The Suburbanization of Harlem
City Limits takes a look at a new book about the suburbanization of Manhattan, the affects of which are most noticeable in Harlem.
“If suburbanization – or globalization – threatens the city,” writes Sorkin, “the main danger comes not from the physical side of the equation, the introduction of specific alien architectures from suburbia – big boxes, ranch houses, shopping malls, etc. – but from the content side, which has proven adaptable enough to remain independent of the constraints of its setting.”
Take 125th Street in Harlem, for example. At one time it was the cultural and political heart of the African diaspora, teeming with street vendors selling wares to locals. Now, in the eyes of many of its older residents, it’s looking and feeling more and more like a traditional suburban mall. But it’s not because the streetscape has been leveled or the building types altered.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton designated the area an economic “empowerment zone,” which paved the way for outside corporate investment, according to another contributor, urban anthropologist Robin Kelley. In October of that year, Mayor Giuliani forcibly removed all the “illegal” street vendors – many of them immigrants from West Africa and the Caribbean. Later, Magic Johnson’s multiplex theater moved in on one end of the street, while a major supermarket took up residence on the other. Sorkin gives us a map, and the 2007 result truly does conform to the commercial model of a traditional mall – a strip with anchor stores at either end and a whole host of brand-name stores such as Footlocker, the Gap and Starbucks filling the space in-between. Sorkin goes so far as to compare the subway stops to mall entrances.
But, again, why should we care? Why not chalk it up to the inevitable price of success?
The obvious answer, of course, is that most longtime residents won’t be able to afford to live there much longer. In 2002, the Village Voice reported that a person would have to earn $90,000 per year in order to afford what, in the new Harlem market, is considered moderate-income housing. And with new luxury condos on the way, the market doesn’t show signs of slowing. But the less obvious answer is that over the long run even those who can afford it won’t want to live there anymore. They won’t want to live in a neighborhood that’s not really a neighborhood, where homes are little more than investments and the local businesses come and go with the vicissitudes of a capricious global market.
Perhaps the strongest link between the suburbs and the recently remade commercial strips like 125th Street and 42nd Street is the emphasis on branding. But the brands go far beyond the products in chain stores, or even the chain stores themselves. In today’s marketing world they can encompass whole neighborhoods and cities. For instance, if you read “Suburban Nation,” the 2001 handbook of the wildly influential New Urbanist movement, you’ll find a lot stress being put on the way things appear: a street that “gives the impression” of intimacy, a neighborhood that “seems” safe, a town that “feels like” a community. This is because images and impressions can be controlled, repackaged and sold much more easily than the real thing. Harlem may still be far away from the Disney-built, -owned and -operated community of Celebration, Florida, but its “history” and “culture” are definitely already being marketed in a similar way.
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