Fading Jazz in Harlem

Via Twitter, I was forwarded an article from Black Enterprise announcing that the Lenox Lounge will be closing by New Year.  The owner cites an increase in rent by more than double as a primary reason for shuttering.

This is disturbing news, but not all that surprising.  The gentrification of Harlem has been going on for almost twenty years now, with a real surge in the change of the demographics during the last five years.

After 2000, the last time I estimate a family of four could buy property for a reasonable mortgage, the housing market in NYC inflated.  Buyers had to stretch elsewhere to find value and affordability.  First Washington Heights, then Inwood, Williamsburg and Astoria, East Harlem and West Harlem.  I missed out on buying a classic six on 175th street and Fort Washington Avenue in 2000.  The price was $220,000.   A couple bought a two bedroom for $130,000.00 in the same building and flipped the apartment three years later for four times the purchase price. That classic six today is going for $1.1 million.

In Harlem, east and west, brownstone and townhouse shells were going for $300,000. – $400,000.,  leading to a parade of downtown buyers who were willing to sacrifice neighborhood for more space and less cost.  The city initiative to build affordable housing for qualified applicants also contributed to gentrification.  I lived on 117th street and FDB for two years, and watched how businesses sprouted up to meet the interests of the changing population.  I worked on 120th street and first avenue for seven years and witnessed a number of city subsidized coops built for those downtowners who were looking for value in a competitive market.

And so, Starbucks moves in.  That’s how it starts.  Then Duane Reade, Rite Aid, bank ATMS, Old Navy, and H & M.  Familiar stores for the new consumers.   Stores that can’t make the rent get pushed out.   Landlords seize the opportunity to charge higher rents. The city collects more tax and real estate tax revenues.

There are positive effects too.  From 113th street to 120th street and FDB restaurants have opened and flourished forming a Harlem restaurant row.  There are more jobs openings, and more housing to be built.  The projects still remain and are being squeezed out, maybe for the better.

But what is happening to the mom and pop stores, so vital to the neighborhood’s character?  Who are they being replaced by?  It is one thing to “clean up” the neighborhood, but at what cost?

So many stores I used to patronize are now closed, from bakery, to Jamaican pastry shop, to thrift shop.  Just like Shakespeare & Co. on the Upper West Side when they got kicked to the curb by Barnes & Nobles.  And now Amazon will eventually do the same.  Or when Rosita on 106th Street and Broadway got replaced by KFC.

Tenants live on, holding on to their value apartments hoping for a real neighborhood to emerge.  But what is really happening is a slow mallification, where every neighborhood looks the same as is defined by the type of residents and people in it.  I sometimes walk down Columbus Avenue and can’t tell whether I am in Cleveland, Minnesota or Florida.  Only Central park reminds me that I am in New York City.

And so, a new kind of place opens up in Harlem, the Red Rooster.  A European/Black celebrity chef creating a place and a cuisine that crosses borders and boundaries, an egalitarian foodie destination.  Seems to be working out well for all.  Softens the blow for mom and pop closings. But the homogenized atmosphere has no soul, the essence of any place in Harlem. I have a friend named Georgia who opened up a café but ultimately could not compete and had to close.  Why?  Maybe she was a poor business person.  Maybe she wasn’t supported by the new demographic, and the old demographic didn’t understand her either.  Surely rent and real estate taxes had something to do with it.  And what of Nectar and Harlem Vintage, products of mismanagement? Perhaps.  They can be replaced by bigger corporation brands that have deep pockets.  No loss here.  But the slope continues, and stalwarts like the Lenox Lounge become the next target.  The effect that this closing will have on the neighborhood cannot be measured in dollars and cents.  It affects the psychology of a culture, its heritage, roots and pride.  It removes and sense of history and place, replacing those vital elements of a neighborhood without which there will be a lack of identity.  This has been happening all over the city, with Harlem being the last of the important NYC communities with a discernible face and historical value.

The solution is not so simple.  Under the current system, capitalism reigns supreme.  If you can’t pay the rent, get out.  If you can’t pay the city taxes, real estate taxes, fines, costs for doing business, get out.  If you got hurt by hurricane Sandy and can’t pay your bills, oh well, get out.  If you can’t afford to live in this city according to market rent, oh well, while the city needs you to work here, it doesn’t give you privilege to also live here.  Get out.

The City could do plenty to alleviate some of these problems.  First, the arcane real estate tax code needs to be completely overhauled.  As a small business owner, I am paying 30% above my base rent to the city per annum because of “real estate tax increases.”  Landlords word leases to pass these costs onto commercial renters.  For Duane Reade, this is no problem.  For mom and pop, this could mean the difference between opening or closing.

Certainly some type of tax relief in the wake of businesses affected by Sandy is an order, and would help in the long run for the financial stability of many small businesses.  City built buildings should rent to small businesses to promote community and entrepreneurship.  The City builds these affordable housing, so they should control the rents.

I recently read an article regarding how Iceland attacked its fiscal crisis.  Rather than bailing out the banks, they bailed out the people.  A novel idea, but a rationale that people with their mortgages and small business owners who live and work and provide work  in this city need help and solutions, not more capitalistic, Darwinian attitudes and practices.  Beware, fore in another ten years, there will be no Harlem, just like Hell’s Kitchen became Clinton.  New York City will look and feel like any other U.S. metropolis, and that would be a legacy our mayor and city government will have to take responsibility for.