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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Harlem Negaissance

As some of you know, I lived in Harlem for the better part of six, ALL of that time was spent during the "Bush Boom" which was really a hold over from the "Clinton Boom" without the balanced budget and added regulation.

(Hat tip to Don Hamerman for the photo, check out his fancy photo blog. And Don, I found your photo randomly on the internet, just contact me and I'll take it down if its a problem.)

During that time, I was beaten twice, mugged once, had my cell phone stolen from me, and was chased down the street three or four times. I'm not bitter, in fact, on the one occasion I probably could have, I decided not to participate in an investigation, despite several calls from police. I knew my attackers were just teenagers, 19, 20 tops.

What really got me during those heady years of investment banker excesses and massive condos springing up from the discarded shells of old tenement buildings was that people would always tell me, "Harlem's coming back!" "Harlem's getting better," and even my old neighborhood was dubbed a fancy new marketing name, "SpaHa," for Spanish Harlem. We know that white people can't stomach spanish speaking peoples. Ink was spilled and the talk was talked.

But what really happened? Why was I so cynical? Why did I think all the rumors were bunk?

I lived it. I lived the dream, people. Harlem is a neighborhood with a lot of history, a lot of really amazing people, really spectacular family life, and it has all the issues that a lowerclass, poorly educated neighborhood has including, crime, drugs, teenpregnancy and gangs.

Like everything Bush era'd, excuse my poor pun on the word "error," (I felt I needed to explain that one) the new Harlem Renaissance was totally half-assed. Oh! I know, let's build a lot of fancy, super expensive condos that no one can afford to buy, and then, when the neighborhood becomes great, we'll be even richer! This is the way the developers thought, "If you build it, they will come." Well this ain't no field of dreams. At least not until election night. The problem with top down development is that it depends on people moving into a neighborhood because the asset itself is deemed a much higher value than its buy-in price. I looked into buying one of those condos, and there wasn't a single one under a half a million. Very pretty, very modern, all new fancy appliances, and the nearest grocery store was a rat infested, leaky roofed, oddly smelling C-Town. 15 blocks and three avenues away a beautiful pathmark lurked. But who walks 30 minutes to get to the grocery store? Who walks back? People who can afford half-million dollar condos, the feeling went. Well, they had buyers, and now they don't.

Lehman brothers bankruptcy, and the end of the investment bank took care of that. It was a vain dream anyway. For years people have been talking about a new new Harlem Renaissance, and the simple fact is that the original renaissance was an outgrowth of the beautiful, intelligent, artistic, and ingenious people who lived there, who grew up there, or moved there during the boom to contribute. Not bought there, and spent money there.

If I were a developer, and this is one of my dreams I'm sharing with you, I would have done things differently. People want to live in the West and East village because it is the center of the city. There are things to do, and things to see, not just fancy restaurants and successful businesses--that all happened later. What made people move there was the chance to do art, the chance to be a part of something amazing. And the fact that living there was dirt cheap. Nothing these days is cheap. I was talking to my uncle the other day, and when he told me that the government was practically giving Ph.Ds away when he was a young man, I could have cried. What an awful place we live in now.

The Raving Leftatic plan for Harlem: Invest in the community that lives there now. Not just the natives, but also the students, and the migrants who live there because they can't afford the nicer neighborhoods. Attract artists. Gut a building or two, make them art studios, rent control them. Talk it up, let the artists move in. There are artists there already, help them. Sponsor a yearly art fair. Let their positive, energy create something that people want to visit--not just live by. That is the secret to neighborhood revitalization. If I'd had that opportunity when I'd lived there my whole life would have been different.

The fake boom is over, but the next few years will really determine the course. Will the neighborhood go to seed again? Will Bloomberg forget it, and bring the po-po down town to protect his constituency? Or can we finally clear the way for real development. Based on real people, who live there and need it most.

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