White money discovers Harlem


Development: Signs of economic growth are everywhere along 125th Street, but some fear that an urban renaissance may come at the cost of neighborhood identity and control.

August 28, 1999|By Josh Getlin | Josh Getlin,Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK -- It's Amateur Night at the Apollo Theatre, and a parade of aspiring black stars is getting ready to face one of the toughest crowds in show business.

Apollo audiences have seen it all over the years: Jazz divas such as Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, a kid named Stevie Wonder, a mystery group called the Jackson 5. But tonight there's something different on stage: a white teen-ager who leaps out of the crowd to join in a hip-hop dance contest.

As he shakes and rolls, a powerful, impromptu chant rocks the room: "White man in the house!" (chuka-boom) "White man in the house!" The boy gets a generous round of applause when he returns to his seat, flashing a victory sign. But outside, on the busy streets of Harlem, the mood is not always so welcoming.

For the first time in decades, white corporate money is flowing into the community, fueling a development boom that marks the first major economic investment in Harlem since the riots of the late 1960s.

More than $550 million in public and private funds are bankrolling the arrival of a Disney store, Cineplex Odeon Theatres, HMV record store, Old Navy, Starbucks and other retail giants on 125th Street, the neighborhood's main artery. Slowly, a neighborhood that has been stifled by crime, drug use and persistent urban blight is beginning to share in the economic growth that has lifted more affluent urban areas across the rest of America.

City planners report signs of a similar economic resurgence, though less intense, in the black neighborhoods of Atlanta, Kansas City, Dallas, Atlantic City, Oakland, Minneapolis and other communities. The change is driven by a dawning realization that, for all their problems, these communities could become retail gold mines for hungry corporate investors. It marks a significant turnaround for many American neighborhoods -- and a prime example of the kind of investment that President Clinton has recently been touting.

Signs of revival

In Harlem, the signs of growth are everywhere: Pathmark, a national chain, recently opened the area's first modern supermarket on 125th Street. The neighborhood's first mall, the $65 million Harlem USA complex, will open in the fall, featuring prominent retail chains and a Magic Johnson Enterprises multiplex theater.

Yet these changes have stirred concerns that Harlem may lose its proud identity to corporate interlopers. While some celebrate the improvement in the area's economic fortunes -- including thousands of new jobs -- others fear it will lead to cultural gentrification and an erosion of local political control.

"Harlem is the last big economic frontier in New York City and a bellwether for inner-city growth across America," says Bernelle Grier, a Harlem native and senior vice president in charge of community development at Fleet Bank in New York. "It's a whole new world."

Harlem and many other American inner cities are generally safer and cleaner than they were 20 years ago. Banks that once avoided making loans in low-income areas are now under a federal mandate to do so, and a profusion of new economic studies have shown that these highly populated zones are filled with consumers starved for retail services.

What makes Harlem special, however, is that a stream of black professionals has begun moving back into the neighborhood, snapping up rehabilitated brownstones and other attractive homes built around 1900.

Located just north of Central Park, the community has excellent highway and rapid transit links. Indeed, the neighborhood once associated with the failed federal programs of the '60s is now seen as a retailer's dream: 530,000 economically diverse people in a 7-square-mile community. Just the kind of "emerging" market that U.S. business is hungry to tap.

It helps that New York, for all its fratricidal politics, has enjoyed a high level of cooperation among federal, state and city officials in launching an "empowerment zone" for Upper Manhattan. These development zones, created in a 1994 law authored by longtime Harlem congressman Charles B. Rangel, call for partnerships between the public and private sectors. They earmark federal dollars as well as generous tax breaks for participating investors.

"We think we might be on the verge of another renaissance in Harlem," says Rangel, a Democrat, referring to the neighborhood's cultural pre-eminence in the 1920s, when Harlem nightspots, jazz clubs and literary salons were all the rage. "It's going to surprise a lot of people."

According to the Boston-based Institute for a Competitive Inner City, urban shoppers generally pack more buying power into a square mile than suburban consumers; they are more fashion-oriented and less price-driven, showing greater brand loyalty than people in more upscale areas. Another study showed that Harlem residents spend 60 percent of their discretionary shopping money outside the neighborhood.

Growing urban markets

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