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Gary Younge
Harlem - the new theme park

On Saturday night, Johnny's Recovery Room, a down-at-heel bar on Harlem's main drag, had been marinating in Motown and malt whisky. A woman who had been staring into space for at least half an hour had fallen off her perch on a bar stool only minutes after Gloria Gaynor had finished I Will Survive. She landed with a thud, remained there for a short while before being picked up and offered another drink. Minutes later an equally drunk man had danced out to Midnight Train To Georgia and cheers from the bar.

But now, on 125th Street in the cold light of Sunday morning, the last partygoers are outnumbered by churchgoers. Saints and sinners pass each other as though in different worlds. The faithful, suited, booted and ready to pray, walk purposefully clutching Bibles in small suitcases, while the feckless, in last night's gladrags, sit on stoops holding cans of beer and bottles of whiskey in brown paper bags, watching the coaches go by.

Large, plush, air conditioned vehicles are cruising Upper Manhattan with eager cargoes of tourists. Japanese, Germans, Koreans, British and even some Americans are now regular features in Harlem's Sunday landscape and cast a curious, slightly nervous, eye over the drunks who cast an ambivalent, slightly mocking, eye back. Later the tourists head for one of a select group of churches - to watch rather than worship - and then on to Sylvia's for soul food and a story to tell the folks back home.

"Harlem wears to the casual observer a casual face," wrote James Baldwin, who was born there. "No one remarks that - considering the history of black men and women and the legends that have sprung up about them, to say nothing of the ever-present policemen, wary on the street corners - the face is, indeed, somewhat excessively casual and may not be as open or as careless as it seems."

His essay, Harlem Ghetto, was written in 1948 but is as pertinent now as it has ever been. For surrounding the church-day nonchalance are signs of fundamental change. Some, like the Gap billboard, the Starbucks coffee shop and the scaffolding around the Abyssinian Baptist church are comparatively subtle. Others, like the Harlem USA shopping mall, the new buildings and the huge HMV store, are not. All are indications of the economic development pouring into the area over the past five years, a combination of government money and corporate investment that is changing the texture of life here not just commercially but culturally.

To some this marks the second Harlem renaissance, mirroring the area's heyday early in the last century, when it was home to a new wave of African-American literature, art and music that exuded confidence and originality. It presents another opportunity to emerge from a public perception of urban decay and deprivation. "We are only minutes away from some of the most expensive real estate in the world, yet there are still buildings in Harlem that remain vacant," says Darren Walker, chief operating officer of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, a non-profit organisation, affiliated to Harlem's biggest church. "Rebuilding and filling them makes us a more attractive neighbourhood." To others the change represents a threat to spiritual integrity - gentrification that will drive out the poor and destroy all that has made Harlem aesthetically distinctive. "It's a corporate takeover," says Leon Griffith, who works in Record Shack, a music shop. "It's all about money. It has always been a place of hustle and now they just want us to look like downtown Manhattan."

What is at stake is far more than the fate of a small patch of real estate: it is the historical legacy that earned Harlem the title of the "Negro capital of the world", the urban backdrop for great dramas of the American 20th century; where Malcolm X was assassinated, Marcus Garvey marched, reds and blacks rioted, and everyone from Cab Calloway to James Brown performed. This is the place that inspired some of America's finest cultural moments, driving Langston Hughes to poetry, Zora Neale Hurston to prose, and Sarah Vaughan to song.

Harlem is no stranger to change. It was settled by Dutch immigrants in 1658, and by the 19th century had become a wealthy suburb for European immigrants, particularly the Irish, Italians and Jews. But as African-Americans left the rural poverty and racial oppression of the South and headed north in search of opportunity, a few mostly Jewish and black estate agents with empty buildings and an eye for a profit awaited them. Ralph Ellison's protagonist took that journey in his landmark novel, Invisible Man. In a few years just before the first world war, the racial complexion of Harlem was transformed.

The impact on Harlem was huge, and the influence of black politics no less so. The move from country to city and field to factory, at a time of great social turmoil around the globe, inspired both activism and ideology. Revolutions in Ireland, Russia and Germany, and the radicalising effect of the war, forged a new consciousness whose often contradictory strands - internationalism, communism, anti-racism, pan-Africanism - were woven together.

"Hitherto it must be admitted that American Negroes have been a race more in name than in fact, or to be exact, more in sentiment than experience," wrote Alain Locke, a professor of philosophy at the historically black university of Howard in Washington DC. "The chief bond ... has been that of a condition in common rather than a life in common. In Harlem, Negro life is seizing upon its first chances for group expression and self determination."

This change in ideas and the activism it engendered gave rise to the "New Negro" - by self-definition an urban, more radical northern relative of a down-trodden southern cousin. Poverty and discrimination may still have been widespread, but now America's black urban population felt politically and culturally equipped to deal with it differently.

The mood was articulated by poet Langston Hughes in 1926: "We younger Negro artists ... intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too ... If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves." The birthplace of this political and temporal construct, said Locke in 1925, was Harlem, which "had the same role to play for the New Negro as Dublin has had for the New Ireland or Prague for the New Czechoslovakia."

This burgeoning spirit of self-assurance and defiance found its expression in the Harlem Renaissance. Although the term is often used, and universally recognised, its definition has always been elusive. Its period roughly spans from the end of the first world war to the beginning of the depression. This was the era that saw the emergence of some of the greatest names in black American letters.

Jean Toomer's Cane, a volume of poems and novella, marked the beginning of the literary renaissance. He had been raised in Louisiana and later abandoned writing for mysticism. Zora Neale Hurston, a flamboyant, spirited young woman from Florida, challenged the sexism and class-snobbery of the renaissance, who did not publish her most famous work, Their Eyes Were Watching God. until the late 1930s. She ended her life in poverty, dying in a Floridan welfare home, and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, has since called her "one of the greatest writers of our age". Langston Hughes, "poet laureate of the renaissance", also wrote short stories and novels but made his greatest impact with a book of verse, The Weary Blues. Claude McKay, Jamaican-born, racially-militant, politically radical wrote Home To Harlem, the first black novel on the bestseller lists. He was the enfant terrible of the renaissance: he converted to Catholicism late in life and moved to Chicago to work in a school.

There were renaissance artworks, too: the sculpture of Meta Warwick Fuller, the paintings of Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden and William Johnson; the documentary photography of James Van Der Zee and the photographic portraits of Carl van Vechten.

The renaissance was literary and artistic, but it was backed by the impressive soundtrack of the golden age of jazz. Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and James P Johnson were in their prime, Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson were innovating, applying orchestral discipline to their creativity. The jazz age coincided with the renaissance, but it was not part of it. Artists rarely passed up a chance to play in Harlem, but their geographical axis was further south and west, their following more working class.

Even though the "New Negros" of the renaissance, led by writers and artists, proudly asserted their intellectual independence, they were mostly financially reliant on white patrons. Their talents had to catch the attention of white editors and publishers who introduced the work to the mainstream in books or literary magazines. Beyond that, Harlem was in vogue. Black people lived there, but fashionable white people longed to be seen there, enjoying the success vicariously.

The geographical proximity of all these black stars gave social and artistic momentum to their work. "In those days there were a great many parties in Harlem to which various members of the New Negro group were invited," wrote Hughes in his autobiography, The Big Sea. "These parties, when given by important Harlemites were reported in full in the society pages of the Harlem press."

It was a movement and a moment; a literary, artistic and musical expression rooted in a time and place which, because of the nature of that time and that place, flitted between the political and the cultural, the interests of the elite and the needs of the many. "Nothing will do more to change the mental attitude and raise [the Negro's] status," claimed essayist James Weldon Johnson, "than a demonstration of intellectual parity by the Negro through his production of literature and art."

The renaissance ended when Wall Street crashed, and its many white patrons withdrew. "That was really the end of the gay times of the New Negro era in Harlem," wrote Hughes. "The white people had much less money to spend on themselves, and practically none to spend on Negroes, for the depression brought everybody down a peg or two. And the Negroes had but few pegs to fall."

The renaissance stalled, and left behind the human, geographical and economic space that had given the renaissance its name. In the dire days of the 1930s, Harlem descended into urban decay and cultural desolation. As early as 1930, in a prophetical essay, Black Manhattan, James Weldon Johnson foresaw inevitable change of a nature that still resonates today. "Will the Negroes of Harlem be able to hold it? Residents of Manhattan, regardless of race, have been driven out when they lay in the path of business and greatly increased land values. Harlem lies in the direction that path must take; so there is little probability that Negroes will always hold it as a residential section."

At the corner of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Boulevards there is a huge Disney store on one side and a Kentucky Fried Chicken on the other. The Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was assassinated, the Cotton Club, where jazz heroes made their name, and the Harlem Opera House, have all been knocked down. A few blocks up you can see the brick imprint of what was the Teresa hotel, to which Fidel Castro famously decamped during a UN general assembly in 1960, claiming that he was being mistreated in Manhattan, and had more solidarity with the people of Harlem.

The Apollo theatre, which once hosted Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and Aretha Franklin, still stands, although control of it has now been turned over to Time Warner. James Brown made his name on amateur night there, and that night's blend of ruthlessness and playfulness - booing unpopular acts off stage to the accompaniment of a clown-like executioner - continues. So do the step shows and religiously-inspired soul performances. But most of those in the expensive seats are Japanese, Korean and German tourists, not local African-Americans.

"It's like we don't exist any more and those of us who do exist are constantly looking for money to survive," says Dr Barbara Ann Teer, founder of the National Black Theatre. "We need to develop an understanding of what we have begun to call culturenomics. We need to create the kind of cultural expressions that we can sustain here economically. We have to develop a support system of our own."

Harlem is still poor. It maintained a rich cultural life and varied economic existence through the 1950s and early 1960s, though the emergence of a monied black middle class meant that resources and talent left the area, which then become a byword for urban decay and crime. Tours have become popular, but tourism has yet to take off. Since the Teresa shut it no longer has a hotel, although there are plans to build one. The crime rate has plummeted, but unemployment remains high at 18%, four times the national average.

Harlem will receive almost a billion dollars in public and private funds over the next four years. But Leon Griffith says the money that is coming in goes out again just as fast. Record Shack, which has become a local institution since it started in the 1960s, has been struggling after an HMV opened around the corner. "They may bring jobs to the area, but at the same time they are destroying our businesses," he says. "We can't compete with HMV. I live in Harlem. So the money that used to stay in the community is now leaving it and we are losing control."

According to the president of the 125th Street business improvement district, Barbara Askins, only 35 to 40% of retail businesses on the main drag are minority-owned. As more corporate fast-food outlets open, small joints whose names are a taste of Harlem life - "No Pork on my fork" and "Nuff Niceness" - will be threatened. Rents are rising; many are moving to the Bronx and Queens. Barbara Ann Teer says: "They are bringing in the corporations and they are employing the workers. But they are not paying the workers enough to live in Harlem."

The coach tourists are received by some - but not all - with mixed bewilderment and contempt. "Sometimes tourism here is handled like it's a jungle safari," says Lloyd Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce: "Like they're in the wild kingdom, looking at the animals running around."

In this atmosphere only the very strong, very big, or very canny survive. Sylvia's soul food cafe has opened Also Sylvia's next door, to cater for the tourist trade. Its 38th anniversary was sponsored by Rupert Murdoch's local television franchise, Fox Five. ADC, the non-profit wing of the Abyssinian Baptist church, employs a small army of estate agents, financiers, developers and lawyers. They have helped build a supermarket, day care centre and two schools, but are currently working on a deal with Gap and a chain-restaurant, the International House of Pancakes.

"One of our goals is to ensure longterm sustainability and for this we need to have a balance," says Walker, of the ADC, who interrupts our conversation for an urgent call with his broker. "There is enough opportunity to protect the interests of poor people and the rights of the indigenous community to remain here while allowing for some people to move in. There were lawyers, maids, doctors, bus drivers in the past, and we are striving to make it socio-economically diverse."

True, much of Harlem's past has been mythologised. The first renaissance may have been culturally black-led, but it was "white-owned" economically, which caused tension, particularly between Hurston and her patron, who wanted her to concentrate on the exotic rather than the anthropological. There was always a significant white presence in the renaissance period, and it was always greeted with a degree of ambivalence. In 1927, author Rudolph Fisher wrote in an essay, The Caucasian Storms Harlem: "It may be a season's whim, then, this sudden contagious interest in everything Negro. If so, when I go into a familiar cabaret, or the place where a familiar cabaret used to be, and find it transformed and relatively colorless, I may be observing just one form that season's whim has taken."

The issue now is neither should Harlem be economically developed - it already is - nor whether such development would change the character of the area - it has already done so. The issue is more on what terms will change take place and who will benefit as a result? Weldon Johnson said in 1930: "The next move ... will be unlike the others. It will not be a move made solely at the behest of someone else; it will be more in the nature of a bargain." Many in Harlem wonder now whether they are selling themselves short, or whether the price is too high.

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