A Rising Tide Of Development In Harlem
“Some of my parents’ friends have called and said when is it (NY Proton Cancer Center) going to open, because we live in Florida and Harlem would be a great place for us to have a second home” — A Developer At Bisnow Conference
On a Thursday in July, I had every intention of being at the second half of an eight hour grant writing workshop that had been scheduled in my calendar for weeks. That all changed when a community board member shared with me a curious email titled Harlem’s Investment & Development Boom! A company called BISNOW that produces industry-specific e-newsletters and events primarily for commercial real estate professionals, which I had never heard of, was hosting a conference the following day on development in Harlem. The event was sponsored in conjunction with the Harlem Chamber of Commerce at the Alhambra Ballroom in Harlem. The fee to attend was $99, and the conference was in the morning, which told me odds were not many residents from the community would be attending. So, I did what anyone would do, called a friend who was scheduled to speak to ask about a ticket, sent an email to the workshop facilitator explaining to her I would be a no show, and hit the group chat to confirm I was making the right decision.
Getting dressed that morning, I wore my linen suit, and suede loafers (loafer socks). It was an intentional decision, something that screamed “yes, I can be in a room with you, but don’t get it twisted, I am not you, nor do I have a desire to be.” By the time I arrived to the building from Brooklyn where I had cohosted a morning radio show, I was 30 minutes late. Stepping into the elevator I was greeted by a curious fellow who, before I had a chance to press the button to the sixth floor, asked me what I did, who I was there representing, and whether I had a business card. The Harlemite in me said “it’s way too early, back up off me,” but the diplomat in me said “they’re in my bag, but I’ll find you before the event is over.”
The elevator doors opened, and we were greeted by about four young white women hovering over one another working the name badge table. They looked cramped in the space, which was reminiscent of a black grandmother’s living room, only reserved for the special events, with that one couch with the plastic cover on it. While I was born in Harlem, I was raised on Long Island, so my spidey-sense tingled getting a glimpse of what I was probably about to experience. Spoiler alert: it involved very little diversity.
When I turned the corner, it opened into the main hall. For those who may not know, the Alhambra Ballroom was originally a theater, home to many vaudeville shows and movies in the early 20th century. That same ballroom now hosts what can best be described as “functions.” If you’re black, this probably requires no further clarification. The nice furniture, with the Uncles positioned near the rum punch bowl in their best Steve Harvey suit; kind of functions. It is a beautiful space that reminds you of Harlem’s classic extravagance, yet feels like a time capsule slightly removed from the present. It needs to be maintained for the history that it possesses but struggles against competing budget needs in a community where history is being overlooked for the sake of a more modern future.
The Roald Dahl book The Witches was published in the early 80s, and made into a full length feature film by Jim Henson in 1993 starring Anjelica Huston. The film was about a group of children-loathing witches who taint sweets with Formula 86 to transform kids into mice. For those who may recall the film, there’s a scene in which the young boy sneaks into the witches convention only to be found out and turned into a mouse. So why am I mentioning this? Walking into that room, on that day, with that conference topic, and gazing out into a scene of unfamiliar faces literally around the corner from my home, I felt like that kid in that movie. For those unfamiliar with the film The Witches, imagine Jordan Peele’s Get Out bingo scene after you realize that what is actually being auctioned off is you. Get my drift?
There were over 200 attendees packed wall to wall. I would later go on to personally count about 30 black and brown faces; 10 of whom were food service staff. Overall, less than 15 percent of the room were women. The opening panel titled ‘New Development Outlook,’ which had already begun, was all-white. The shortsightedness to have that be the opening panel in 2018, told me everything I needed to know about the company hosting the event. A friend would later ping me on social media to say he went to college with the group of guys who started the company; that they were the young, flashy, “move fast and break things” type, only instead of applying that mindset to startups, they applied that to development and communities. His description was far from flattering.
The first familiar face I saw in the room was Lloyd Williams, President of the Harlem Chamber of Commerce. Always a man on the move, I shook his hand as he appeared to be heading out the door. Now, my interactions with the Chamber are limited, and Harlem is a very political town, but when it comes to the major development shifts in this town, there are only but a handful of organizations responsible for the transformation that have occurred over the past thirty years. Many of the individuals who continue to lead those organizations have done so for years for a range of reasons that include preserving institutional memory, relationships, power, and a lack of succession planning. Those tend to be recurring themes in Harlem.
Yet even in that particular room, amongst the cohort of black men I spotted, I noticed a slightly different look in their faces. The way I would describe the majority of their curious and subdued facial expressions I saw that morning was a sense of “we’ve unleashed something from Pandora’s box and we’re not sure if we’re equipped to put it back.” It was a mix of complicity, and recognized guilt. To translate, it felt like the equivalent of inviting your neighbor Bob to the family cookout. Except, Bob goes and invites his friends, purchases the required permit from the Parks department, comes prepared with the Gazebo because the forecast predicts rain, and next thing you know Bob’s telling you how to make the potato salad at your own bbq.
The second familiar face I saw was Simon, a real estate agent I know and have grabbed coffee with. We met at a Community Board meeting on the future of church development in Harlem. He had taken a keen interest in mapping the neighborhood churches, and we agreed to meetup to discuss it further. Unrelated to his day job, his mapping project was connected to a desire to see affordable housing stock preserved by having churches that were being eyed by developers instead consider leveraging their air rights to preserve affordable housing. By his own calculations, 6000 additional units of AMI* affordable housing could be constructed utilizing available church spaces.
I should acknowledge upfront the challenge in spaces like that is when feeling threatened, it becomes common to paint with a broad brush; that every developer is tearing your community apart. The reality is, intent can be difficult to determine, you’ll never get to meet everyone in there, so there may be some allies amongst the crowd that you should give the benefit of the doubt. I must say, with hindsight being 20/20, the room, on that day, was fairly black and white.
Prospecting is the art of searching for mineral deposits and precious metals. During the gold rush, men traveled the country with pickaxes and gold pans in search of new terrains and opportunities to strike it rich. What I was listening to during the first panel was prospecting. It was a conversation rooted in a Jetson-ian view of what could be, instead of what is. Yes, there was a mention of elements of Harlem’s development history, but it was largely in the context of conversations around developers who had been unsuccessful in their attempts to convince others Harlem was worth building in. What a difference a few years makes. Today it was vivid descriptors about the possibility of the community, and the types of residents their projects would encourage to seek out Harlem, absent a substantive discussion about who already lives here.
White privilege oozed from the speakers, especially Ryan, a realtor featured on Million Dollar Listing whose project at 110th and Frederick Douglass includes a penthouse currently on the market valued at 10 million dollars. I couldn’t recall the last time I was in a space where the messaging felt so tone-deaf. There was little contextualization of the lives of the residents living in the community, and much of it was predicated on these developers being the saviors of this part of New York that “reminded them of old New York.” The message many panelists hammered home was that displacement was not occurring. According to another panelist, Anna Zarro,“from the affordability story, people aren’t losing… what’s so exciting about the newer developments that are happening here, people are not like losing homes, more homes are being created.”
The real danger in these spaces is that like our current administration, espoused opinions become interpreted as facts absent fact checkers or other forms of accountability. When you’re preaching to the choir, that makes you a choir director. The danger of these narratives is they make opinion out to be fact and, more specifically, they’re deceitful, if not entirely incorrect. A study out of GSAPP at Columbia University on Harlem’s displacement highlights a decrease in Black family households across Central Harlem over multiple census tracks. So while one’s carefully balanced language may refer to physical structures, that does not account for families who were IN those homes.
At another point the conversation turned towards the international community and its investment in Harlem development projects. One panelist mentioned a trip she took to China to sell investors on supporting development projects in Harlem. She mentioned that within two weekends, they had filled their list of investment opportunities. Apart from the scary thought of any of those panelists truly capturing the value proposition of Harlem and communicating that to others, it brought home the reality that globalization is shifting who is able to live in the community. Harlem, which is already comprised of diverse ethnic groups; Puerto Rican, African-American, Dominican, Senegalese, Ethiopian, Italian, is now competing with individuals with higher net worths, relegating some of these very communities to have to either move out of Harlem, or double up together under conditions that the city would technically constitute as homeless.
Another speaker mentioned that he had friends of his parents who lived full time in Florida, but were eying the development of East Harlem’s state of the art proton lab for cancer treatment so they could invest in a second home in the area. The movement of the medical community uptown is also quickening the rate of development. Without accountability for equitable placement of facilities across Manhattan for example, then developers will target where land is the cheapest, which is why many set their sights on Harlem. The challenge comes in cases like that of Mt Sinai, when community feedback suggests the greatest need is dialysis care, yet the hospital’s executive team chooses to invest in brain research because dollar for dollar it generates more revenue. How can communities not only exercise their voices, but feel empowered that they have a say in the facilities that come into their own backyard to address their disproprotionate health needs?
The conference was three hours long. Fortunately I was seated next to a Latina woman who was born in the city, but had relocated from Westchester back into Harlem for work. Within 10 minutes of sitting down, she nodded in agreement to a response I muttered under my breathe again, unsure how anyone was processing the words coming out of the mouths of the speakers without a consideration for what was going unsaid. I reminded myself at some point that coming out of pocket at an event like this would do little to shift the perspectives widely held in that room. That audience was very much aligned with the vision Bisnow was selling, which explains their decision to attend in the first place. At one point I was brought back to reality by the man across the row from me fumbling with his phone whose homescreen showed a picture of him and his 3 kids. At some point, these folks are seeking to provide for their families, like so many are. It just so happens their doing so affects the quality of life others are also seeking to provide for theirs. The kinds of competing priorities inherent in systems predicated on exploitation.
I realized that in the spectrum of development, there were also a range of individuals. One of the key distinctions in development philosophies that I noticed came down to how long the developer had been operating in and around the Harlem community. Those who had projects since the rezonings of the early 2000’s had a semblance of what it meant to seek community feedback and input on the projects they were creating. There were however, other developers who avoided that very feedback, contributing to elements of the hostility some of the community residents feel towards the individuals remaking Harlem in their own image. When Extell, the company who made headlines for their “poor door” in which low income renters were made to use a separate entrance than building owners, buys the Pathmark property on 125th street, you know that you’re no longer in Kansas anymore.
One individual did get a question in during the first panel although technically there was no Q&A. Thomas Lopez-Pierre, a Harlem resident with two previously attempted runs at City Council and a local track record for comments interpreted as anti-semitic in strongly worded campaigns made against real estate developers, stood and asked about the role of current Black residents in the conversations around development. In what was a somewhat subtle alley-oop, a black audience member, who, upon hearing the question spoken out yelled “we cannot hear you,” helped yield the floor to conference organizers who then were forced to acknowledge the comments that had been made.
The response to that question from the panelists was two-part. Initially the response again echoed the sentiment that displacement was not affecting residents. Allison Berman of Greystone said “anyone of any race that’s living in Harlem that wants to stay in Harlem will have an additional priority opportunity to do that through the additional housing development that now doesn’t exist.” She went on to say “I think that developers increasingly regardless of tax incentives or not are wanting to be very responsible to the communities.” The other developer, Dave Blumenfeld of Blumenfeld Development Group chimed in to state “first of all, it’s bad statement, there are several groups in Harlem, not just Black people…but I don’t believe (displacement) is the fact.” Dave went on to go cite the East River Plaza opening as an example of job creation, being able to stay in the community and creative attractive opportunities. Interestingly enough, earlier this year at the opening of the Strive Workforce Development Center in East Harlem, I happened to sit next to a woman from East Harlem who oversaw the community engagement for that very worksite. She confessed that the inability to keep East Harlem residents employed there (retention) was a real challenge that continued to be a pain point for her as a longtime East Harlem resident seeking to create opportunities for her neighbors. Now, if you were to have me choose whose narrative I believe; assumption, or first hand account, I would go with the latter.
Just after the start of the second panel, I noticed a community civil rights nonprofit leader and fellow FCBC church member who was in attendance. She was in awe of what she was witnessing. Periodically glancing over to gauge her reaction during the panel discussions, all I could think to ask was whether she had prayed before coming there. Visibly frustrated, she said she was mad that the individuals in that room were determining what Harlem would become. Shortly after, she walked out.
After the second panel, which featured members of the 125th Street BID & politician and former Assemblymen turned consultant, Keith Wright, there was time for Q&A. In response to what I was hearing mentioned about the history of development efforts in the community contrasted with the previous panel’s vision for what the community evolved into, I asked which groups set the master vision for what Harlem is going to become, and how balance might be struck recognizing there are so many varying interests involved. Barbara Askins of the 125th Street BID translated my question to mean “who can pull all of Harlem together?” While she didn’t know of any organizations doing that work because of the competing needs, she did cite the city’s response to the 125th street zoning as an example of pulling East, West, and Central Harlem together. Barbara acknowledged it should happen, while Keith Wright said there’s no one office in charge of the vision but a conversation across the groups that include community boards and block associations. He also went on to say “I don’t think the revitalization and development of Harlem has been driven just by money,” before acknowledging the need to be a part of those structures that affect those changes.
I was intentional with that question, because the much larger conversation is the need to bring interests in Harlem to the table. In a conversation with a friend in the development space who wasn’t at that meeting, a seemingly simple question he asked about what kinds of projects were being developed in the neighborhood really hammered home the reality these development efforts are happening in silos. Whether it’s funding related, or a desire to have the city not involved as an overseer, many developers are keeping their cards close to chest, meaning that even in a room where you know development projects are in the pipeline for the next 2–5 years, it’s impossible to fully assess, outside of perhaps the planning board, the true scope of the projects being developed. The community certainly has little insight, as the ULURP process votes around rezoning and liquor licenses are some of the handful of times when the community board is directly given a vantage point. Greater transparency in this area, while a pain point for many developers, would actually be a tremendous win for community cohesion on all sides. Who wants to operate in a silo, absent an understanding of how a larger community takes shape? More specifically, communicating the vision for where the neighborhood will be is also a stronger selling point for prospective buyers and investors.
There is a need for greater onboarding for civic engagement and a sense of contribution for so many community members seeking to serve their communities. In my own opinion, civic engagement should be treated as a core infrastructure need. At no point in the conference did improving schooling options or infrastructure repair come up. Not once outside of a developer’s reference to Columbia University being in the neighborhood. The closest we came was a passionate plea by Silicon Harlem’s Clayton Banks, a panelist, about the need to consider broadband investment as a part of these developer offerings. Think about that, not only are these developers operating in silos, many are also not contributing back to the infrastructure of the communities in which they are becoming a part of. This is a problem which must be addressed, confronted, and organized around. What’s to prevent residents from simply “summering” in Harlem, while working and sending their children to schools In other parts of the city? They say a rising tide lifts all boats, but that presumes you had a boat to begin with. Increasingly, the data suggests a significant portion of longtime Harlem residents do not.
There is a lot that can exhaustively be said about the conference itself. Going back to the friend who reached out in response to my concerns he wrote “I know some people who either work for or helped found Bisnow, and this tone deaf bullsh** does not surprise me… these kids were like the most privileged dudes who thought they were gonna change the world, oblivious to how they (came across).” The problem is a capitalism challenge as much as it is a human one. It comes down to incentives. NYC development project costs are ballooning. Affordable housing is expensive, and so when given the opportunity to develop, every tax break matters. Regardless how these projects are financed, we as a community cannot believe the words of developers to be held as gospel. If living in Harlem has taught me anything, it’s that trust must be earned.
Structures must be formed to intelligently approach this issue at the root of its problem, and collaboration will be the only way through. How can we bring those representative voices to the table in a way that isn’t driven solely by special interests? Harlem is a diverse and evolving community, there are community members that believe that, there are also developers that believe that too. I was even approached by a few after I asked my question because they too felt a master plan was missing from the conversation.
The Renaissance was a snapshot in Harlem’s past, but the legacy as a community connected to affordability is a linkage across the various ethnic communities that have called Harlem home, people that include my great grandfather. How do we keep the value in Harlem, and not simply have it extracted out? That is the work of community building, that is the work of collective visioning, that is the work of equitable investment and development. None of that was talked about at the conference, but it must be to ensure our community stands a chance to have its possibility realized by those residents who have lived here, and those who will come. Yes, Harlem residents want improved services, they want the amenities that come from them, but they also want dignity, and the sense of belonging that comes from that. It is their home also, we would be wise to remember that. Place matters, change can benefit all, but it must be designed for and organized for. It will not happen on its own.