In the Zone

The view from Terry Lane’s corner office at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue is a far cry from what he saw in Caracas, Rio de Janeiro, and the other Latin American cities he worked in during his thirteen years as an emerging-markets investment banker. But to the unself-consciously aggressive president of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, the world outside his window looks familiar. “I think of upper Manhattan as a city with 520,000 residents,” he says. It’s a city that’s underserviced and undercapitalized but ripe with potential – and, as Lane puts it without mincing his words, Harlem is a “captive market.”

For almost a year, the 37-year-old Harvard M.B.A. has controlled the most crucial and embattled funding arm in Harlem’s fits-and-starts economic revival, yet few people south – or even north – of 125th Street know his name. Which, he’ll tell you, is part of the plan: In four months at the helm, Lane downsized the job from potentate to bureaucrat, disbursing seventeen business grants and loans totaling $33 million – more than in any of the previous four years of the zone’s existence. Meanwhile, it has morphed from an urban-development program to an M.B.A. think tank as about half of the 38 employees have departed. Lane’s inner circle is largely like him – young financial types with impressive degrees who view Harlem as equal parts cultural touchstone and job incubator.

Harlem’s money train is finally running on schedule, giving out half its $300 million budget as it approaches the midpoint of the zone’s ten-year tax-credit-supported journey. (To be sure, $125 million of that $150 million was committed before Deborah Wright, Lane’s politically connected predecessor, left in May 1998 after two years.) “I’ve depoliticized the place,” Lane claims. “I’m not a political representative; I’m a businessman.” It’s the kind of shift that Wright, who tried to motivate the city, state, and federal leaders who control the zone through the sheer force of her own personality, would never have attempted, and, of course, Lane’s tightly focused vision has its price.

The zone czar won’t listen to the growing chorus of voices concerned about the character of developments like Starbucks or the $65 million Harlem USA megamall and calling for the zone to support struggling mom-and-pop operations with its dollars. He especially won’t sit still for complaints that not everyone benefiting from Harlem’s rebirth is black or Hispanic, arguing that “we know race alone is not a formula for success when it comes to economic development.”

In meetings across Harlem, Lane has laid down the law: The zone wants to make loans, not grants; entrepreneurs should guarantee jobs, not ask for handouts. That can’t help but upset a generation of Harlemites who saw the zone as the neighborhood’s salvation rather than as just a job machine. One former employee describes Lane as “a kid in a candy store,” enjoying power he’s never had before. But to Lane, his enthusiasm is the fuel feeding the zone’s engine.

“We’ve got to ride the market,” he says excitedly. “This is as good as it gets, so we’ve got to be a part of it. I’ve got to close deals fast and get jobs to people right now. When I see new retailers coming in who don’t have to borrow from me, I know I’ve done my job.”

In the Zone