New York: A Tale Of Two Neighborhoods

A fascinating subject for study is the demographics of New York neighborhoods, many of which have been transformed multiple times in the course of little more than a century by successive waves of new residents.  Perhaps the most famous example among many is the Lower East Side of Manhattan (a couple of miles east of where I live), which was first predominantly Irish and German in the late nineteenth century, then became heavily Eastern-European Jewish in the early twentieth century, then after World War II gradually became predominantly Hispanic, and most recently has been undergoing "gentrification" largely due to recent arrivals from elsewhere in the U.S.  For even more wild examples of ethnic diversity and constant change, check out the Borough of Queens.  

Is this process of neighborhood ethnic change just a natural result of independent choices of millions of individuals, or is there something sinister about it?  Two articles in yesterday's (Sunday) New York Times separately discuss the process in two different neighborhoods -- Harlem (in Manhattan) and Belmont (in the Bronx).  You won't learn much about the process of ethnic change from reading the articles, but as usual you can learn a lot about the New York Times/progressive mind set.

Harlem is the neighborhood in Manhattan immediately north of Central Park.  Although Harlem is scarred by many huge public housing projects, its remaining streets are characterized by long rows of stately townhouses, mostly built between about 1880 and 1910.  Between about 1910 and 1930 there was a huge influx of African-Americans into Harlem, some coming from the downtown parts of Manhattan, and many from the Jim Crow South.  According to a compilation of Census data at Wikipedia, by 1920 Central Harlem was 32.43% black, and by 1930 it was 70.18%.  In the mid-century Harlem became the hub of African-American culture in the U.S., and the concentration of blacks in Harlem only increased.  A 2014 article in New African magazine here asserts that by 1990 there were only 672 whites in Central Harlem (out of a population of well over 100,000).   More recently, other ethnic groups have been increasing in Harlem, and the black percentage of the population has been declining.  A famous New York Times article from 2010 took note of the development that Harlem was suddenly "No Longer Majority Black."   But that of course did not mean that it had become majority white.  Ethnic data compiled at from the 2010 Census show approximate percentages for Harlem of 40% black, 25% Hispanic, 15% white, 5% Asian, and the remainder consisting of various mixtures and combinations.  Although the Census data are notoriously lagged, it is safe to assume that the percentages of whites, Asians and mixed races in Harlem's ethnic mix have only increased since.

Belmont is the neighborhood smack in the middle of the Bronx, which has long been known as a center of Italian-American culture.  Its main drag, Arthur Avenue, continues to be lined with old-fashioned Italian restaurants and Italian specialty food shops.  Several Catholic churches continue to say mass in Italian.  But like most every other New York neighborhood, Belmont has undergone substantial ethnic change over time.  The New York Times article from yesterday discussed below gives the following ethnic data for the Belmont neighborhood from Census's 2009-13 American Community Survey: 58.2% Hispanic; 20.9% white non-Hispanic; 17.9% African-American; and 1.8% Asian.  Although you wouldn't necessarily guess it walking around Belmont today, the Italians are a relatively small minority of the population.

So how does a good New York progressive react to these trends?  In the paper's Review section (the section that contains opinion articles and editorials) the lead article is titled "The End Of Black Harlem," by Michael Henry Adams.  Adams surveys the ongoing ethnic change in Harlem, as well as accompanying physical changes to the neighborhood (e.g., new stores, new trees being planted) and sees some kind of sinister plot.  Summary:

To us, our Harlem is being remade, upgraded and transformed, just for them, for wealthier white people. 

Adams quotes a guy named Horace Carter as to a supposed "plan" to "take back" Harlem:

As Horace Carter, the founder of the Emanuel Pieterson Historical Society, insisted to me, “I tell you, they have a plan. Harlem is too well placed. The white man is ready to take it back.”    

There's no clue in the article as to who may have hatched this "plan."  Adams accuses the newcomers to Harlem of being "insolent" and "insulting," and as evidence provides a second-hand quote via an unnamed "real estate speculator," who says that his unnamed source accused blacks of being "freeloaders" for continuing to remain as low-rent tenants in non-eviction condo conversions.  According to Adams, Mayor de Blasio's programs for affordable housing are essentially useless, and the net effect of government efforts on Harlem is to "deny us our heritage":

They have no idea how insulting they are being, denying us our heritage and our stake in Harlem’s future. And, far from government intervention to keep us in our homes, houses of worship and schools, to protect buildings emblematic of black history, we see policies like destructive zoning, with false “trickle down” affordability, changes that incentivize yet more gentrification, sure to transfigure our Harlem forever.   

Whew!  That's quite an outpouring of anger!  Let's compare that to the Times's treatment of the ethnic change in Belmont, where in very much the reverse process, taking place over roughly the same time period, a white ethnic group (Italians) has been substantially replaced by Hispanics and blacks.  Note that as per the most recent Census data cited above, the percent of blacks in Belmont (17.9%) actually exceeds the percent of whites in Harlem (about 15%) (although both of these numbers may have shifted by a few percent since they were compiled). 

The article on Belmont, "Home to Immigrants and Students," appears in the Real Estate Section.  Here the new ethnic diversity appears as an unalloyed positive.  The Times quotes Catholic priest Father Jonathan Morris on how he "upholds" Italian heritage while also welcoming newcomers:

Father Morris . . . feels a duty to uphold the neighborhood’s rich Italian heritage, which dates to the early 20th century, when the area attracted families of Italian laborers who helped build the nearby Bronx Zoo and New York Botanical Garden.  ”It’s an immigrant church still today,” said Father Morris, who says Mass weekly in English, Spanish and Italian. “We’re trying to welcome the new immigrants while honoring the church’s Italian history.”  The priest . . . sees “a spirit of survival and entrepreneurship” in the neighborhood, pointing to a number of Mexican delis and restaurants that have opened. Father Morris said those owners could find inspiration in the successes of the longstanding shops that make up Belmont’s Little Italy.

Somehow the Italians seem to be doing just fine "upholding" their heritage, even as their presence in the neighborhood has shrunk far below the presence of blacks in Harlem.

Anyway, Mr. Adams is very representative of the New York Times mindset, but something tells me he is far from representative of all opinion in Harlem.  In particular, there are many, many blacks in Harlem who own those stately old homes, the values of which have now multiplied by a factor of ten and more over the past couple of decades.  Suddenly, they are multi-millionaires (although only to the extent that their ability to sell to the highest bidder is preserved).  Are we to believe that this is a bad thing?  Meanwhile, a larger number of blacks in Harlem threw in their lot with the government programs of public housing and rent regulation.  The Harlem renaissance and the great increase in housing values have passed these people by.  They have good cause to be resentful; but should they be resentful of the newcomers who are helping to drive up values, or of the government programs that have trapped them in dependency and prevented them from participating in the success of their neighbors?