Harlem—America’s most famous neighborhood—transformed in the late twentieth century from the epitome of urban crisis to the most vivid embodiment of urban revival. Yet while observers point to Harlem as a dramatic exemplar of gentrification, historian Brian Goldstein locates the genesis of Harlem’s remarkable change in an unexpected place—the radical social movements of the 1960s, which sought to give Harlemites control over a built environment that officials had long shaped from the top down. In movements for community control, Harlemites demanded the right to plan their own redevelopment, founding an array of new community-based organizations to pursue that goal. In the following decades, those grassroots organizations became the crucibles in which residents debated competing conceptions of what Harlem should look like and who should live there. 1960s activists envisioned a Harlem built by and for its low-income, predominantly African-American residents. The new millennium saw, instead, a neighborhood with an increasingly expensive price of admission. In The Roots of Urban Renaissance, Goldstein charts the connection between these events and, in the process, offers an alternative to accounts that explain gentrification as something that happened to neighborhoods like Harlem. Indeed, the Harlem of the new century was not simply imposed on an unwitting community by affluent outsiders but grew from its grassroots, producing a legacy that both helped and harmed longtime residents.
In the excerpt below, Goldstein tells of the homesteading movement that took root in 1970s Harlem, where low-income residents came to see the rehabilitation of abandoned buildings as a means to learn construction skills and gain much-needed jobs in addition to housing.
Groups coalesced rapidly in the early 1970s, representing both the interests of single buildings and the collective interests of like-minded groups. The Renigades were one of many small grassroots organizations to promote self-help rehabilitation. Though a self-described “street gang,” its members had turned the group toward neighborhood improvement, with involvement in activities like voter registration and exposure of drug dealers. Indeed, despite claiming criminal records, the Renigades were in many ways typical of homesteaders in general. Homesteaders were mostly young—a majority were under thirty years old—with income below the poverty line. The former squatters of Operation Move-In were among the Renigades’ contemporaries. Operation Move-In had taken ownership of an abandoned building just south of Harlem at 948 Columbus Avenue in October 1973, a transaction arranged by sympathetic city employees. In 1974, members of the Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood began a rehab project in two long-abandoned adjacent Central Harlem tenements, at 55 St. Nicholas Avenue and 132 West 113th Street. The next year, in the spring of 1975, seven low-income Harlem families formed an organization called United Harlem Growth. The families all lived in abandoned housing, public housing, or apartments soon to come out of rent control, and saw in homesteading a chance to own stable, affordable homes. By 1976, United Harlem Growth—led by David Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s son, and with an expanded membership of fifteen families—had purchased five city-owned abandoned brownstones on 136th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues with plans to renovate them into low-income cooperative housing. In a parallel effort, tenants in single buildings across Harlem pursued conversion to cooperative status, to gain control of apartments that negligent landlords had effectively abandoned and to pool rents toward needed repairs.
Organizations with close ties in and near Harlem formed to unite these disparate but likeminded efforts. In 1974, the leaders of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, located just across Morningside Park from Harlem, formed the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), in response to nearby squatters who questioned the church’s commitment to its neighbors. The new organization assisted participants in the incipient movement; for instance, UHAB helped the Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood locate the buildings that members would rehabilitate. Similarly, a collection of community-based organizations came together in 1974 to form the Association of Neighborhood Housing Developers (ANHD), a resource intended to amass collective experience and technical expertise. Members included groups from the Bronx, the Lower East Side, and Brooklyn, as well as West Harlem Group Assistance, UHAB, and the West Harlem Community Organization (WHCO), the long-standing force that had played a central role in opposing disruptive urban renewal.
Such efforts emerged as part of a broader citywide network, whose proponents believed that through their own sweat they could provide decent housing for low-income residents. Philip St. Georges, a homesteading advocate who claimed partial responsibility for inventing the term “sweat equity,” became the Zelig of self-help housing, working at times with Msgr. Fox, the city, the Renigades, and UHAB. He explained the potential of abandoned buildings, which for many appeared as only a problem to be excised. “While many abandoned buildings may be structurally sound, and capable of being rehabilitated, they represent an overwhelming public nuisance in the eyes of City policy makers. They are a liability. And increasingly, they are simply demolished,” St. Georges wrote in 1973. However, for many groups of low-income tenants who suddenly see an opportunity to own their own homes, take control over their own lives, and improve the condition of their neighborhood, these vacant and abandoned structures are anything but a liability. They are a true resource. And indeed, they may be the last resource.”