Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Invest in This: Harlem Not For Sale

Invest in This: Harlem Not For Sale
By Tom DeMott

So the Department of City Planning has a planning problem. It needs to come up with a zoning change that will allow the real-estate industry to score big on 125th Street, Harlem, U.S.A. and simultaneously appear as benign, even artsy-driven, dialoguers.
Illustration by Ramsey Scott
Creating openings for the boys who control New York City is the agency’s motivating impulse when defining successful development, no matter what kind of happy drivel they throw at us when they compose their treatises on urban removal.

It is obvious to anyone walking historic 125 that the heart and soul of the neighborhood is at stake. Even tourists and other non-natives glimpse this as they amble through, and they don’t have the collective memory—the familiarity with landmarks of resistance too numerous to conjure, the soapbox tradition of true democracy, loud notes boasting Aretha’s gospel and JB on the good foot every half block (real quality of life), the University on the Corner of Lenox Avenue, the bent rims, even the blue tape (7th) and the red tape (8th) and all that inventive, desperate, exploitative, creative street hustling that an Ivy League education can’t suss, even as it teaches its own to do the same with a fountain pen.

Unfortunately, the culture alive and well in decision-making entities large and small, “elected” and unelected, teaches us that raggedy ain’t too good, that Shange’s little ole Record Shack really needs to be replaced with some younger and commercially viable arts storefront initiative. True, I am biased. I’ve enjoyed buying my Mapfumo, Evora, Manguana, and Alpha Blondy there on my extended breaks from the nearby Manhattanville Post Office, where I received a pay check for decades, but that don’t mean I am narrowly defining a real arts initiative as one that only preserves brother Shange’s beautiful shop (or re-opens Bobby’s Happy Hut, etc.).

Yes, planners should find a way to keep these businesses here, but let’s start with something grander. Let’s get a real arts initiative—easily accomplished if will and imagination triumph over vicious, cynical, and desperate opportunism. Let’s bring Barry Harris’s Jazz Cultural Theater, and its all-arts equivalents, to Harlem. Let’s watch a new round of Barry’s girls and boys growing out of shoes and growing into Monk and Mysterioso, cultivating authentic generational connections, and letting souls run deep (and this ain’t some Bollinger-esque invocation of Harlem’s friggin’ “mystique,” my brothers and sisters). The housing project grounds where Thelonious walked alone on winter days, gesticulating to himself, stopping by his snowy woods and creating his Davids, are fast disappearing. Pols who claim that the Coalition to Preserve Community exaggerates the bleak future of Grant and Manhattanville Houses and who pay no mind to Mindy Fullilove and Neil Smith are punks who lay down for the man. Yeah, it’s like that.

It’s like that because we are talking about the annihilation of a culture. City Planning and Blond Burden knocking it down, displacing residents and artists and businesses, taking away the light, and bringing us that CU “transparent” architecture which puts those inside not with us, but under glass—which is quite frankly where some of them should be on view, resting permanently.
Look, if you’re deadening a culture, you barter in death. Arts initiative... hell, it is all about affordable space that’s open and available, not some pimper’s paradise for connected not-for-profits regranting space to the humble and non-threatening. It is all about not kicking out the people who have lived in Harlem and who make Harlem, Harlem.

Let’s find an organized way to help those young people, stepping out of the crowd to rhyme at the 21st Annual West Harlem Coalition Anti-Gentrification Street Fair, to flow, mix, make poetry and music, yeah to rap. (And we ain’t talking about some handpicked, politically sanitized poets, even though my favorites were talking New York, talking gentrification, just folks who found other means to soapbox—after all, it’s the Harlems that supply and re-supply our country’s honest, and fun, language.) Let’s revive the Hispanic social clubs, at least some authentic version, so important to Harlem’s culture.
Let’s get Columbia U (hey, they are the architects for much of Harlem’s goings-on and have been for decades) to dump its current eminent-domain-violating eviction expansion plan. Many of us fought hard 20 years ago to shut down the Harlem-on-the-Hudson plan (luxury housing in the same spot as CU’s proposal, posing as mixed income, fostered by the Harlem Urban Development Corporation’s pols who used that project as a poverty pimp slush fund for years). Columbia gave it lip service, but was scoping out its own manifest destiny there, so it let “city planners” play in their sandbox for a bit. CU is linked to all zoning changes, including this arts shell game.

If you think I’m tougher than the rest on my 125—which ain’t mine or yours (or the real estate holders’, or Columbia’s, or Rangel’s) but America’s—imagine an interview with Lester Young on the subject of the New York City Planning Commission’s Arts Initiative. You couldn’t quote him ’cause he spread curses like tasty collard greens but the homogenized version might be, “Screw your uptown theme park and kill this bureaucratic gesture and its inevitable bland bureaucratic outcome right now.” If creativity flows from an area’s diverse and singular sensibility, the loss of that culture and those individuals stymies artistic advance. Harlem’s storied contribution is reduced to sad carny sketches of tourists passing by some second-rate local history museum with a unknowing curator from the “non-profit sector” whose prime interest is getting paid.

Jacob Lawrence enjoyed painting his community and knew its struggle was essential and wonderful. David Dinkins getting booed for supporting his employer’s land grab was participatory art. Where are the Columbia professors who are letting their trustees gangster us with zoning for dollars all over Harlem? Where the fuck are you? (That’s for Lester.)
William Carlos Williams wrote: “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.”

Better let our poets—who dance, paint, write, play, rap, talk, protest, ball, act, and sing—live and breathe here, along with the rest of us who need to be here too. And give those drummers in Marcus Garvey Park some amplification and cushions ’cause this is a live tradition of many, not a networking of the glass-domed elite. No sellout, no skulduggery, no flim-flam, no displacement, no bio-labs, no eminent domain, and no phony arts initiative. Harlem is not for sale. Harlem, no se vende. Invest in that!

The author is a member of the Columbia College class of 1980. He is a member of the Coalition to Preserve Community.

TAGS: 125th Street, arts intiative

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