His record store is failing, and Sikhulu Shange could plausibly assign blame to any number of culprits. Vendors hawk bootlegged CDs on sidewalk tables outside the Record Shack, which he has run for 36 years on Harlem's 125th Street. Websites offering pirated MP3s cut into his profits. And his landlord has been trying to evict him for more than a year. But Shange, 66, reserves his deepest anger for a new city plan that he believes will strip Harlem of its soul. "Working people are getting packaged to get dumped in the sewer," he says. "If the change takes place, it will be a total disaster for the community."
On April 30, New York's city council approved the rezoning of 125th Street, Harlem's main artery, to promote commercial and residential development. But the plan has drawn stiff resistance from community groups concerned that the historic district's unique character--and its prominence as a nexus of African-American intellectual and cultural life--is under threat.
Harlem's past and future coexist uneasily on 125th Street, where Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech still pours forth from speakers near the vaunted Apollo Theater. Pawnshops and hair-braiding parlors are increasingly giving way to Old Navy and Verizon outlets. In 2001 former President Bill Clinton opened his office here to great fanfare; last year the American Planning Association named it one of America's 10 Greatest Streets. But councilman Charles Barron, an opponent of rezoning, argues that the influx of major retailers has sanitized the neighborhood. "Harlem had a swagger to it," he says. "It no longer is the mecca of black America."
An enclave of posh summer retreats in the 19th century, the neighborhood hosted luminaries like Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois during its renaissance in the 1920s and '30s. Billie Holiday performed at the Apollo, and Fidel Castro stayed at the Hotel Theresa. In later decades, Harlem withered as soaring crime rates made it a symbol of urban blight. But since the 1990s, as Manhattan real estate prices have skyrocketed, the district's legacy and its perch atop Central Park have enticed real estate developers searching for the next up-and-coming neighborhood. The rezoning augurs wholesale changes, including luxury office towers and apartments. Much of Harlem is still comparatively poor--the median household income hovers around $27,000--and Barron suspects that these gleaming additions will drive out locals unable to foot the rising rents. "Housing policies are the new Jim Crow policies for the 21st century," he says.
Others say the neighborhood's low-income residents won't be uprooted. "A lot of people living in Harlem are protected from very drastic increases in housing prices," says Lance Freeman, a Columbia University professor whose studies have shown that the level of displacement prompted by gentrification is often exaggerated. Still, Freeman says, "if the rezoning has the effect that the city planners intend, no doubt it will significantly alter the neighborhood."
"No one is going to say that this is a perfect plan," acknowledges Inez Dickens, one of three city-council members representing Harlem. Dickens haggled with city officials to add considerable benefits to the proposal: affordable home-ownership opportunities, a $750,000 forgivable-loan program for businesses that may be forced to relocate, funding for arts and health programs and a $5.8 million enhancement of a local park. None of this mollifies Shange, who says his and other local stores still face closure. "My business has been here through the worst of times," he says. "And now that there will be better times, we're not included." For locals like him who measure progress in terms of reclaiming the district's past glories, old Harlem has receded further with every new building. And this time, says Shange, it feels "like the bulldozers are waiting around the corner to come in and get started."