Harlem “transition” missing the point

Sheesh, white privilege can result in such blinders. A NYT article by Sam Roberts bears a headline proclaiming that blacks are now less than half of Harlem’s population. Oh really? I hadn’t noticed the last time I was at 125th & Manhattan Ave. The article has the usual “experts” talking about gentrification and white-black relations, and the photo shows a white guy on a brownstone stoop. Yet an accompanying set of graphs shows a clear black majority in “central Harlem” (the area most residents would call Harlem) and a shrinking — but already minority — black plurality in “greater Harlem.” The “greater” area, it turns out, includes Spanish/East Harlem and much of Morningside Heights, neither of which have ever been majority black. Even within “central Harlem,” the graph shows a steep drop in the share of black residents beginning in 1980, long before the white gentry ever got to the neighborhood. In short, the graphs say that this was a poor neighborhood undergoing steady ethnic succession (by no means a new phenomenon; indeed, it’s the story of urban America) — from native-born black to Latino (a not-obvious shift, since many Caribbean immigrants blend the two categories) — and that minor gentrification has taken place over the past few years.

Basically, it’s not news (and we don’t even pretend to notice) until white people get there. This in spite of the fact that class, not race, is the real issue here and with gentrification in general; that households and not population are really the units of gentrification.

I’ll quote Brad Smith, who left this comment:

The Times places a photo of a white family at the top to suggest the displacement is because of whites. And most of the article concerns the influx of whites, suggesting the same cause. However, the accompanying graphs show the uptick in white families to be rather small, with “Other” constituting the real source of the population shift. Presumably, those are Hispanics but there is scant mention of them in the article… The loss of “majority” status has nothing to do with the influx of whites or the development boom of the past 10 years. So why is a white family featured in the photo and why is the demographic change repeatedly portrayed as a function of the influx of whites when the statistics and timeline say something else? The article is rather misleading and suggests an agenda.

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3 thoughts on “Harlem “transition” missing the point

  1. I’m not sure I get your point. The Times article is supposed to ignore the 700% increase in whites in just 8 years, and concentrate on the 30% increase in Latinos during the same time period?

    And keep in mind that the Latino turnover has been advancing in lockstep for about a half-century in Upper Manhattan (roughly proportional decennial increases), while the white growth is a completely new trend (180 degree turnaround from the past 80 years).

    Isn’t the point of news reporting to undercover the new and noteworthy? Why would a slow, 50-year trend be newsworthy, while a recent, rapid trend be a non-story?

    And the unique housing situation in Harlem is what makes the transition really noteworthy. Somewhere betwen 30-40% of Central Harlem housing units are market-rate. Taken in this context, and in the short timeframe, the transition has certainly been dramatic.

  2. Great point, especially about the dominance of subsidized housing in the local marketplace. Wish the Times had made those points, but instead the article’s framing goes from “blacks are now a minority” (even in the headline!) > “white population growing” (in the story, and the photo). Both statements are true, but the insinuation that the latter is anything other than a contributing factor to the former statement is dishonest. Few other contributing factors even got mentioned.

    I’d also argue that the really big story — and the one underlying the interviewee’s concerns about neighborhood character — is about economic, not racial, change.

  3. Payton wrote:
    >I’d also argue that the really big story — and the one underlying the interviewee’s concerns about neighborhood character — is about economic, not racial, change.<

    I agree. Neighborhoods can and should welcome changes to their commercial line-up and residential dwellers. This kind of change is constant in modern civilization. Families grow, businesses change owners or cycle-down/up. And all of this can happen in a completely benign way. But, when this change is coupled with sharp increases in property taxes or other local costs of living, or when neighborhood infrastructure strains to support a spike in population, often all signs of change (including the truly benign) can start to be seen with resistant eyes.

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