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The Roots of Urban Renaissance:
Gentrification and the Struggle over Harlem
Amber N. Wiley

Brian Goldstein
Harvard University Press, 2017

Brian Goldstein’s The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle over Harlem is an encyclopedic work that chronicles change over time in one of the most mythologized neighborhoods in the world. Opening with the 1969 scene of protestors occupying the northwest corner of 125th and Lenox, the book details how radical visions of community-centered redevelopment in the neighborhood yielded to the mainstream commercial corridor of CVS, Whole Foods, and H&M. At the end of a forty-year struggle for self-determination in decision-making regarding urban policy, Harlem residents found themselves living not in Harlem, New York City, but Harlem USA.1

One of the most profound revelations of the work is that the changes in Harlem that preceded the “Second Renaissance” of the twenty-first century were ushered in by community representatives from the neighborhood itself. Goldstein argues that one must reject simplistic notions of gentrification that characterize it solely as a phenomenon that occurs from without. Indeed, through his extensive research Goldstein demonstrates how even some of the most radical visions of community governance fell to local, state, and federal bureaucracy as well as the neoliberal faith in the redemptive power of the free market.

Goldstein’s first chapter, “Reforming Renewal,” introduces the reader to the Architects’ Renewal Committee in Harlem (ARCH) and the mid-1960s struggle to define community control in matters of urban planning in New York City.  In addition to a much-needed and overdue overview of ARCH, Goldstein illustrates how inter- and intraracial coalitions between community groups in Harlem worked to redefine what urban renewal looked like in their neighborhood. Much like the Model Inner City Community Organization (MICCO) founded by Walter Fauntroy and others in Washington, DC, C. Richard Hatch’s work with ARCH was to counteract large-scale urban renewal plans that adversely affected communities of color. The means by which this goal was to be achieved was through consultation and partnering with architects who would act as community advocates, envisioning alternate renewal plans that would allow neighborhood residents to remain in their communities and actually reap the benefits of renewal.

“Black Utopia,” the second chapter, covers the evolution and maturation of ARCH under the leadership of J. Max Bond Jr. This chapter is multifaceted, reflecting the diversity of projects and issues that ARCH addressed in the late 1960s. First was the question of community control —what did that look like?  Was decision-making in the Civil Rights/Black Power era a representative democracy, with select few charismatic leaders (usually clergy or businessmen) speaking for the experiences and needs of the many? Or was it something that truly flattened the democratic process—participatory democracy that allowed for community members, regardless of their life station, to speak to their needs, and actualize the process of eradicating them?  These questions were acted out on a block of vacant land along the north side of 125th Street between Lenox Avenue and Seventh Avenue.2 Under the watchful eye of Governor Nelson D. Rockefeller, the area was slated for the erection of a state office building. Grassroots neighborhood activists argued that the land should be given over to the community, and the more radical of this faction occupied the construction zone and renamed it Reclamation Site #1.  Goldstein does an excellent job of laying out the various factors at play in the struggle for Reclamation Site #1. He brings Black Nationalist and postcolonial theory into the conversation as a way of showing how the struggle over land—in direct opposition to state control—has deep rooted implications for marginalized and colonized people across space and time.

The third and fourth chapters, “Own a Piece of the Block” and “The Urban Homestead in the Age of the Fiscal Crisis,” cover real neighborhood gains toward community control and economic autonomy. These chapters move through the 1970s and 1980s, highlighting strategies for self-reliance in the austere financial and political climate of the Nixon and Ford administrations. As Goldstein reveals, these gains came at a price. The schism between the “moderate” and “radical” community activists deepened as community design centers (CDCs) became a part of the state urban renewal machine. Goldstein argues that entities such as the Harlem Commonwealth Council (HCC) and the Harlem Urban Development Corporation (HUDC) exemplified this trend. Their dependence on federal and state funding to purchase land to hold in trust absolved them of much of the accountability that was required to address community needs, since earlier plans around community buy-in and investment in the organizations failed.

During the 1970s the high rate of property abandonment by landowners, followed by city acquisition of thousands of properties due to nonpayment of taxes, left Harlem renters in limbo. In this crisis Harlem residents found an opportunity. A diverse array of individuals used this moment to exert their physical presence in space. Inspired by early urban homesteading successes like Operation Move-In, groups such as the Renigades (a youth “gang”) worked to take ownership of their buildings through sweat equity. Leaders from the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine formed the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB) to aid people who wanted to participate in the new movement of urban homesteading. They worked with the Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood to identify properties to rehabilitate. Certainly an unlikely combination of groups, those who participated in urban homesteading labored to prove that capital did not only come through monetary means, and that sweat equity could and should be a valuable method of acquiring stake in a property.

The third and fourth chapters increasingly focus on the market economy and neoliberal policies that relied on the free market, while absolving the federal and state governments from responsibilities of what came next. The fifth chapter, “Managing Change,” shows how these policies increasingly aided in the already fractured movement of community control in Harlem.  Whereas community activists of the 1960s and early 1970s addressed the brick-and-mortar needs of Harlem residents, and worked to reenvision the neighborhood through the lens of black urbanism, community organizations of the late 1970s and 1980s focused on land acquisition, diversifying their portfolios, and growing their assets. These organizations moved away from the more physical and pragmatic means of control to one that increasingly relied on a free market to assert ownership of land. This, of course, shifted the goals from making places meaningful to neighborhood residents to a goal of return on investment.

The final chapter, “Making Markets Uptown,” covers Harlem’s entrance into the “economic mainstream.” Characterized by the opening of Harlem USA, a Pathmark store, and later, Harlem Center, this chapter highlights how earlier work done by activists, particularly businessmen and the neighborhood CDCs, actually laid the foundation for outside commercial investment and the gentrification that marks the neighborhood today. Goldstein argues that these CDCs’ acceptance of neoliberal policies strengthened their market value while weakening their accountability to neighborhood residents who were not property owners.

In The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle over Harlem, Goldstein walks the reader through an exhaustive myriad of plans, initiatives, protests, meetings, coalitions, and policy decisions that shaped the Harlem we know today. It jumps from project to project and organization to organization, which presents some challenges following the narrative. It is clear that there is no straightforward story here—there were many advances and setbacks, as well as lateral moves in policy development. Perhaps, then, the book stays true to the nature of community organization over the span of 40 years in Harlem. That does not necessarily make it an easy read, as it is dense with acronyms and characters, some of whom we forget shortly after we are introduced to them.

The book fits well into the realm of urban history and is a necessary companion to Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (Vintage Books, 1975); Suleiman Osman, The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn (Oxford University Press, 2011); Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (Routledge, 1996); Arlene Dávila, Barrio Dreams: Puerto Ricans, Latinos, and the Neoliberal City (University of California Press, 2004); and Derek Hyra, The New Urban Renewal: The Economic Transformation of Harlem and Bronzeville (University of Chicago Press, 2008).

Caro’s epic saga of Moses’s ascendancy in New York lays the groundwork for some of the most impactful changes in the city’s urban landscape, the effects of which we are still grappling with today. Osman’s work documents the earliest waves of gentrification in modern New York City by looking at political shifts in the 1960s that included white college graduates searching for an “authentic” way of life in the city. This poses a nice contrast to Neil Smith’s early work that gave us much of our initial terminology about the gentrification process in the United States, and created a framework for thinking about how policy shaped this process and the way the “urban frontier” was an outgrowth of American imperialistic ambitions reminiscent of Manifest Destiny. Dávila moves the discussion of gentrification into the politics of neoliberalism and the fallacious argument that somehow economic benefits of the free market would trickle down to the masses. Finally, Hyra’s comparative analysis of Harlem and Bronzeville evaluates two long-standing and important black cultural communities that have felt the very real and powerful impact of gentrification in the last twenty years.

Goldstein’s work stands on and exists within this strong foundation of scholarly inquiry on gentrification. The Roots of Urban Renaissance is important for anyone who wants to understand how gentrification works. Gentrification is not a ghostly phenomenon that sneaks into a neighborhood like a thief in the night. There are financial backing, investment, shareholders, boards, committees, and meetings behind what gets constructed, by whom, where, when, why, and how. If anything, these revelations make the reading necessary not only for urbanists or planners, but also architects who want to understand what their role is in the longer process of development and design. It gives a face and name to those whose work for the community against overarching city, state, and federal powers has been erased through the sands of time, often forgotten. Goldstein’s book illustrates various levels of success in design informed and driven by the community.

Harlem USA is the name of the 285,000-square foot retail development at 125th and Frederick Douglass Boulevard that opened for business in 2000.  A sister project, DC USA, which covers five acres and contains 890,000 square feet of retail space, opened in Columbia Heights, Washington, DC, in 2008.

The avenues are also referred to as Malcolm X Boulevard and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, respectively.

How to Cite this Article: Wiley, Amber N. Review of The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle over Harlem, by Brian Goldstein. JAE Online. January 16, 2018. https://jaeonline.org/issue-article/roots-urban-renaissance/.