In Central Harlem, Breaking into the Middle Class Isn't Easy

Thursday, January 09, 2014

The median income in the area around 147th Street and Bradhurst Avenue closely matches New York City's, but it was half that just a decade ago. The median income in the area around 147th Street and Bradhurst Avenue closely matches New York City's, but it was half that just a decade ago. (Amy Pearl/WNYC/WNYC)

Lots of New York City neighborhoods resemble living organisms — constantly changing. As newcomers move in, neighborhoods take shape. People move on, and places transform. This is Central Harlem now — like Lower Harlem a decade ago, the neighborhood near 147th Street and Bradhurst Avenue is in transition, undergoing gentrification.

According to the latest U.S. Census figures, Census Tract 259 in Central Harlem is one of five areas identified as closely matching New York City's median income, $51,865. Half of the households here make more than that; half make less. About a a third of the people in the area receive food stamps.

Residents are drawn to Jackie Robinson Park, a long, narrow stretch of trees and rocky cliffs that flows 10 blocks to the north. The park was developed more than a century ago as a playground. Now it boasts a pool and rec center that offers a cool respite in summer, with plenty of space for dog walking year round.

"When we moved here my Mom was like, you're going to live in Harlem? " said resident Kate Durham, walking her dog Texas one recent afternoon.

Jackie Robinson Park in Central Harlem draws both new and old residents. (Amy Pearl/WNYC)

Like many people, Durham's mother thinks of Harlem as a dangerous place.

"I feel totally safe," added Durham.

She's getting her Masters at Columbia Teachers College, and moved to 150th Street and Bradhurst Avenue with her boyfriend in 2012. 

"I think there are pockets of people who make more than $51,865, maybe not much more, but more, and pockets of people here who make less," said Durham.

The area has undergone tremendous change over the last decade, with the population almost doubling since 1980.

"This was a very poor neighborhood, as recently as 2000, the neighborhood’s median income was half that of the city, so the fact that it’s now at the median income for the city is really a remarkable change," said Vicki Been, Boxer Family Professor of Law, and Director, Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University.

A block east, away from the park, Frederick Douglas Boulevard is a commercial strip where people visit the barber shop, do their laundry, or pick up takeout from a favorite spot.

"Now the middle class is moving in so it's kind of pushing us out, and the rent is getting higher," said Charles Gabriel, owner of Charles' Country Pan Fried Chicken.

Charles Gabriel has been frying chicken at his Central Harlem restaurant for 20 years. (Janet Babin/WNYC)

Gabriel has been serving up southern specialty food here for about 20 years. He is wary of the changes, and worries that his regulars, many who live in the nearby Polo Grounds Housing Project, will be unable to afford to live here in a few years.

"I'm low income, living paycheck to paycheck," said Sharon Allen, a customer grabbing food at Charles' Chicken.

Charles' Country Pan Fried Chicken Customer Sharon Allen grabs lunch before heading to work. (Amy Pearl/WNYC)

For many here, middle class splurges, like going out to dinner, are unfamiliar.

"My rent is my splurge," said Sharon Allen.

"A splurge? Like, what you mean?" said Polo Grounds resident Jason Eberhart who was standing outside watching traffic go by.

He lives on disability. His idea of feeling like he's made it is finally having his own apartment. That happened when his mother passed away and he took over hers.

"I try to stay positive," added Eberhart.

Central Harlem resident Jason Eberhart stays positive, bundled up against the cold. (Amy Pearl/WNYC)


Karen Frillmann


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Comments [3]

Harlem Neighbor from local

It's hard to sustain a business when the neighborhood during the day which has no foot traffic or office buildings. You will note that next to Assembly member Farrell's office the retail space has been empty for a long period of time. Another observation left out in this neighborhood is the aging population and trains are not handicap accessible on 145th street near the A,B,D and the 3 train is not. How do we have the same elected official in office for many years and his office is steps away from the train station and yet he has no advocated for an elevator or handicap ramp.

Jan. 10 2014 10:47 AM
Ann from Brooklyn

I am pro-gentrification, and unapologetically so. I am for the progression of these neighborhoods that have long been victim to gang violence, garbage, graffiti and filth, into cleaner areas with lower crime rates, better city services, modern business, and higher property values. I have live in Crown Heights and am happy for my neighbors who have owned property for the last 20 years, be able to receive 4-5 times what they had initially paid for their homes and used it to purchase property in other areas or pay for their children to attend schools once believe out of their reach. For those that have remained, yes our taxes have gone up (whose in NYC have not?), but we now have nicer supermarkets, cleaner streets, safer walks, and finer living standards overall. What is wrong with wanting that? Not every tale behind gentrification is a tale of anxiety, anger, woe and loss.. not every person here needs the pity of others. This is happening, and it's best to acclimate or move on. I've never known NYC to be a place for people who could not hack it here, and it should remain that way. I, for one, do not mourn the loss of "ghetto" living, nor do I miss its culture and how it negatively affects a neighborhood. I am very happy to see the area I live improved. Anyone who disagrees with me should try living in a place with the constant threat of your home broken into, of being shot or assaulted, of having rotting food in your grocery stores, of rats on your sidewalks, of your children going to schools where they can't learn, and see how you like gentrification then.

Jan. 09 2014 07:30 PM

This article failed to observe all the scaffolding around the new buildings built by HPD. Guiliani gave away empty buildings for $1 to developers, HPD, Harlem Congregation to build affordable housing. Homeowners all around Harlem have been left with construction defects due to poor oversight by the buildings department, HPD and local elected officials ignore this. Just look at the Langston...brick work being fixed on a new building. Look on 148th street at scaffolding all around this fairly new coop. People can't afford to live in these buildings due to high maintenance and higher maintenance due to repairs and neglect by the sponsor/developers.

This is a problem all over.

Jan. 09 2014 01:45 PM

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