NEW YORK — For more than a century, Harlem has been one of New York's most densely populated districts. And while it has always been a magnet for African Americans, it has also been one of the city’s poorest and most crime-ridden areas. Today, Harlem is experiencing an economic surge largely due to an influx of outsiders attracted to its plentiful housing and a growing black middle class.
Locals often refer to Harlem as “The Capital of Black America.” But until recently, huge swathes of the area were rundown and depressed and it was difficult for businesses to thrive. That's been changing. Nikoa Evans-Hendricks has spent 14 years organizing small business owners and marketing the Harlem brand.
"I’ve watched it evolve from essentially the forgotten land above 96th Street where no one really saw any value, to the gold mine and the gold coast it has become in Manhattan,” explained Evans-Hendricks.
From 2000 to 2010, median household income in Harlem jumped 30 percent. That enabled Seven Brown to open a skin care spa, once considered too upscale for the neighborhood.
“It’s been a great experience to be able to live and work in the same community that I’ve lived in for a long time. The bad part of it is watching a lot of the mom and pop organizations, mostly black-owned businesses, close on a daily basis," Brown stated. "I think I counted 60 to 65 of them when I was sitting down in conversation last week."
Large businesses squeeze small shops
Chain stores and developers have taken advantage of tax breaks and other incentives to open stores in Harlem, putting rents for commercial space beyond the reach of many small businesses.
Murphy Scott Jr.'s used furniture and upholstery store has been a fixture here for over 40 years. “Now that I can’t afford a place out there to rent, I have to shut it down," he said. "They done shut down about 20 stores like this already.”
Offering unique services
Harlem native Hans Hageman and his wife Bernadette want to combine the old and the new in Brownstone Fitness, their personal training gym. They hope to empower women and promote health in Harlem, where fitness facilities are rare.
"One of the things about having a business here and particularly where we live is that our kids get to see whatever successes we have - and we hope to accelerate those," Hageman said. "But they also get to see the struggles that small business people have."
How Harlemites and outsiders come to define a district where heritage is prized, but African Americans are no longer a majority, is an open question. Many say a changing Harlem that continues to honor its past will be good both for business and for life in the larger city.