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Harlem Undergoing a Second, Economic 'Renaissance' - 2002-06-26

New York City's Harlem neighborhood is known throughout the world as the historic cultural center of the African-American community. Black writers, artists and musicians converged there during the "Harlem Renaissance" of the 1920s. After a period of urban decay, Harlem's economy is thriving in a second Renaissance.

In Harlem, people are building. On nearly every street, construction workers can be seen, and heard, renovating houses that ten years ago were falling apart or abandoned. Despite a downturn in the economy and the September 11th attacks, Harlem, which is known for African-American literary and jazz traditions, continues to experience an economic boom.

So it makes sense that the century-old Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, which promotes economic development in the neighborhood, is also thriving. The Chamber recently moved into new, larger offices, and business-owners (current and prospective) are constantly calling.

Lloyd Williams, who heads the organization, says that the recent revival is very different from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. "The new Harlem Renaissance is more a brick and mortar Renaissance," he said, "where the original Harlem Renaissance was one of arts, culture, entertainment, music, things of that nature. This Renaissance is taking a different form and fashion - it is housing, it is commercial development."

That development is visible on the neighborhood's main thoroughfares, where large national chain stores are opening for the first time. Even former President Clinton has moved his offices to Harlem.

Property-owners and real estate agents have benefited from Harlem's recent success, which has caused prices to soar. One of Harlem's top realtors, Willie Suggs, says she has seen prices triple since 1994. "Still, in New York's competitive housing market, Harlem remains less expensive than most of Manhattan," she observes, "Europeans and New Yorkers from all over the city are drawn to the neighborhood's lower prices, its history, pre-World War II details on the houses, its vast beautiful parks and its many cultural attractions."

Ms. Suggs says that as its popularity grows, the neighborhood continues to attract predominantly African-Americans with a strong sense of community. "The largest group has always been and remains the African-American professionals," she continued, "no matter where we grew up in the United States, we all knew that Harlem was the place to be. We did not think of crime first. We thought of black folks who had [succeeded]."

Ms. Suggs credits Harlem's revival, which has coincided with the revitalization of urban areas throughout much of the United States, to the economic prosperity of the 1990s, city programs that encouraged private development of abandoned property and a drop in crime.

Willie Suggs says the rebirth of Harlem in areas such as 142nd Street is astounding. "If you walked down that street six years ago," he said, "there were 10 vacant buildings with garbage in front of them, garbage inside of them. Rats running around, drug dealers hanging out. Prostitutes. Go down that street now. Those buildings, except one, all of them have been renovated. All of them have new owners in them."

Laws stabilizing rent-prices have helped low-income residents stay in Harlem, although many have been left out of the buyers market. It is also becoming increasingly difficult for small businesses to compete with the national chains on Harlem's main shopping streets.

Chamber of Commerce director Lloyd Williams says he worries that the new prosperity will push out the residents who remained in Harlem during the period of urban decay. "I want to make sure that those who are planning for the development of Harlem are making sure they are planning to have a community that better serves and is more attractive to those who are less fortunate," he said.

Mr. Williams says Harlem's economic and cultural diversity along with its creative energy makes the neighborhood unique. "Harlem is the center of black America," he said, "It is the most exciting place to be. It is the most creative place to be. If you want to meet the world, if you want to meet the world in the nicest way, you can do it here."

Lloyd Williams cautions, however, that development plans must preserve the neighborhood's character, or Harlem will become just another strip mall.