New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Historical Research / Philanthropy and Inequality

The Changing Meaning of Community Development in Harlem (And its Consequences)

Editors’ NoteBrian D. Goldstein introduces his recent work, The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle Over Harlem (Harvard, 2017).

The January 29, 1977 front page of the New York Amsterdam News offered grim news to any Harlemites hoping to own part of the land they inhabited. “Harlem Commonwealth Council Fails to Sell Shares to Residents,” read large type across the front page. The Harlem Commonwealth Council (HCC), founded in 1967, was the first community development corporation in Harlem and one of the first in the United States. Like many of its contemporaries, it had emerged from the demands for community control that fueled the Black Power Movement of the late 1960s. In the context of development, community control especially meant community ownership of land, a goal HCC had promised to effect by purchasing acres of Harlem and enabling residents to shape their direction by selling modestly priced shares in the corporation. Indeed, since 1972 HCC’s mantra had been “own a piece of the block.”

Yet as the Amsterdam News headline suggested, a decade after the community-based organization’s launch, such promises remained unrealized. “Despite HCC’s growth from an initial worth of $250,000 to its present worth of over $23-million,” the reporter explained, “the average Harlem resident is no closer to owning stock today than he or she was eight years ago.” HCC had succeeded in opening small businesses, gaining control of large tracts of Harlem property, and offering ambitious development visions, yet that work was increasingly guided by the leader who ran the organization, not the residents who populated surrounding streets. Instead of fulfilling the oft-repeated promise of share-selling, that leader, James Dowdy, offered a different assurance: that any profits from the group’s work would reach Harlemites with his guidance. Yet without the symbolic and literal implications of community stock ownership, such promises offered a much more paternalistic, top-down strategy of community development than racial self-determination had imagined.

As I explore in my book, The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle Over Harlem, HCC was just one of many Harlem organizations dedicated to shaping Harlem’s land between the 1960s and 2000s, crucial decades in which the most famous African American neighborhood in the U. S. transformed from a symbol of urban crisis to one of urban renaissance. These groups included community development corporations like HCC, the Abyssinian Development Corporation, and the Harlem Churches (later Congregations) for Community Improvement; storefront organizations offering professional assistance, like the Architects’ Renewal Committee in Harlem; and community groups, like the Community Association of the East Harlem Triangle. All in different ways made the neighborhood-level control and transformation of Harlem’s land their goal.

These organizations represented a growing effort in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and the War on Poverty to enable new forms of participation in majority-minority neighborhoods like Harlem. And they offered dramatically new avenues for people interested in development—trained experts like architects and planners, as well as skillful amateurs—to forge bottom-up means of transforming land.

In doing so, community-based development organizations offered a dramatic rebuke to the urban redevelopment approach that had dominated in Harlem and many other city neighborhoods in the postwar era, one in which officials and experts had often told Harlemites what they needed, not asked them what they wanted. Federal policies, especially the one known as urban renewal, had cleared vast acreage in places like Harlem for development that favored the middle class, a practice that came with immense social costs for the people displaced. It was no surprise that such residents demanded to have a say in the future redevelopment of their community.

As HCC’s history embodies, however, the new institutions that sprouted in reaction against urban renewal did not follow a simple path in the aftermath. In HCC’s case, an organization that had long offered the utopian—if seemingly attainable—ideal of fund-raising through community stock ownership shifted that vision amidst the federal context of the late 1960s and 1970s. Across political parties and presidential administrations, officials supported such efforts to move decision-making to the community level. For President Johnson this was a means of supporting neighborhoods, for President Nixon, a means of getting the federal government out of direct involvement in urban policy. For community development corporations like HCC this meant that a wave of federal money reached their door, money that came a lot easier than the hard work of institution-building and fund-raising in an impoverished community. That enabled big dreams but also enabled HCC to maintain distance from its constituents. Without direct stakeholders, it proved easy for HCC’s leaders to echo the top-down approach they had once criticized and to offer a development direction for Harlem that increasingly favored profit-generating commercial projects over more holistic approaches focused on the immediate needs of their neighbors.

Not all community development organizations followed this specific path. Some early organizations remained tenaciously committed to the radical ideas of collective self-determination of the 1960s, while others that emerged later, in the 1980s and 1990s, brought visions more oriented to collaboration with the private sector. But taken together, as The Roots of Urban Renaissance explains, they trace a larger arc that HCC embodies in its specific history: one in which community control and community development’s intrinsic ambiguity allowed various actors to assume those labels. As a result, I argue, ideas of community-level action with radical roots transformed over time to ambitions that were often much more moderate and market-oriented. In other words, groups that had emerged with the goal of development that met Harlemites’ acute needs for social services, affordable housing, and employment came to focus instead on mixed-income housing, shopping centers, and chain retail, but all such organizations saw their efforts as community development.

Understanding this is crucial for understanding a neighborhood that has become a national symbol—and often the national symbol—of the kind of development that has touched many so-called inner-city neighborhoods over the last couple of decades, often embodied in the term “gentrification.” In Harlem, gentrification has meant increasing numbers of affluent residents, new, large-scale retail development, and incremental investment that has followed in the wake, all changes that have attracted both praise and scorn. But tracing changing development ambitions at the grassroots level helps to show this as a story of neither failure nor success. Rather, it symbolizes the complexity of neighborhood organizations and their work in the latter half of the twentieth century, as they grappled with questions about funding, expertise, public policy, philosophy, and the best way to bring about their ambitions. Some Harlemites rued the loss of the dream of communal ownership of their land, while others were thrilled with the arrival of national retailers and, consequently, new access to sources of fresh, dependable groceries, banks, and clothing stores close to home.

Regardless of their point of view, the organizations Harlemites created in these decades managed to reshape Harlem and create new pathways for their participation in such reshaping. So while considering the intended and unintended consequences of their actions, The Roots of Urban Renaissance also suggests the fertile ground that the built environment can provide as a means for understanding the complex implications of community-level organizing for the public good. As an urban and architectural historian, I am interested in streets, buildings, and urban plans not just as the setting in which people seek to forge a world more in line with their ideal visions, but also as the very material through which they forge those visions. Organizations like HCC sought to leave their mark on Harlem’s blocks, and reading those blocks over time can teach much about the ways that competing visions came together, collided, and eventually took form, with diverse implications for the Harlemites who inhabited these spaces.

To be sure, understanding community development as a pluralistic, dynamic category has historical value, but likewise suggests potentially valuable approaches to community-level work in the present day. In Harlem and in general, local organizations became more professionalized and more pragmatic over time, but doing so often came at the cost of the kinds of imaginative ideas that drove the optimistic formation of such organizations decades earlier. Thus, one major lesson my research can teach those who continue to engage and support work at the community level is to seek ideological and programmatic diversity among the recipients they support. Doing so might yield more mixed results in measurable categories, like housing units constructed, but provide more ambitious outcomes in the ideas the organizations advance. The very idea that a community like Harlem could shape development in its midst was extraordinarily ambitious when initially voiced in the 1960s, but provided a crucial guidepost as Harlemites faced major socioeconomic challenges and, indeed, also proved largely achievable. As residents of Harlem and similar neighborhoods face new challenges today—including both persistent poverty and fears about affordability—big, even utopian grassroots ideas can help confront such pressing problems. In other words, Harlem’s history shows the value of imagining ambitious structural transformation as well as the importance of being able to get things done. Support for both is essential to ensuring community development that actually meets the needs of the diverse constituencies that make up a single community.

Brian D. Goldstein is an architectural and urban historian and assistant professor at Swarthmore College. In addition to the book The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle Over Harlem (Harvard, 2017), his writing has appeared in the Journal of American History, Journal of Urban History, and various edited volumes. 



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