Harlem in the early 20th century was a mostly white neighborhood that went through wild swings in real estate prices. The real estate industry then pushed Blacks into Harlem. Black rents were often charged more than whites. Harlem became known as the Black cultural center of the US, and spawned a great number of Black entertainers, writers, and academics. But the 70s, certain changes in the city took its toll on Harlem. New York lost one million jobs under Mayor John Lindsay. Under Mayors Wagner and Lindsay, the city built a lot of housing projects (Harlem has many) and it became a lot easier to get welfare. Deteriorating conditions led to the flight of well of Blacks, and Harlem went further into the hole. The late 80s/early 90s crack cocaine epidemic hit the neighborhood hard. A number of negligent landlords had their buildings seized. By the early 90s, the city sold buildings to those who would invest in these properties for a dollar.
By the late 90s, federal, state, and city policies had encouraged investment in poor neighborhoods. Harlem, which had hardly any financial institutions, began to get major bank branches. Pathmark opened up in Harlem. Magic Johnson invested in a movie theater complex in Harlem. And it was big news when Bill Clinton put an office in Harlem. Harlem had slowly rebounded. On the west side of Harlem, in the area called Morningside Heights, Columbia University fought and ultimately won its major expansion plans as the university acquired 16 new acres for expansion. A number of new condo buildings went up on 8th Avenue, not far from Columbia University. A number of high end retailers moved into Harlem, and all the major brands like Starbucks now operate in Harlem. And the epitome of high end grocery stores, Whole Foods, is opening up a store in Harlem. At certain points, the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side have blended up into Harlem. Spanish Harlem, at certain points at above 96th Street, looks very much like the UES until you get to 105th Street. The exceptions are where you have public housing buildings. But all around, higher end retailers and renovated buildings have changed the character of the neighborhood. Harlem is no longer the 'hood. Its typically large apartments are now quite popular.
But of course everything comes at a price. There was a recent large scale arrest at the Manhattanville projects near Columbia's expanded campus. While of course criminal gang activity is never a good thing, it seems awfully convenient that this happens as Columbia expands and as the real estate industry invests more. Many activists feel that an iconic symbol of Africam American culture, called by some the capital of Black America is being destroyed by the latest version of urban renewal. Tenants are even harassed by landlords, so they can get them out and renovate or demolish the building, in order to make way for luxury housing. As Humanity in Action Reports:
Harlan Hill, a contractor repairman and longtime resident of the privately owned building Lenox Terrace, at 132nd street and 5th avenue, has experienced this harassment first hand. The Olnick Organization--owners of the Terrace buildings--have a bad reputation for intimidation schemes and techniques.
"Anybody they can get out, they try hard to get out. You can't imagine what they come up with. In my case they were trying to evict me, by claiming that they never received my money orders. Then they sent the marshal to change the lock on my door, so I couldn't get into my apartment. When I finally got things straightened out and got back in my flat, the money orders mysteriously appeared under the door a few days after the trial."
It should be noted that harassment of rent stabilized tenants has been a problem throughout Manhattan, Western, Brooklyn, and Western Queens as these are the areas with the majority of real estate investment and the areas that have the highest gaps between what a rent stabilized tenant would pay and what a developer could get from market rate housing. It should also be noted those with the lowest rents are elderly. As Met Council on Housing Reports:
According to the 2005 Housing and Vacancy Survey, there are now 43,000 rent-controlled apartments in New York City. The median income of those households was $22,200. The median rent is $551 per apartment, and the median household pays over 33.5% of income for rent. The city's rent-controlled tenants are mostly elderly -- with most tenants having lived in their apartments since 1971 or before.
Basically, the one's hardest hit by Harlem's gentrification are the elderly, as they are on fixed incomes and the are often no longer in the workforce. Many of these poor elderly people never had jobs that provided pensions and are only living off social security. The new Harlem Renaissance, as some are calling it certainly isn't a renaissance if you are poor, old person among societies most vulnerable.