August 16, 2007 — Vol. 43, No. 1
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Some fear Harlem’s boom may silence black culture

Verena Dobnik

NEW YORK — On a hot summer night in Harlem, hundreds of fingers pound out mesmerizing rhythms on African drums in a ritual repeated for decades each Saturday in Marcus Garvey Park.

This summer, the drums have a counterpoint: the complaints of “new Harlemites” who object to the noise.

“African drumming is wonderful for the first four hours, but after that, it’s pure, unadulterated noise. We couldn’t see straight anymore,” said Beth Ross, who lives in a luxury apartment building near the park. “It was like a huge boom box in the living room, the bedroom, the kitchen. You had no way to escape except to leave the apartment.”

Ross’s complaint is just the latest sign of conflict in Harlem, where high-rise condos and luxury hotels are rapidly changing the face of this neighborhood long considered the heart of black culture in America.

Many new residents — middle-class professionals, both black and white — are moving here because they cannot afford to buy a spacious apartment elsewhere in Manhattan’s still-red-hot real estate market, where the average apartment costs more than $1 million.

Deep-pocketed investors — from private homeowners to foreign speculators — are drawn to Harlem’s three dozen new projects with more than 1,000 housing units, plus grand old buildings in need of repair.

Central Harlem, around Marcus Garvey Park, is especially attractive, with its opulent brownstones and churches from the 19th century’s Gilded Age.

The park was formerly known as Mount Morris Park, the name given to it by developers in the 1800s, when the area was inhabited mostly by white residents. That name is now often used by real estate agencies selling property there.

The park was renamed in 1973 for the Harlem-based black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, who had advocated black ownership of Harlem.

“Simply Magnificent,” says a huge billboard tacked to a dilapidated storefront above the local hardware store on Malcolm X Boulevard — for a brand-new condo complex set to go up around the corner on the south side of the park, with apartment prices from $400,000 to $4 million. The building will also include a sanctuary for the Bethel Gospel Assembly, the previous owner of the land. About one-fifth of its 26-story residential space is reserved for affordable rental apartments.

The influx of outsiders intensified after the arrival six years ago of Harlem’s most famous commercial tenant, former President Bill Clinton, whose 125th Street office is a short walk from Marcus Garvey Park. He said then that he hoped his presence would encourage others to move to the neighborhood.

Longtime Harlem residents say that while his intentions were good, the “new Harlemites” are making changes that are destroying some of what’s dearest to the black community.

A community garden was bulldozed to make way for elegant new apartments — right next to the future Museum for African Art on Fifth Avenue. After 50 years in business, the soul food restaurant Copeland’s closed in July, a victim of what the owner called the neighborhood’s changing demographics and food tastes.

“They call this the new Harlem Renaissance — bringing in people who are able to pay for these properties, who push out people who can’t, like schoolteachers and municipal workers,” said James David Manning, the 60-year-old Baptist pastor of the Atlah World Missionary Church, a block from the park.

The “Harlem Renaissance” was a flowering of literature, art, theater and music during the 1920s and 1930s, when black writers, artists and musicians became famous by tapping their own culture — from Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston to Josephine Baker and Duke Ellington.

In recent years, Manning said, “the community has been taken over by big business and banks, and deep-pocketed entrepreneurs. If we lose Harlem, we lose the flagship of African American people worldwide.”

The drumming dispute erupted earlier this summer, when police responded to complaints from residents of the 23-unit apartment building overlooking the north end of the park. Several police officers asked the drummers to stop playing, calling in reinforcements to make their point. The defiant drummers refused, and the officers eventually left.

A few days later, several drummer representatives met with officials of the city’s parks department and building residents, and the drummers reluctantly moved their Saturday night get-together farther inside the park.

Now, said Agnes Johnson, a community activist and dance choreographer, “You can’t hear the drummers or see them from the street. Try and find them now!”

Ross, an executive career coach, says she feels “honored” to be living in Harlem alongside longtime residents.

“It is their community, their history,” she said. She insists the drumming dispute is not racially motivated.

“It’s a matter of quality of life,” she said.
Ross moved to her two-bedroom apartment with a balcony and garage from a loft in downtown Manhattan a year ago because “this is the first time since I’ve lived in New York that I haven’t looked into someone else’s bedroom. I have more space. I look into the park. I can hear the sound of children and I see greenery.”

The head of the co-op board, Barry Segen, said that when tenants started moving in a year ago, “we didn’t displace people of any race, because our building replaced an empty lot.”

To the drummers and their supporters, the Saturday evening ritual that began in 1969 is part of their history and culture.

“Some of these drums are prayed over, blessed in Africa. And if a policeman comes over and puts his hands on the drums, it’ll be over,” said Benjamin Thompson, a retired security guard who plays trumpet with the group.

The drumming and dancing continues on a hillside in the woods inside the park. But during all of August, an amplified hip-hop show being staged just down the hill is forcing the drummers to stop playing before evening.

“The struggle will continue,” said Johnson, the community activist who vows that the group will keep trying to find another spot where their Saturday evening tradition can continue “with dignity.”

On a recent evening, incense rose into the oaks and maples. Inside a circle of drums, children joined dancing adults. A woman with a walker shook her percussion instrument as a man strolled by with a cane. A dog stopped to watch.

Carl Alexander, 71, a retired public school teacher originally from Trinidad, has been drumming here 34 years.

“People come and drum for spiritual reasons — and to get away from the hustle and bustle,” he said.

(Associated Press)

A billboard above a local hardware store on Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem advertises new condos for sale a block away from Marcus Garvey Park, ranging in price from $400,000 to $4 million. (AP photo/Bebeto Matthews)

African-style drummers who have met for decades in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem, New York, enjoy their Saturday night ritual on July 28. Some “new Harlemites” have complained about the noise. (AP photo/Shiho Fukada)

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