Harlem's Long Road to Gentrification

By Brian Goldstein

Advertisement from the Harlem Commonwealth Council, The New York Amsterdam News, June 3, 1972

Advertisement from the Harlem Commonwealth Council, The New York Amsterdam News, June 3, 1972

September 23, 1969, was an especially long day on the most contested block in Central Harlem. Members of Harlem’s Community Coalition and their allies had resisted the construction of the state office building for almost three months, through the simple act of inhabiting the land they renamed Reclamation Site #1. But as summer turned to fall, Governor Nelson Rockefeller sent city police to take back the block. At dawn, a reporter posted at the site’s gate notified occupants that authorities would soon appear. A few hours later, police and officials arrived...

The following is an excerpt from the author's new book, The Roots of Urban Renaissance:
Gentrification and the Struggle over Harlem
, courtesy of Harvard University Press.

The occupation of Reclamation Site #1 marked the apogee of the drive for radical community control over Harlem’s built environment, and the plans that activists imagined for that site marked a new confidence in their ability to chart the course of future development. They offered a vision of Harlem built by and for the community’s predominantly low-income residents. In this new order, the Architects’ Renewal Committee in Harlem (ARCH) and its allies explained, residents would be subject to neither the authoritarian decision making of government officials nor the speculative fervor of private investors who, they feared, would sweep in upon noticing any sign of rebirth on 125th Street. The state’s skyscraper would blaze a path for outsiders to take over the neighborhood, opponents argued, rendering meaningless any gains claimed in the campaign for Black Power. “The man wants Harlem for himself since it is one of the most natural Manhattan areas for redevelopment,” Omar Ahmed, a site occupier, said. “The state office building was intended as a white outpost at first before the takeover by white power, white strength, and white money.” ARCH captured the threat more concisely. “The city and state will make costly expenditures in the name of black people while corporations reap the profits,” staff argued, contending that public promises cloaked devious intentions.

Yet the state’s rapid eviction of site occupants suggested the difficulties that lay ahead as activists struggled to turn their ideals into reality. Like many aspirations born of the radical movements of the late 1960s, "community control" captivated adherents but proved quite thorny as believers sought to realize its tenets in physical form. “Let’s have the land first and then talk business,” ARCH demanded of Reclamation Site #1. But such goals were more easily envisioned than actualized. High hopes sparked the formation of new neighborhood-based organizations in Harlem promising to effect “community development” and identifying self-reliance and self-determination as their ultimate objectives. But in time, such organizations continued to depend fundamentally, and ironically, on the largesse of the public sector at the state and federal levels, across the political spectrum. If these partnerships brought promises that Harlemites would henceforth shape the future of their land, they raised equally serious questions about whether community development would ever achieve the liberated vision to which radical activists had aspired.

Indeed, community development organizations revealed deep contradictions as they took form. These years brought a flood of support for community developers, as remaining liberal political leaders attempted to reform urban renewal without overthrowing it, and ascendant conservative leaders found alignment between demands for local control and their own efforts to devolve urban policy to the local level. Such generous public funding enabled new organizations to become central to the reconstruction of Harlem’s built environment. But so too did it consolidate power among a select few moderate community leaders, who took advantage of financial independence from Harlemites, the intransigence of radicals unwilling to compromise their principles, and the intrinsic ambiguity of community control itself to advance a paternalistic approach to the project of community development. Their reliance on the public sector would prove to be something of a devil’s bargain, however. Plans -- whether bold or prosaic -- depended fundamentally on the persistence of such support beyond the 1970s, a condition that became increasingly unlikely amid the political and economic austerity of the next decade.

Struggles to define community development in this era brought a shift at the grassroots level from the communitarian hopes of the 1960s to a greatly tempered, increasingly privatized vision of the future. Without the self-reliance that activists had called for and with moderate leaders dominating decision making, community-based organizations planning development along Harlem’s main street turned away from the goals they had once claimed. Instead of the inclusive, cooperative, and mixed-use aspirations of the occupiers of Reclamation Site #1, they advanced an alternate vision that was profit centered, driven by the interests of powerful leaders, and narrowly focused on commercial redevelopment. Their pursuit of this vision in the 1970s would heighten fundamental tensions: between self-reliance and dependence on outside aid, autocracy and participatory democracy, and the individual and the collective. As they reshaped the development landscape in Harlem, new community-based organizations reproduced old inequalities, giving some residents a say without achieving the broad base of support and broad range of benefits to which community control radicals had aspired.

Two organizations, the Harlem Commonwealth Council (HCC) and the Harlem Urban Development Corporation (HUDC), exemplified this transformation most prominently on 125th Street in the 1970s. Both entities followed from the movement for community control that ARCH had helped bring about, but marked the different trajectories available in the aftermath of the occupation of Reclamation Site #1. HUDC, created as a subsidiary of the New York State Urban Development Corporation (UDC), represented the state’s attempt to mollify protesters with pledges to redevelop Harlem according to community desires. But HUDC also marked the last best hope of the urban renewal order in Harlem. Promising a foundation that included Harlem’s diverse political factions, the organization eventually cast its lot with moderate, middle-class parties who saw HUDC as an opportunity from which they could benefit. HCC, on the other hand, retained many of its original, radical board members but came to align with Richard Nixon’s policy agenda, channeling millions of federal dollars into Harlem’s real property and remaining industries with the promise that profits would go to Harlem’s citizens. While HUDC and HCC initially tracked separate paths, their eventual convergence symbolized the contradictory manner in which the ideal of community development transformed. By the end of the 1970s, HCC held substantial tracts of property throughout Harlem but had failed to pass its equity along to the community at large, and HUDC’s promises of community-oriented development adjacent to the state office building remained long unfulfilled. As the 1980s loomed, the highest hopes of community control radicals in Harlem, as in other American urban centers, appeared largely dashed. While they had aspired to find an alternative to both publicly funded urban redevelopment and profit-oriented private development, that possibility had seemingly eluded their grasp. Instead, Harlem’s first major community development organizations harnessed fleeting public funds to delineate a largely privatized, elite-dominated future for 125th Street....

Members of ARCH stood before the community convention in December 1969 to describe their vision for Harlem’s main street. “The controlled development of 125th Street could bring benefits to the community. Each project that is developed should be part of a larger process whereby black people generate manpower, information, capital, land and skills which are needed to gain control over their lives,” they argued. But if community control stalwarts voiced confidence that redevelopment could help solve the neighborhood’s problems of unemployment, housing, and inequality, they pinned such hopes on a dramatic departure from its past methods. “The basic strategy should be ownership of the land and the use of 125th Street as a source of economic development within the community [emphasis in original].” Activists rejected UDC’s offers to facilitate community planning within the rubric of urban renewal, but remained optimistic that they could reshape 125th Street themselves. Self-help offered independence as well as control, and at least the hope that any Harlemite wishing to take part in the neighborhood’s reconstruction could do so.

Creating an institutional structure to make such ideas practicable proved complex, but the community development corporation (CDC) offered one possible path. CDCs emerged across American cities in the late 1960s. In Harlem, the members of ARCH, Innis, Preston Wilcox, and other leading lights of the Black Power movement had created one of the first, the Harlem Commonwealth Council (HCC), in 1967. Similar organizations sprouted in places like the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Cleveland, and Philadelphia. As many as seventy-five urban CDCs existed by 1971, and similar corporations came together in many rural areas beset by poverty. Their activities varied dramatically: some invested in local businesses or aided entrepreneurs, while others constructed new housing or provided social services, loans, and technical assistance. CDCs largely aligned, however, in preaching the compelling, if imprecise, notion that, as one observer described, “equality is as much a matter of economic power as it is of political rights,” and “that in economics, as in politics, there is strength in numbers.”

Indeed, CDCs grew from the hope that cooperation between the predominantly low-income residents of places like Harlem could provide an economic engine for greater self-determination. Communities already bore the resources needed for revitalization, HCC and similar CDCs argued, if only an entity could gather, organize, and direct those resources. Yet despite such dreams of self-reliance, which grew from roots in radical movements for community control, the early history of CDCs revealed a fundamental contradiction in their work: amid continued promises of self-help, these organizations came to depend instead on funds that flowed readily from the federal government in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the “New Federalism” of the Nixon era, CDCs discovered new opportunity, not new constraints. CDCs calling for local control over development found government officials glad to cede responsibility. Such funding redefined the nature of urban policy, creating a direct path between the federal government and new community-based organizations. This relationship enabled CDCs to become major economic forces in their communities and, soon, dream on a bigger scale. However, this support also ushered in new questions about CDCs’ accountability to the residents they promised to serve.

At their beginning, poverty both motivated the formation of organizations like HCC and provided the economic basis for their strategy, which emphasized cooperation and self-help. While individual Harlemites boasted few resources, HCC’s founders contended that their combined assets could nonetheless profoundly reshape the neighborhood. Residents’ power rested in their role as modest shareholders. Founders estimated that $300,000 would allow HCC to procure an initial loan, one-third of which they intended to raise in tiny denominations, in the form of five-dollar voting shares sold to Harlemites. “The [e]ffect would be the creation of a mass-based citizen organization with substantial economic power,” they explained. Profits would return to Harlem, not to the leaders of HCC but into its subsequent ventures. “The Corporation’s investment fund will grow steadily,” founders promised. As a result, HCC would become largely independent and self-reliant, allowing its activities to expand beyond economic development into housing, education, and social services.

Such an approach struck many residents and observers as novel, but in fact CDCs could claim a deep pedigree in black self-help efforts. Marcus Garvey had founded his Universal Negro Improvement Association in the mid-1910s just ten blocks north of 125th Street. He similarly focused his efforts on business creation throughout Harlem and beyond. Anticipating the very approach that HCC would later promote, he financed his grandest project, the oceangoing Black Star Line—a visionary if ill-fated passenger and cargo line—by offering five-dollar shares to his Harlem neighbors and promising them a portion of profits. Garvey organized within an even wider orbit of self-help, extending back to Booker T. Washington’s turn-of-the-century call for black economic self-reliance and encompassing the entire sweep of African American economic pursuits in the early twentieth century, including race-specific businesses focused on personal beauty, news, insurance, and death. Such enterprises, while limited in both scope and scale, offered the promise of a self-sufficient alternate economy that, decades later, organizations like HCC would look to achieve.

Like these predecessors, HCC emerged preaching a gospel combining equal parts market orientation and cooperative mutual aid. At times, HCC leaders espoused undoubtedly capitalist aspirations. “There will be no begging the establishment -- the Corporation will compete on the market with its own resources,” the founders had vowed. Yet the organization promised to temper the capitalistic pursuit of profits with a communitarian ethos that was to benefit Harlem at large. While economic development remained HCC’s primary goal, founders intended that gains would enrich all Harlemites. “The network of businesses that we are building will vastly improve the basic economic structure of our community by creating more financial multipliers, more jobs and better services,” leaders argued. Innis, HCC’s first director, captured the organization’s refusal to chart a dogmatic path. “Blacks must innovate, must create a new ideology,” Innis argued. “It may include elements of capitalism, elements of socialism, or elements of neither: that is immaterial. What matters is that it will be created to fit our needs.” ...

Leaders frequently reiterated their plan to offer ownership shares to Harlemites, resisting decades of history in which outsiders controlled most of Harlem’s economy. “Once we have reversed the ownership trend,” explained Donald Simmons, HCC’s second director, “we will have the confidence of the Harlem community to continue its growth as a commonwealth.” Stock ownership was to provide Harlemites with a stake in HCC’s business ventures and control over the organization itself through representation on its board of directors. A foothold in the local economy, Simmons argued, would lead to the widespread influence that residents had lacked. “The economic ownership by the people will serve as the lever to effect changes in Harlem’s political and educational institutions,” Simmons explained. “Eventually, Harlem’s people will be responsible for Harlem’s police protection, health services, and education.”

Yet despite ambitious promises of self-sufficiency, CDCs like HCC charted a more complicated reality nearly from the moment of their creation. Founders vowed that there would be no “begging the establishment,” but in fact the organization launched with support from the federal government. Despite plans to fund its activities through a loan leveraged with the modest donations of community members, for example, HCC’s initial seed money came through a 1967 grant from the federal Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO)...

Why did HCC so quickly abandon its founding cooperative ethos for a model that depended largely on public-sector support? Two major factors help to explain this transformation. First, the fundamental ideological indistinctness of CDCs -- as Innis described, neither capitalist nor socialist -— brought a decided flexibility to their work. Despite roots in radical movements for community control, HCC proved more concerned with its intended ends -- new business ventures to fuel Harlem’s economic prosperity -- than with the means of getting there. This expediency grew out of the broader ambiguity of the concept of “black capitalism,” a term that contemporary commentators frequently invoked to describe the entrepreneurial outgrowths of the Black Power movement, including CDCs. Innis resisted this label. “In the new focus on economic control, there has been much talk about something called ‘black capitalism.’ Many of our people have been deluded into endless debates centered around this term,” Innis explained. “There is no such animal.” Yet in doing so, he acknowledged the vagueness of an idea that encompassed a wide variety of approaches, from radical demands for reparations to partnerships between multinational companies and African American communities. In a realm of definitional imprecision, in which the very meaning of the CDC remained up for grabs, it proved easy for leaders to shift their approach at will without seeming to abandon the equally ambiguous objective of community control.

Secondly, and relatedly, the ready availability and unconstrained nature of federal funding in this era enabled CDCs to stray from the goal of self-financing. This too arose from the ideological ambiguity inherent in the project of community control. Leaders on the political right and left both saw opportunities in the ascendant mantra of “power to the people.” Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty readily funded community groups in an effort to foster new forms of populist governance. CDCs like HCC, in their eagerness to get off the ground, found such aid difficult to resist. They gladly tapped generous grants in order to avoid the slow, gradual work of gathering resources from low-income residents. Yet if HCC benefited from the last days of the Great Society -— its 1969 grant came just a couple of weeks before the inauguration of President Nixon -- it found that Nixon’s New Federalism hardly staunched the flow of funds. Indeed, CDCs found an eager ally in the new president. As Nixon sought a diminished federal role in urban policy, CDCs offered an appealing outlet with their opposition to the liberal project of urban renewal and their calls for self-help and localism. Through continued support for CDCs, Nixon could appear responsive to African Americans while largely abdicating direct involvement in addressing urban poverty... HCC received more than 10 percent of the nearly $175 million that [OEO] had distributed to urban CDCs by the late 1970s, and... [if Robert F.] Kennedy famously functioned as the patron saint of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, [liberal Republican Jacob] Javits in many ways played the same role for HCC....

“Own a Piece of the Block,” HCC’s newspaper advertisements began to announce in 1972 -- a promise that the most optimistic hopes of the occupants of Reclamation Site #1 might soon come true. By the time HCC shifted its focus to Harlem’s land, it and similar CDCs nationwide had helped to redefine the relationship undergirding development in American cities. Where urban renewal had relied on a network of federal, state, and municipal officials as well as private real estate investors, the funding pipeline that supported HCC ran directly from Washington to the community organization’s doorstep. This dependence on outside support even as organizations continued to promise self-reliance did not strike leaders as paradoxical. They maintained their pledge that community members would soon own the corporation themselves, that “this company . . . will be thrown open to Harlem residents,” as the Amsterdam News put it in 1971. But five years after HCC’s launch, as the corporation began to buy up property along 125th Street, this founding principle still remained only a promise....

Community control activists hoped to fundamentally democratize development in Harlem, but the early history of the neighborhood’s community development organizations illustrated the difficulty of such transformation. If the public sector’s role in Harlem had changed by the early 1970s, it remained crucially involved in the project of redevelopment. Likewise, as residents soon discovered, if new faces guided emerging organizations, their commitment to the project of participatory democracy proved decidedly uncertain. Dependence on outside aid did not necessarily mean that such groups would stray from goals of empowerment and self-determination, of course, but as the leaders of HUDC and HCC forged close relationships with the state and federal governments, respectively, their work gained increasing distance from founding principles.

Instead of the ideal that radicals had espoused as the basis of community control, a vision of a richly textured neighborhood cooperatively shaped by and for the benefit of its existing residents, HUDC and HCC advanced an alternate vision for Harlem. Their ideal emphasized the commercial development of 125th Street and a paternalistic approach to community control, premised on the assumption that dominant leaders knew best what would benefit their Harlem neighbors. This outcome resulted in part from pressure by outside funders, but more so from the independence that outside funding enabled, leaving leaders of local organizations to chart their own course without reliance on the community members they promised to serve.


Brian Goldstein is Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of New Mexico.