Central Harlem’s Biggest and Baddest New Resident
Back in the eighties, Fitzroy Eddy spent the first years of his new life in the United States in the Bronx, with his brother and sister-in-law. He planned on returning home to his native St. Croix after his brother’s wedding in 1989, but ended up as a superintendent to various buildings in Central Harlem for almost three decades instead.
Now 45, Eddy serves as the super of the building located on 2247 Seventh Avenue (Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd) and 132nd Street. Over the years, he has seen it all: the fall, the burn and the rise of the community he calls home. “It was the infestation of Harlem,” says Eddy. “The neighborhood was infested with drugs, crime -- high crime.”
A cast of shady characters ruled the streets back in the day. Eddy recalls the notorious drug dealer Azie Faison, memorialized in the iconic film “Paid in Full,” reaped the benefits of Harlem’s crack epidemic. “I knew they weren’t working a nine to five, because you only seen them in the evening,” Eddy states. “AZ and Rich Porter controlled everything back then, everybody was working for them. No matter which block you came on, it was theirs; from 110th street all the way up.”
During the eighties and nineties, Central Harlem was the epicenter of drug distribution in the city. Crime had reached an all-time high; in 1990, the number of homicides had skyrocketed to 2,245 in New York City. (Last year, only 333 people were murdered in the city.) Eddy points to 2228 Adam Clayton Powell, the six-floor tenement that was ground zero for crack. “That’s where the AZ guy used to be at, making his money,” Eddy recalls.
From the days of rampant drug trade to now, Central Harlem has evolved dramatically into a highly-sought after community. What used to be a crime ridden, mainly black neighborhood has become a beacon for people of all colors and cultures. High rise, luxury condominiums now tower over the neighborhood, and crime has plummeted.
But it comes at a price. According to the Community Service Center, Central Harlem’s rent prices have risen 90 percent in the last decade and a half. In new luxury buildings, like the Aurum, across the street from 2228, a one-bedroom apartment sells for $600,000. “There won’t be any affordable housing in that building,” says Eddy. “You gotta make between 60 and 70 thousand dollars. That’s not affordable. It’s not.”
When Crack Was King: Old Harlem
Harlem, particular Central Harlem, was devastated by the crack epidemic, which also plagued nearly every large city in the United States from 1984 throughout the 1990’s. Distribution of the drug usually occurred in low-income inner city neighborhoods. Some Harlem residents viewed the epidemic as an opportunity to climb the “economic ladder” in a drug business which required little-to no start up money. “People did what they had to do to survive in that era,” says Sean Johnson, a retired counselor at the New York City Department of Homeless Services. “I had a friend that used to sell out of 2228, on the second floor. They had different floors that had different things. It was a wild building.”
Due to the large quantities of drugs imported to the United States, the price of cocaine dropped dramatically, by approximately 80 percent. Crack, the solid form of cocaine, surfaced as the most profitable and widely distributed drug on the streets of New York. It was cheap, simple to produce, and for many, easy to use. Between 1984 and 1985 crack usage soared as many drug users became attracted to the inexpensive, instant high.“You would see nurses from Harlem hospital pull up in their car.” says Eddy. “There used to be a line coming out of the building [at 2228] 24 hours of the day; at night it was really bad.”
By 1988, the number of complaints reported to Central Harlem’s 32nd Precinct reached an all time high; close to 6,000. In 1990, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary estimated that New York State alone had 434,000 cocaine or crack addicts.
As the 1990s progressed, the drug’s stranglehold on Harlem began to loosen, for two reasons: law enforcement and residents wanting change in their communities. Through the NYPD initiative “Operation Pressure Point”, cops were placed on a corner every 20 blocks to help stop drug dealers. As the streets became “cleaner,” drug dealers were pushed into new neighborhoods and real estate values in Harlem increased. At the same time, residents became fed up with the impact crack cocaine had on their community and wanted to put an end to the social issues, such as HIV/AIDS, that it created. So they fought back.
These factors helped usher in a new era.
Out With The Old: New Harlem
Central Harlem’s strong cultural presence has changed significantly and so have the demographics. Housing costs have increased throughout lower Manhattan, sending price-conscious renters and buyers uptown. According to the Furman Institute, Central Harlem renters pay an average $898 a month, and monthly rent is $1,234 for recent movers -- compared to $1808 and $2,330 for the Upper West Side. A Harlem condominium sells for $745,000 in Central Harlem, compared to $1.3 million in Chelsea.
Housing developers and investors recognize the potential of the community and have capitalized on it. “Harlem is filled with rich culture and history as well as a great community.” says Levi Tewel, a Central Harlem real estate broker. “With the large array of new coffee shops, restaurants and bars, Harlem is advancing at a rapid pace, and property value is rising.”
Given the changes, many who would’ve been afraid to even walk through Central Harlem “back in the day,” now see it as home. Between 2000 and 2010, the white population exploded, with a 400 percent increase. The number of Asians grew 233 percent, while blacks and Hispanics dropped, 14 percent and 21 percent respectively.
Newcomers like Diana Garcia are excited about the community. Garcia moved from California six months ago, and says she feels happy and comfortable in Central Harlem. “I love the vibe of the community; people are so friendly and genuine,” she says. “There’s no rush to have to deal with the pressure that I think you feel in lower Manhattan,” said Garcia.
Angela Bronner Helm, an adjunct professor at City College, says she wishes she had invested in real estate before the prices soared. “I used to beat myself up about not buying a brownstone,” says Bronner Helm, who rents her place in Central Harlem. “Not only because I want to stay in Harlem and own a part of the community, but it’s also a great investment. Those properties that people have gotten for $350 thousand are now worth like $1.7 million. It would have been great for retirement and my kid’s college tuition.”
While high rents drive away some residents, other long-time Central Harlemites have done the math, and realize that cashing out and moving to the Bronx, upstate or down South makes sense. “People who own their house from a previous generation and suddenly it comes to be worth an insane amount of money, can no longer justify not selling it,” said Matthew Vaz, a history professor at the City College of New York. “They’re not being forced out, but they just can’t resist cashing out.”
When It’s All Said And Done
Without a doubt, Central Harlem has experienced a turnaround that has altered its cultural and socioeconomic makeup. The neighborhood is cleaner, safer and overall more desirable to live in. However, something has been lost. “I’m heartbroken about what’s happening,” said Bronner Helm, who is black. “Harlem had a special energy that’s just not there anymore.”
She and others worry that the former capital of the African American community and home of the Harlem Renaissance will continue to wither away. “The one place that shouldn’t be gentrified, that should keep its culture should be Harlem,” says Helm. “The Lenox Lounge was in Harlem since the 1930’s; when Fidel came to Harlem in 60’s he went there, and the head of the IRA did the same. It’s closed down now. Now there’s a lot of wine shops and sushi; I like my amenities, but Harlem is very special. I feel like African Americans are being erased from it and it’s sad and tragic; it breaks my heart.”
“Black owned businesses that gave the community its flavor, bars and clubs are no longer there,” adds Bronner Helm. “It’s starting to look like every other part of the city.”
Many hold on to what they can of the area they once knew, but others prefer to let it go and celebrate the present. “A lot of people were getting stabbed, shot,” recalls Eddy. “Now, it has improved one hundred percent.”
Keisha Mangum, a six-year resident of 2228, says some things never change in the building that was the epicenter of the crack epidemic. “Just because you change the outside of a building, doesn’t mean the inside will,” says Mangum. “I’m sure a new demographic of tenants will change the neighborhood, but not 2228.”