Why This Area of East Harlem
Stubbornly Resists Change in a Community of Rapid Gentrification
Why This Area of East Harlem Stubbornly Resists Change in a Community of Rapid Gentrification
It’s an early Saturday afternoon in November. Brownstones line 127th Street and Madison Avenue; blocks like these have remained timeless, historical destinations in East Harlem for years and years. The street is still, beautiful in its pureness, sunlight ricochets from building tops casting an omniscient light.
In the center of the block, apartment building 22, a clean and modern mid-rise, has been home to Cheryl Hinkson since the early 1990’s. In the cozy two-bedroom apartment she rents, she sets aside her mop and ushers her daughter into a back room while she makes herself comfortable on a seat in front of an open window. Her eyes wander outside. The clear sky and sounds of nature evoke nostalgia, and she shares thoughts about the community she has so much hope for. “Over the past two or three years there’s been way more homelessness here,” says Hinkson, a 45-year-old school advocate and teacher. “They’re on 125th Street sleeping on sidewalks at one and two in the afternoon. It is not my norm. “It feels different here, and I don’t know what’s going on”.
Like many other East Harlem residents, Hinkson has mixed feelings about what’s happening around her. Even as much of Harlem has become gentrified and rising housing costs have sent previous residents and business owners outside of the community and the city, pockets of East Harlem have resisted change. On West 125th Street, corporate stores like Starbucks, Marshall’s, MAC, H&M, and many restaurants have popped up along the famous strip. But something is different on the east side of the avenue. Mingling with shiny new buildings and new residents, junkies and homeless folks populate the corner of 125th St. and Lexington Avenue. Also known as “The Walking Dead”, they linger in the street, dragging their bodies aimlessly with no final destination in mind. Those too tired, or too high, sleep on sidewalks tucked away under mountains of blankets and pillows while passersby step over them ignoring their existence.
East Harlem, home to one of the country’s largest K2 drug epidemics, and some of the highest rates of homelessness and unemployment, represents a tale of two communities. Construction and destruction of the community cater to developers and buyers, but also push renters out of the area, dislocating them and, ironically, strengthening gentrification. Hinkson, who worries about the “bad elements,” also fears gentrification. “When I moved here over 15 years ago, I didn’t have one white neighbor,” she says. “Everyone on the block knew each other, but now, all of my old friends are gone.”
A Clash Of Cultures
Luis, who also goes by “America,” spends most of his time on this corner getting high. He says he’s been homeless for three years. “The reason I come back here is because everyone’s out pan handling for K2 again,” he says.
K2, a synthetic form of marijuana, is the cheapest and easiest drug to get on the streets. Certainly, it has a hold on the addicts who linger here since it sells for only one or two dollars in local bodegas. “It’s not a legal drug to smoke, but this is what it is. I’m going to show you,” continues Luis, as he uses a lighter to spark his rolled joint on the street for everyone to see. Despite a recent crackdown by the city government, less than 20 feet away, dealers and users huddle together for regular interaction and drug distribution.
According to the East Harlem Community Resource Guide, there are well over 40 drug-rehabilitation facilities and shelters within a twenty-block radius. Yet, many homeless addicts, like Luis, do not feel comfortable enough to find help or reliable shelter. When asked about services offered at some of these shelters, Luis admits, “All they do there is steal your items. I sleep in walk ways of buildings where there’s not much wind passing by, and you don’t feel the cold as much.”
Treatment center officials say they house as many homeless locals as possible given available resources and space. However, Cass, a security guard stationed on 125th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues, thinks the groups are making little difference. “These organizations and the government are helping too much and now these people rely on them…they just hang out here all day.”
A merchant on 125th between Lexington and 3rd Avenue, says K-2 users and homeless roaming the streets, have cut into his business. “Stealing is the biggest problem here, but they have also defecated in front of the store,” says the merchant, who requested anonymity. “Being a resident of Harlem, I don’t always feel safe. You just never know with these kind of people.”
Workers at the nearby drug store Duane Reade tell similar stories. Keishma, a shift leader, has witnessed plenty of disturbances at her job. “They steal a lot and it affects us a lot,” says Keishma, who shared her first name only.“If you look in our body wash aisle, there is no body wash.”
Addicts and homeless irritate shoppers, too. “They always come in begging for money,” Keishma continues. “It’s disturbing to our business and customers.”
Although workers can stand their grounds, commuting to and from work shakes them up a bit. “Well I’m fine, I just don’t show fear,” says Keishma, who commutes to work. “It is a little scary, so I try not to do anything to them, so they don’t meet me outside.”
Pathmark on 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, which opened to great fanfare in 1997 offering hope and options to a community that has been labeled a “food desert,” recently announced its closing.
Over the past several years, the store has become more and more rundown and serves as a hub for drug deals and loitering. Homeless people visit and hang out along the Lexington Avenue side of the street cashing in recyclables for coins at the bottle deposit machines.
Deputy Inspector Thomas C. Harnisch of the 25th Precinct on East 119th Street raises concerns about what’s happening in the community. He points out that soon, there will be an unsightly empty lot in place of Pathmark -- which will offer nothing to the community. “A lot of people here, unfortunately, get the feeling of not being safe because of the presence of homeless individuals,” he says. He complains that locals expect police officers to wipe them off the streets, even though “homeless have the same rights as anyone else.”
Others make living and working in the area difficult. The M60 and X80 buses, public transportation to many, also carry homeless men and women to and from shelters, psychiatric hospitals and rehabilitation centers on Randall’s and Ward’s Islands. “Those buses need to move to 126th and 3rd Avenue out of the way of school kids and workers,” a store manager complained.
Still, Gentrification Marches On
Somehow, despite the social and economic problems, gentrification still manages to break through. For one, the ethnic and racial mix has changed. According to Community District 11 census data, between 2000 and 2010, the white population has increased 68 percent, Asian 110 percent, while the numbers of blacks and Hispanics have decreased.
Housing has also shifted in the form of high rents and housing prices. Locals and long-time East Harlemites can’t afford the rising rents in older buildings, or new asking prices in developing housing. Hinkson complains, “They call it affordable housing, but I don’t see it as affordable. I know on the East Side where it’s predominantly Hispanic, most families have to double up and triple up in homes in order for them to pay the rent and survive. This means a family of four living with another family of five probably paying over $1,500 in rent.”
Mayor De Blasio’s affordable housing plan seeks to help the city’s housing crisis by maintaining and bringing in new affordable units, about 200,000 over the next ten years.
However, with rising demand, the rules and requirements for entry have become have become stricter, as officials look at criminal records, income, sustainable credit, and even political connections. Residents fear this plan will make it harder for them to apply.
Out of reach to so many: luxury developments that are cropping up throughout East Harlem. New condos and co-ops mix uneasily with the social and economic problems of the community. A two-bedroom apartment at the Bridges Condominium complex sells for $1.3 million.
To get to work, residents of that building catch the train at 125th Street -- nearby the now-closed Pathmark.
Reverend Dr. Richard Hayes, an adjunct business professor at Hofstra University on Long Island, is also pastor of the Metropolitan Community United Methodist Church on Madison and 126th Street. He sees how the skyrocketing housing costs have affected East Harlem. “I have folk who see the lot adjacent from the church and are willing to pay two, two and a half, three million dollars to build market rate housing, which is code for housing that most folk who live in this neighborhood can’t afford,” says Hayes.
As pastor of the church for a little over five years, Reverend Hayes recognizes and observes the newcomers often. “When we talk about gentrification, you need to understand what that means. Even an average schoolteacher that’s just working a job has to go on craigslist to find two roommates to live with in this community. It’s just a fundamental shift in the housing stock.”
Still, the community remains marked by inequality -- homelessness, health issues and unemployment that is so stark on 125th Street and Lexington.
Despite all the clutter on that corner, and the obvious grey cloud of gentrification hovering the area, most residents remain hopeful for their community’s future. While East Harlem slowly follows the steps of other parts of gentrifying uptown Manhattan, many look forward to cleaner and safer streets. They understand that change can be a blessing and a curse. Residents think sticking together to work for common goals here will lead their community to success. Says Cheryl Hikson: “I’ve always loved it here. I just think we, as a community, need to regain focus and understand the road won’t be easy. If we work together, staying updated on politics and news and advocates who work for us, we will flourish.”