Congressman Charles Rangel, Harlem's Face In Washington, Retires

Dec 24, 2016
Originally published on December 25, 2016 7:34 am
Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

There's a changing of the guard in Harlem. When the new Congress is seated in January, it will mark the first time since the second world war that the New York neighborhood is not represented by an African-American. For some residents, that adds to a growing sense of anxiety about changes underway, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: If you want to see the past and future of Harlem, look at the corner of 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, also known as Malcolm X Boulevard. On one side of the street, a towering metal and glass box where a Whole Foods Market will open next year. And on the other side, a two-story building with a crumbling Art Deco facade that used to be a jazz club called the Lenox Lounge.

MICHAEL HENRY ADAMS: This building is a place where Billie Holiday performed and where great bebop artists made their reputations.

ROSE: Michael Henry Adams is an historian of Harlem who's trying to preserve the neighborhood's distinctive architecture. He says the Lenox Lounge will be the next casualty.

ADAMS: It'll be demolished and replaced by this five-story structure that will not reflect anything that was here. And that is what hurts my soul so much.

ROSE: Harlem was once the undisputed cultural capital of black America. It was an important bastion of African-American political power, too. Now census data suggests that it's not even a majority-black neighborhood. Since the turn of the century, there's been an influx of whites and a growing Latino population. And longtime residents like Valerie Jo Bradley worry about what that means for the neighborhood.

VALERIE JO BRADLEY: When I got my house in Harlem, there were no construction loans or mortgages.

ROSE: Bradley runs a bed and breakfast in the elegant brownstone townhouse she bought with cash in the early 1980s when Harlem was represented in Congress by Charlie Rangel. But Rangel is retiring after more than four decades. And Bradley says there's some concern about his successor, who will be sworn in next month.

BRADLEY: There is a fear that Harlem's going to be ignored by this congressman. But I would feel that that's impossible.

ROSE: The new congressman-elect is Adriano Espaillat, who will be the first Dominican-American to serve in Congress.

ADRIANO ESPAILLAT: I am a Dominican of African descent. There is no difference between myself and folks from Harlem.

ROSE: Espaillat won a contested Democratic primary in the spring after losing to Charlie Rangel twice before. Espaillat's political base is Latino voters in Washington Heights, which he represented in Albany. But he insists Harlem residents will like him too once they get to know him better.

ESPAILLAT: People will see as I establish myself there, and my office will be open right there in the state office building, that I will represent every district with no privilege of one district over the other.

ROSE: Concerns about gentrification in Harlem are not new, but the pace of change may be accelerating as wealthier residents move in and attract businesses that cater to them. Jeff Green owns a cafe on 129th Street called Lenox Coffee. He's also a realtor in the neighborhood.

JEFF GREEN: People are moving up here because they really like the way Harlem is. And the dynamic at this cafe is very diverse and people from old Harlem and new Harlem.

ROSE: You can find similar racial diversity in the growing number of restaurants and cafes that have opened on Lenox Avenue. Historian Michael Henry Adams acknowledges that gentrification has some benefits.

ADAMS: Harlem has become this highly cosmopolitan place with people who have moved here who formerly lived in Paris or all over. We all love the old buildings. We all love the heritage here. But for many of us, we can sense that our days are numbered.

ROSE: Adams fears that Harlem's future doesn't have room for the history and the people who put the neighborhood on the map. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.