she says, “they’ll say it means ‘nonblack people are moving in and we’re being forced out.’ And that’s not gentrification. Gentrification means a change in the social, economic makeup of a neighborhood. Not necessarily racial. What is going to change, is anybody with money who can afford the house is gonna buy the house. And if the house is very expensive, because the black middle class is smaller than the white middle class, there will be more nonblacks buying the houses.”

Of course, the issue is more complicated than that. No one wants to go back to the bad old days of sky-high murder rates and bombed-out tenements. But that doesn’t mean everyone is in favor of unchecked gentrification, either. In one of the most expensive cities in the world, Harlem has long been one of the few reliably affordable neighborhoods, and neighborhood advocates say that’s invaluable. “It’s immoral to me for people to come and say, ‘I deserve to live here more than you do because I have more money,’ ” says the architectural historian Michael Henry Adams, author of Harlem Lost and Found. At the very least, the opponents of gentrification say, the pace of change is excessive. The Bloomberg administration is rezoning all of 125th Street for more than 2,000 new market-rate condos, as well as office towers; along the East River, $1 million condos are coming next to the site of a future shopping mall; and to the west, Columbia is threatening to swallow a whole swath of the neighborhood. That’s all on top of Suggs and other brokers’ driving up home prices. “This is beyond gentrification as we commonly know it,” says Craig Schley, who heads a community advocacy group called VOTE People. “Gentrification typically refers to stronger or more viable people taking advantage of weaker people. Here, everybody’s getting eaten up. The haves are getting eaten up by the have-mores.”

Then there’s the even trickier question of race. Suggs and others insist that trying to preserve Harlem as a mainly black neighborhood is just reverse discrimination. But others say Suggs and others like her are hiding behind principle for their own selfish ends. “This woman,” says Nellie Hester Bailey, who heads an activist group called the Harlem Tenants Council, “has reaped a bounty off the backs of poor and working-class people.” Philosophically, there are those who say Harlem should be to blacks, to use Suggs’s analogy, as Italy is to Italians. Or maybe the better comparison is to Israel—a haven for the historically oppressed. Still others simply sense something important disappearing in Harlem, and want to stop it. “I feel about Harlem the same way I feel about Chinatown or Florence or Venice, or even New Orleans,” says Michael Henry Adams. “A place like this without natives living there becomes pointless.”

Suggs doesn’t have time or patience for any of this thinking. Harlem has too many rich people now? “I want the new people who come in to be doing well,” she says. Other people can live elsewhere, she adds. “Not in Harlem, but in the Bronx. Maybe Cambria Heights in Queens. Eh, Brooklyn’s kind of dicey. People want what they can’t have, and they can’t have it because of choices that they make.”

Should Harlem stay mainly black? Racism is racism, she reiterates. Besides, “you need this mix,” she says. “I don’t want my neighborhood to be all black or all white. That’s not how I grew up.”

The practical reality, Suggs maintains, is that Harlem will remain black no matter what. “Look out the window,” she says. “What are we seeing? What are those big buildings? That’s public housing. Who lives in public housing? Black folks. Public housing, you’re rent-stabilized or rent-controlled. You’re not leaving unless you go feet-first. The majority of people who live in Harlem are renters. The majority of those are rent-stabilized or rent-controlled. We’re not going anywhere.” Yes, Suggs says, there are more rich white people than rich black people, and so more whites will buy expensive properties than blacks. “That doesn’t mean that every black person who owns a house in Harlem is going to sell our house to a white person. Some of us are never going to sell our houses. We’re trying to buy more if we can.”

For Suggs, nothing’s stopping anyone, black or white, from gaining a stake in the new Harlem. To her, freedom from the shackles of race and poverty, and entry into the landed class, is just a real-estate course away. She says as much when I ask her about the argument that blacks as a class have been economically discriminated against—and are therefore being disproportionately pushed out. The question makes her face tighten; finally, she snaps.

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