"Is Harlem good now?" That's the question that Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef Marcus Samuelsson gets asked the most about his neighborhood. In Sunday's New York Times, Samuelsson wrote an insightful op-ed about watching Harlem change over the past decade.
Samuelsson, who has lived in Harlem for 10 years and opened his acclaimed restaurant Red Rooster there three years ago, talks about a local street vendor who recently moved locations from busy 125th Street because he could "no longer recognize his customers." But, ironically, it's that same transition—that influx of new faces—that allows Samuelsson, a relative newcomer to the neighborhood, to feel more comfortable becoming part of the community. Now, the most troubling issue for Samuelsson is the perception of his adopted neighborhood that he encounters from outsiders:
I travel all over the world for work and I am constantly asked to define Harlem. What's it like, people ask. Is it cool? Is it safe? When I go to places like the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to speak among celebrated thinkers and leaders, I'm often asked: Is Harlem good now? I always have to pause before answering. Good compared with what? To when? These questions all miss the mark. Is Harlem good now? That is a question loaded with long-held ideas about race and class, one that dismisses the complex, vital history of this neighborhood and its people, their contributions to civil rights and art, under one word: "bad."
We talk about in gentrification in the language of crime rates and housing prices and whether or not there's a Starbucks on one corner. But often it's tiny changes, like a street vendor relocating, that can serve as a more telling barometer for transformation. Lately, the definition of a bad neighborhood vs. a good neighborhood is more likely to be determined by real estate agents than residents. When a "bad" neighborhood suddenly becomes labeled "good," it may only be "good" for those who don't live there. [New York Times]
Top image by Paul Lowry