Decency, Design, and Development in New York City’s Historically Black Neighborhoods

Preliminary Thoughts

The dictionary definition of “decency” indicates a certain ambiguity in the meaning of the term. It can indicate conformity to minimum social standards, such as meeting “standards of taste, propriety, or quality,” in the sense of decorum or orderliness and being “free from immodesty or obscenity”. But it can also mean “having praiseworthy qualities,” in the sense of fair play, tolerance, inclusion, and lack of extremes. The first meaning makes one think of the country club membership committee, while the latter suggests the so-called “European City” model. Presumably we are interested in the latter understanding, not the former. What are the praiseworthy qualities we wish to see our cities display? What minimum standards should they meet?

This project is also interested in whether intentional acts by public and private entities to shape the spatial arrangements of urban activities – urban planning and/or urban design – has any bearing on whether a city is more or less decent, and if so, how. The likely consensus, and certainly my belief, is that place matters. (The third edition of Place Matters, published by the University Press of Kansas, co-authored with Peter Dreier and Todd Swanstrom, will be available in the fall.) But once again, an ambiguity is embedded in this position. We may agree that spatial arrangements help to constitute and reinforce urban inequalities, but it is far less clear that interventions to modify the spatial arrangements of urban life can counteract or undo these inequalities.

Finally, there is the necessity of taking a dynamic approach to understanding cities and urban inequalities and incivilities. Neighborhoods, cities, and metropolitan regions are always in flux, always in the process of becoming something somewhat different than before. Many critical urbanists use terms like “gentrification” and “neoliberalism” to define current urban trajectories, but these terms have become so broadly applied as to lack analytic punch. They could mean practically anything. For example, the word “gentrification” has become virtually indistinguishable from the word “investment.” Especially within the context of permanent urban transition, as well ast he shift from government to governance, the two terms often seem to mean something the observer does not like, not something that can be shown to be displacing individuals against their will or undermining public standards to generate opportunities for private profit at public expense.

Susan Fainstein and I have both focused on Central Harlem and the shopping district along 125th Street in order to explore the interrelationship between urban decency, urban design, and urban development. Harlem is indeed an iconic neighborhood in New York, having served as the home for much of the city’s black population between the 1920s and 1960s and the heart of its cultural heritage. It has also been afflicted by disinvestment, depopulation, crime, drugs, and dysfunctional black politics. Finally, it has been called out as an example of urban revival, with an Empowerment Zone, new housing construction, major public investments like the Schomburg Library, a revitalized Apollo Theater, and a State Office Building housing a popular former president. In this sense, it is a fitting case study of whether urban design can yield urban development that leads toward a more decent city.

Harlem in Context

Harlem’s housing stock was developed at a fairly high quality after the Civil War. Initially built for Manhattan’s growing middle class, it later came to house the rising immigrant working class of Jews and Italians, but it was becoming increasingly African American by the early 20th century, in part as various forces displaced earlier black neighborhoods from lower Manhattan and property busts affected the ability of Harlem landowners to attract higher income tenants. By the 1920s, Harlem was emerging as the center of New York City’s black population, with central Harlem rising from 33 percent black in 1920 to 70 percent in 1930. The area elected Adam Clayton Powell to the City Council in 1941.

In a sense, however, Harlem began to decline absolutely and relative to the city’s other black neighborhoods from the Depression on. The opening of the A train in the 1930s and the magnet of war time ship-building jobs in Brooklyn in the 1940s created a vector that drew Harlem residents to Ft. Green and Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn. The black percentage of Harlem’s residents peaked in 1950, and the broader patterns of decentralization, urban renewal, public housing construction, and disinvestment influencing the city as a whole caused Harlem’s population, including its black population, to decline steadily thereafter, reaching a low point in about 1980. Upwardly mobile blacks, increasingly including black immigrants, chose to live in more distant, less dense areas with higher quality housing, including Central Brooklyn, Southeast Queens, and more northerly parts of the Bronx. Those remaining behind in Harlem were relatively poor, living in projects, subsidized housing, and low quality private rental housing. By the end of the 1970s, the city had taken title to almost 70% of the units for nonpayment of real estate taxes. The movement of blacks out of Harlem noted in recent years is thus not new, but represents a trend of close to two-thirds of a century.

The housing disinvestment, “slum clearance,” and depopulation of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s also severely undermined the cultural and commercial importance of 125th Street and such key destinations as the Cotton Club (closed in 1940), Mintons (closed in 1974), and the Apollo Theater (continually struggling). The quality of the private housing stock declined in this period, and the substantial number of new public housing projects built in the 1940s and 1960s provided a better alternative, though management practices fixed an increasingly poor and non-working body of tenants in place.

The revival of the city economy and population after 1980 did not initially have a large impact on Harlem and, owing to a variety of factors far more of the subsidized housing built by Mayor Koch’s Ten Year Housing Program ended up in the Bronx and Brooklyn than in Harlem. But gradually the city’s Housing Preservation and Development Department was able to return a substantial amount of in rem housing to service. Between the Great Society and 1980, about 3,615 units of subsidized housing were built in Central Harlem, half of them in Esplanade Gardens, a complex of 27 story buildings on the Harlem River. Thereafter, the Ten Year Plan and its successors financed 11,323 units built by a range of developers both nonprofit and for profit. When combined with the 8,600 units of public housing, this gave the neighborhood a substantial social housing stock. A large share (44.7%) of Harlem’s households also live in rent stabilized private housing, leaving only 14.7% in unregulated private housing.

Finally, by the 2000s, with crime rates having dropped to a fraction of the level typical fifteen years earlier and the subways much improved, private residential investment began to pick up, with the New York Times Real Estate section frequently highlighting young professional couples, often African American, restoring brownstone row houses to their former glory. In 2006, the first market rate condo residential development, the 77-apartment Lennox, opened on Lennox Avenue and 129th Street, sold out, with some units priced at more than $1 million. Other private developers have followed. The pressure of the private rental market has grown sharply and displacement of long time tenants is a real threat in the unprotected part of the market.

The Trajectory of New York City’s Black Households and their Neighborhoods

Harlem is one small and decreasing, if still important, part of a larger picture. Like the city around it, a variety of larger forces have been reshaping Harlem, including immigration, the aging and outmigration of the native born population, the changing structure of the labor force (and growing polarization of earnings and wealth), and technological change. The emerging environment puts members of single parent households led by people with low levels of education and attachment to the labor force, of which Harlem has a disproportionate share, at a substantial disadvantage. Poor black Harlem residents are being succeeded and perhaps displaced not just by white professional interlopers, but by Dominican and West African and Mexican immigrants, by black middle class professionals, and even by German exchange students seeking an affordable new urban experience.

To understand this process in Harlem and other neighborhoods like it, we have to ask how the composition of New York City’s resident population is changing, and how each of its components is faring. Then, we have to ask what this league table of growing and shrinking and rising and falling population groups tells us about New York City’s level of decency and what, if anything, urban design, urban planning, or other urban policy interventions can do about it.

My sketch of an answer to these questions is based on the Public Use Microdata Samples of the 1990 and 2000 U.S. Census and the 2007-2011 combined American Community Survey microdata sample, as harmonized by the IPUMS project at the University of Minnesota. These data allow us to look across time, across groups, and across consistent neighborhoods (in this case Public Use Microdata Areas, which are akin to community boards). My analysis breaks people into groups according to the race of the head of their household (mutually exclusive categories of white, black, Latino, Asian, and other) and the nativity of the household head (native versus foreign born). This groups native born children together with their foreign born parents and distinguishes immigrant-origin households from native-origin households. This scheme results in ten groups; of which we report eight here (the small groups of native and foreign born “others” are excluded).

Census year Change
1990 2000 2011
NBW 33.2% 25.9% 25.2% -24.1%
FBW 10.6% 10.8% 9.6% -9.4%
NBB 17.7% 15.1% 13.0% -26.6%
FBB 7.8% 10.3% 10.7% 37.2%
NBL 12.7% 11.6% 11.4% -10.3%
FBL 11.0% 15.1% 16.4% 49.1%
NBA .4% .7% 1.2% 200.0%
FBA 6.3% 9.6% 11.5% 111.9%
Total 7280106 8004759 8127779 11.6%

 

Table 1 shows the broad pattern of change: the overall population has grown by 11.9 percent between 1990 and the 2007-2011 average (subsequently called 2011 for conveniences). But people living in households headed by native born whites diminished absolutely and relatively, falling from a third to a quarter of the total; the white immigrant household share fell too, but less sharply. One obvious implication of this strong trend is that while whites may be succeeding or displacing non-white populations in some neighborhoods, they are not having the same impact on the city as a whole. To the contrary, white population change has been creating vacuums, not crowd-outs.

Less well known, but equally important, is the overall decline in the city of people living in native born black and Latino households. The African American and Puerto Rican populations of New York City have been falling for quite some time. In this period, the former dropped even faster than the native white population and the latter somewhat more slowly. These declines in the African American and Puerto Rican populations reflect the aging of these groups, their declining fertility, and a net out-migration. The leading city to which native born black households are relocating is Norfolk, Virginia, and Yonkers is the biggest destination for native born Latinos. By contrast, all the immigrant-origin households grew substantially, particularly Asians, but also Latinos and blacks.

Census year Change
1990 2000 2011
NBW 33.2% 25.9% 25.2% -24.1%
FBW 10.6% 10.8% 9.6% -9.4%
NBB 17.7% 15.1% 13.0% -26.6%
FBB 7.8% 10.3% 10.7% 37.2%
NBL 12.7% 11.6% 11.4% -10.3%
FBL 11.0% 15.1% 16.4% 49.1%
NBA .4% .7% 1.2% 200.0%
FBA 6.3% 9.6% 11.5% 111.9%
Total 7280106 8004759 8127779 11.6%

 

Table 2 shows these trends for two important black neighborhoods, Central Harlem in Manhattan and Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. It is striking that both neighborhoods display a sharp jump in the native born white population and a concurrent fall in the native born black population share. In 1990, Harlem was nine-tenths black and Bed-Stuy four-fifths. By 2011, that had fallen to two-thirds or less in both areas. But while their white populations grew rapidly from a quite small base in 1990, so did their immigrant black, Latino, and Asian populations from larger bases. In Central Harlem, the population in native black households fell by 20,000 people and the native white population rose by 11,000 people. But Harlem’s foreign-born black households grew by 7,000, the foreign born Latino population by 10,000, the native born Latino population by 6,000, and the foreign born Asian population by more than 2,000.

Together, these gains are more than twice the white influx. It seems inaccurate, therefore, to lay the population change in Harlem mainly at the feet of white gentrifiers.

But how have the different groups fared in terms of important economic outcomes, such as real household incomes per capita or individual earnings? The first half of the period between 1990 and 2011 was a good one for the city, but the second half was troubled. The first period witnessed a substantial if gradual recovery from the 1989 recession. The second period was marked first by the economic shock of the 2001 attack on the city, followed by a weak recovery that was then shattered by the 2007 and 2008 financial and economic crisis, from which the city has only now (in 2014) recovered the jobs it lost in that period, with average earnings and incomes stagnating. Overall, mean real household income per capita (the measure economists say is the best single indicator of economic outcomes) rose from $28,246 (in 1999 constant dollars) in 1989 (as reported to the 1990 Census) to $30,125 in 1999 (2000 Census), a 6.7 percent rise. This figure was almost exactly the same in the combined data from 2007 through 2011.

Unpacking this overall figure reveals some problematic or troubling component trends. Even though the mean (average) rose and then plateaued, the median declined in the first period by 8.4% and then remained at the lower level. And the standard deviation, which suggests the degree of inequality, grew by a third over the 1990s. In other words, by 2000, New York City was a more affluent city than in 1990, but that affluence became markedly more skewed to upper part of the income distribution.

Moreover, when the trends are broken down by group, given in Table 3, it shows the native born groups (whites, blacks, Latinos, and Asians) all experiencing rising income, even as their share of the population fell, while all the immigrant groups (except for blacks) all lost income, despite becoming a growing presence in the population. Among the native born groups, the least well off, Latinos, experienced the highest gain in median real household income per capita (20.8%), while the smallest, Asians, also outpaced the native whites and began to approach their level as the highest-income group. Thus the difficult economic circumstances of the decade did not uniformly hurt the worst off (as the gains by native born Latinos demonstrate), nor did they disproportionately help the best off (as the comparatively modest gains to native born whites suggests). But the burden did fall disproportionately on the city’s growing immigrant-origin populations, particularly the fast-growing Asian and Latino immigrant populations.

Closing the story by returning to the two black neighborhoods, we see a much sharper climb in median and mean real household income per capita in Harlem (47.6 percent) than in Bed-Stuy (10.5 percent), although both outstripped the city as a whole. And the level of income inequality doubled in Harlem compared to a slight rise in Bed-Stuy. While real HHI per capita rose 45.8 percent for those living in native black households in Harlem, it rose an astonishing 327.6 percent for native whites. (It also grew significantly for those in native born Latino households, from a quite low base, and held about even for those in foreign born black and Latino households). Clearly, in 1990, only quite low income whites and blacks lived in Harlem, but by 2011 many much higher income native whites, and not a few higher income native blacks, had joined them. Although 16,000 native born white households have also moved into Bed-Stuy, they appear to be much lower income than those in Harlem.

Concluding Thoughts

Neighborhood change is a constant in New York as in all other large cities. Changes taking place in any given neighborhood reflect not only larger structural shifts in their demography and economy, but also the neighborhood’s position in the hierarchy of neighborhoods and its place in the tapestry of group segregation and concentration. It may also reflect various kinds of public and private interventions, particularly in real estate investment, transit, and public security, that shift how people parse the benefits and costs of living in a particular neighborhood.

In the mid-1970s, Harlem was accurately perceived to be a dangerous place experiencing depopulation and disinvestment. Larger forces were seriously eroding its amenities and economy. Forty years later, Harlem has become a much more attractive place to live, particularly for a place that has historically had relatively low rent levels. It is still a predominantly black and low income area, and the large supply of public and social housing means that the larger forces of change are unlikely to erase these characteristics. These changes have brought many benefits, probably even to the black poor who remain, but they have also exacted some costs, because far fewer people at the bottom of the income distribution have seen upward mobility as the city’s political economy has disproportionately rewarded the shrinking native white population (as well as the native Asian population).

 

Is this a more decent city? At the level of persistent poverty, increased inequality, and upward mobility for many new immigrants, one might be tempted to say no. The income distribution has shifted upward; the middle of most native groups has benefitted modestly, while the tops, especially of the whites and Asians, has grown rapidly. And many comparatively low income immigrant households have had a difficult time, especially in the current decade of economic troubles. On the other hand, New York City remains a beacon of opportunity – for some.

 

How has urban design contributed to these trends? The Bloomberg mayoralty will go down as one of the most successful pro-growth administrations (in terms of policies designed to promote investment in commercial and residential real estate) in city history. It also made a substantial commitment to building social housing, continuing a pattern established at the end of the Koch administration. (Of course, this only more or less offset losses to the affordable housing stock and did not expand the overall supply much.) Evidence of both trends is amply on display in Central Harlem and Bed- Stuy, which are now gaining, rather than losing population, and which more people from a variety of racial and nativity backgrounds now see as better and more desirable places to live. Both are losing their African American populations, though this trend long preceded their recent improvements. How and how much urban design and urban policy decisions contributed to this outcome is not crystal clear, although  poor African American families keenly feel the burden of rising rents on static incomes.

Reviewing these statistics, an equally troubling question is whether New York City is going to provide avenues for upward mobility to those in immigrant households, particularly Latino immigrant households. On the whole, members of native born households of all racial backgrounds are fewer but better off in absolute terms over time, although whites remain best off in relative terms. The numbers of those native born households would be much smaller if their numbers were not being replenished by young adults who grew up in immigrant households and are now establishing their own native born households, so the immigrant second generation is quite probably experiencing much greater upward mobility than are their immigrant parents or new immigrant arrivals. In the end, paraphrasing Churchill on democracy, we might say the urban development patterns of New York City since 1990 are the worst except for all others that have been tried, specifically the devastating period from 1969 through the late 1970s, when it suffered catastrophic losses of jobs, people, and investment.

About the Author
John Mollenkopf is a Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
Posted on July 23rd, 2014.