I have always been concerned with and interested in the frequency and magnitude of racial oppression in the United States, and how such oppression links to various branching forms of inequity. Consequentially, my senior thesis strives to be a comprehensive study of the social and socio-economic aspects of Harlem. In a concise explanation, it is a comparative analysis of how White America to this day controls the ethnic socio-economic landscape of Harlem, taking into account and linking the African American diaspora of Harlem between the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century and its recent phenomenon of gentrification.
So, wondering about what historical landmark I could potentially close-study for my research, I went to my father— who in his youth, frequented the streets of Harlem and the attractions it had to offer— for some insight. He immediately indorsed Sylvia’s, a historic local restaurant-turned-tourist-attraction.
Sylvia’s, located on Malcolm X Boulevard and known notoriously as the staple “soul food” restaurant in the area for tourists and passer-bys, has seen a drastic transformation in the recent decades. Since the 1990s, the establishment has not only expanded its dining area, but also its customer base. This demographic expansion, however, does not come without an inherent exclusionary factor.
Walking into the restaurant myself, I was earnestly taken back by the environment of which its interior boasted. The restaurant’s peripheral— i.e., the street on which Sylvia’s is located— fits a normalized and, if you will, stereotypical illustration of the Harlem that most non-residents may think of. It was overwhelmingly Black, with a much “localized” dynamic. Taking one step between the brick-binded walls of the establishment, my initial line of vision revealed a fairly diverse crowd of customers; both racially and spatially. As many socialized comfortably at the bar which was mounted parallel to the entrance doorway, there was undoubtedly a presence of newcomers within that mix; strangers to the area who had heard of this particular place as an exemplification of the forthcoming commercialization of Harlem. As I turned to my left and followed the hostess, I saw an entirely new enclave of the place, which uncovered a fresh array of individuals.
Taking a fair glimpse around and accounting for the fullness of the establishment, I felt whiteness. An abundance of it; constituting around sixty-to-seventy percent of the general populace, if I’m being conservative with my estimation. With a heightened sense of the racial atmosphere, I picked up on conversations I otherwise would have never taken upon myself to pay attention to. Some were being exchanged in what were unmistakably European dialects. I was shocked.
This said, predating my trip to Harlem, I had looked into researching the local food culture of the area; places where one could find Harlem residents dining. Resultantly, I had come across an article entitled: “Where do the locals go for Soul Food in Harlem?” The piece didn’t fail to incorporate the infamous Sylvia’s. Thus, the first paragraph of an entire subsection dedicated to the restaurant began as follows:
“Tourists from all over the country come to Sylvia’s—buses line up outside the restaurant—but it’s retained a strong local fan base.”
I ordered the fried chicken with mac ‘n cheese and collard greens. The entire meal was delicious. But as I gandered around the space, a question throbbed intensely in the back of my mind; where have these locals disappeared to?
Wanting to investigate this question with some primary-source material to work with, I caught the attention of a middle-aged Black woman in work attire and asked if there was anyone currently working whom has extensive knowledge of the restaurant’s social history. In an exhausted tone, she promised that she’d try to find someone who could help me. But as the wait staff flew around me in a constant state of hurry, I knew I’d have to find my answer elsewhere.
I left the restaurant confused by the conflicting sentiments of it I let fester in my mind, and wondered where else I could go to understand its transformation. Hesitant to do so, I’d convinced myself that the street was where I’d need to go for the most valuable information. Amidst the hustle and bustle of rush hour, I was—by the grace of some sort of overseeing power—able to stop and speak with two Harlem locals on Malcolm X Boulevard about the restaurant’s changing demographic; and additionally, about Harlem in its entirety.
The first was an older Black male, who leaned coolly on a mailbox as he spoke charismatically with another older man of color.
“Excuse me”, I piped, “I don’t mean to interrupt, but I was wondering if I could speak with you shortly about something important.”
Recognizing the awkwardness of my request the second those words escaped my mouth, my brain began preparing for rejection. Ready to scurry away in embarrassment, my heels were on their way toward making an inherent turn in the opposite direction as the man studied me in clear skepticism.
“Yes, young lady, what can I help you with?”
“I- I just wanted to ask you a couple of questions about Harlem— if you happen to be a local, that is. See, I’m doing my senior thesis on the shifting racial dynamic of Harlem, and I want to understand its impact from more than just a classroom perspective.”
Those words were my golden ticket to a plethora of information. Thirty minutes. That is how long it took for the man to tell me everything I needed to know about Harlem— literally everything I had studied up to that point; from the fact that the gentrification had begun over thirty years ago, to Columbia’s recent seizure of property in West Harlem via eminent domain. At the end of our exchange, I asked for his name.
I thanked him. We parted ways. I still think of him. But I’ll probably never see him again. Robert McCullough. The man who told me the entire history of Harlem, from nineteen hundred to this very day; in greater personal detail than any professor I’ve ever had, lecturer I’ve ever listened to, or book I’ve ever read. One thing he said in particular resonated with me, because it was something I had never even really considered. And the fact that he was so adamant about it made me want to comprehend the relative meaning behind his request:
“The word ‘affordable’ is highly overused. Go back to your smart school. Ask your friends if they know what ‘affordable housing’ is. Then have them answer this question: ‘Affordable for whom?’”
I haven’t yet asked my friends about their knowledge of affordable housing. But after thinking about Robert’s question, I understand why it is so pressing. Robert’s voice—and those of many others like him—are obscured by the sentiments of gentrification; the sentiment that aesthetic value supersedes human worth, the sentiment that one culture can overtake another that has cultivated for generations just because it flaunts more wealth, the sentiment that longtime Harlem residents have no sovereignty over their own homes. And with the perceivable “improvement” of the area’s aesthetic, it enables a trying question: “Who can afford these improvements?”
The next resident I talked to was another Black man, who I imagined to be in his late twenties. Skeptical as well, but ultimately willing to listen and help me out, he explained to me how Sylvia’s had undergone a great transformation in the past twenty or so years, from the time he was a young child.
“They aren’t as good as they used to be. They’ve become too commercialized. All the locals know it. In fact, you see that restaurant over there? Jacob’s? [He pointed to another restaurant close by on Malcolm X Blvd] That’s where everyone goes now.”
This gesture made me think back to my meal at Sylvia’s. The collard greens I had there had been the best ones I’ve tasted in my entire life; I had even told my father so. But had someone from thirty years in the past been dining with me at that time, they probably would have insisted that I’d never had Sylvia’s collard greens at their best. In a way, my initial question had been answered: “Where did the Harlem locals go?” They left, because just as many other renowned landmarks of Harlem, Sylvia’s began to cater to the fetishizing white community.
The young man and I talked a bit more about Harlem and how it’s changed racially, and just like Robert, the he had an inexplicable knowledge of Harlem’s early Black history and a just as strong awareness of the present. I didn’t catch his name, because he had an important phone call to take.
My time talking to these men was of great impression and importance for my true understanding of Harlem. In speaking to one of my closest friends about this profound experience and the resonance of my interaction with them, she brought up a significant point. The information they were able to provide me with about the cultural roots of Harlem, their anecdotal accounts of how gentrification is impacting them and the people they love, and the sorrow they feel in response to Harlem’s changing culture, displayed how naturally engaged Harlem residents are with the area; how much pride they take in being Harlemites. A recent study has found that the number of whites currently occupying Harlem is a whopping sixty-one percent of the entire population; the bulk of them having moved into the area after the 1990, when the gentrification phenomenon was first coming into the light. With that knowledge, it is presumable to say that wealthier (white) gentrifiers have little to no personal connection to the area and would likely never be able to spout such insightful knowledge about the neighborhood as the two men I had the honor of speaking with. After all, how many white families have lived in Harlem for generations, as Robert’s family had?
While I’m glad to have had the opportunity to visit the place of which I have been studying for over a semester, my internal conscious fostered an intrinsic guilt as I conducted the above “interviews”. I couldn’t help but think, who was I, a young, pestering mixed woman with a “white” voice and a privileged background, to infringe upon a community of which I know is already experiencing trivial social, economic and political oppression? I dined at Sylvia’s, just as every one of those “tourists” I was so harshly angered by. And while my travel there may have been for the purpose of research, I couldn’t help but insert my personal privilege into the context of every social encounter I had in Harlem. From the high-end Acura I sat and explored the neighborhood in, to the general imposing nature of my trip, I, a mixed woman of color who on a daily basis experiences some form of racism, was still to some degree encompassing what it is like to be a gentrifier in Harlem. And that acknowledgement incited an anger within me, because I am still more apologetic about my imposition than most white gentrifiers will ever be.
At the same time, I wonder where the future of Harlem lays without academics and intellectuals like myself. Because White America does everything in its power to suppress and digress the progress of the Black race, I almost feel an obligation to be the voice of communities of color. The subdual of Black voices stabs at my heart, because one shouldn’t need a degree from a prestigious institution, or hold prominent political stature in order to exploit the marginalization that has been thrust upon them, and people like them, since birth. And I suppose taking all that into account, my ultimate question is: “How can we incorporate all our voices into one collective, powerful movement?”
I have no answer as of now. Perhaps there is no answer to be found. Perhaps I’m asking the wrong question. Perhaps I’m living out not the solution, but a solution. Maybe dialogue is good. Maybe people like myself should be educating ourselves outside the comfort of a classroom, even if it does come at the expense of unintentionally patronizing the people we so direly want to help. Because we understand that we are simply more fortunate. We are privileged. And maybe someday, something will come of that acknowledgement. Maybe one day these people won’t be physically harassed by law enforcement, economically oppressed by institutional racism, socially belittled by internalized racial sentiments, and condescended by people who just happened to be born into more privilege.
I can’t imagine what it possibly feels like to have cultivated such a resilient culture in response to oppression, only to have that culture stripped from me by the very same oppressor. That is the experience of the African American people of Harlem. You ask: “How does White America manipulate the ethnic socio-economic atmosphere of Harlem?” Well, I say take a trip to Sylvia’s and get a taste.