When the topic of gentrification is at hand, recent headlines suggest the stakes of the debate. “Gentrification Isn’t a Benign Process: It Forces People from Their Homes,” reads a Guardian editorial. “Why Gentrified is Justified,” states another in the Financial Times. Last July, the New Yorker asked, “Is Gentrification Really a Problem?”
Gentrification is a term whose meaning is as contested as the process itself. Accounts of gentrification depict dualities: there are victims and victimizers, winners and losers. Some see it as an unambiguous evil while others see an obvious good. Such dichotomies suggest the emotions at play in the process, yet they likewise flatten a story that is never so simple. They describe a tale that is figuratively and literally black and white, though in reality it has seldom been either.
If contemporary media often miss this complexity, historians increasingly grasp it. Gentrification, long the province of geographers and sociologists, has become fair game for those who chart the past. Accounts of places like brownstone Brooklyn and SoHo’s lofts show how an emphasis on contingency and multi-causal explanation illuminates an ongoing phenomenon. They demonstrate that gentrification has rarely unfolded along simple, polarized lines.
One way to understand this is by asking not just what we talk about when we talk about gentrification, but who. If descriptions of gentrification depict a contest between insiders and outsiders, often divided racially, historical analysis reveals a less convenient truth: the line between gentrifier and gentrified is rarely clear-cut.
Consider the case of Harlem, which became a symbolic example of gentrification as it transformed from the 1960s-era urban crisis to its so-called “second renaissance” by the new millennium. In the early 2000s, journalists and academics flocked there to describe a growing middle-class population, rehabbed brownstones, and new commercial centers. Such observers often emphasized the arrival of national retail chains or the new residences of those who decidedly stood out, like young professionals seeking lattes. Yet their focus on migrants to Harlem from elsewhere missed a fundamental fact, one that becomes apparent through analysis of archival evidence: Harlemites themselves took part in bringing about this transformation, often through grassroots organizations they founded with the express purpose of giving residents greater control over urban development. These outcomes were sometimes unintended but often intended, the result of the evolution of such organizations amidst changing financial, political, and intellectual contexts.
This is a story I detail at length in my recent book, The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle Over Harlem. It involves a variety of actors, but examining one man, Rev. Calvin O. Butts, III, and the organization he piloted, provides an emblematic illustration. Butts led Harlem’s famed Abyssinian Baptist Church beginning in the 1980s. Abyssinian stood proudly on West 138th Street but was increasingly a port in a turbulent storm. Riven by the crack and AIDS epidemics, unemployment, and housing abandonment, Abyssinian’s block exemplified the strife facing Harlem as a whole. As Butts explained in 1985, “I can look at 138th Street buildings that were completely filled and now have only forty to fifty percent capacity.”1
In this context, Butts called for the church to take a new role in Harlem. Most visibly, the congregation did so through a new community-based organization called the Abyssinian Development Corporation, or ADC. The group, over which Butts exerted great influence, represented the leading edge of a nationwide movement of church-affiliated community development corporations.
ADC provided social services and encouraged economic development. But more than any other activity, it focused on building housing. Despite rampant abandonment—or because of it—Harlemites suffered from a lack of decent affordable housing and the constant fear vacant property would attract wealthy speculators. Organizations like ADC saw housing development as a way to both meet an existing need and manage future transformation. Yet their recipe was not simply to build for Harlem’s predominantly low-income residents: they explicitly sought a mixed-income population, one that included existing Harlemites but also new, middle-class residents.
Why did ADC pursue a goal of economic integration, seeking more affluent newcomers? First, it represented a realistic response to the existing funding context. With the Reagan administration largely ending federal involvement in American cities, figures like Butts had to cobble together support from local, state, private, and non-profit sources. This patchwork fueled the direction of projects, as did funders’ own diverse priorities. With some sources funding low-income housing, others funding senior housing, and still others incentivizing middle-income housing, economic integration was an often-inevitable outcome for organizations that prioritized development as an end in itself.
An even greater influence was the era’s emergent sociological thought, especially work on the so-called underclass, most notably by William Julius Wilson. Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged appeared in 1987, just as ADC was getting off the ground. Wilson pointed to the concentration of poverty as a key factor in worsening the effects of poverty and, relatedly, the negative effects of middle-class outmigration from city centers. Through concepts like “social isolation” and “concentration effects,” Wilson offered a diagnosis many community leaders read as a prescription to pursue poverty deconcentration. Mixed income became a normative ideal for organizations like ADC, which saw it as a panacea, often overlooking the much broader, structural solutions Wilson had outlined.2
These ingredients combined to turn ADC into a housing development powerhouse by the early 1990s. Projects included the Samuel D. Proctor Apartments, with 25 income-mixed units. On West 130th Street’s famed Astor Row, ADC helped transform two vacant houses into cooperatives for low- and moderate-income families. The most emblematic project was a rehabilitated building called West One Three One Plaza. Consisting of 34 middle-income condominiums, the project targeted the enterprising African Americans who made up the leading edge of gentrification in Harlem. Marketing materials proclaimed, “Become a Harlem Homeowner!” as they boasted proximity to nearby Harlem cultural institutions and access to Midtown and downtown shopping.3
Such projects showed ADC to be an able development player. This reputation would bring an ever-greater role in shaping Harlem. Most notably, as ADC increased Harlemites’ economic diversity, it also became a force in the new commercial development intended to serve them. ADC co-developed Harlem’s first major supermarket, a Pathmark, which opened in 1999, and it partnered with a developer to build Harlem Center, which placed Staples, CVS, and H&M at one of Harlem’s key intersections. Such projects were in no small part the result of the simultaneous rise of Calvin Butts, who developed a reputation as a political pragmatist happy to align with liberal politicians when it suited his organization, and equally happy to align with conservatives like Governor George Pataki.
The ascent of Calvin Butts—rumored as a potential mayoral candidate by the late 1990s—and of ADC had decidedly mixed broader implications. As ADC’s star rose, other community-based organizations saw their roles decline. Power at the grassroots wasn’t shared evenly. Yet many Harlemites, both old and new, reacted enthusiastically to their new homes and the chance to complete routine shopping nearby. Embodying these costs and benefits was Harlem’s changing population, which gained 46,000 residents between 1990 and 2010. This came with a marked rise in household median income in Central Harlem—250 percent growth in the same 20 years, even adjusting for inflation. Some Harlemites looked upon these trends with approval, while others wondered if they could still afford to live there.
Though organizations like ADC were not the only force behind such changes, they accelerated them with their efforts to attract the middle class. With hindsight, it’s not difficult to understand this as a slippery slope. If these changes were motivated by a normative ideal of a healthy community as a mixed-income one, the ensuing acceleration of middle- and upper-income settlement in Harlem suggests the accompanying perils. Indeed, ADC would get tangled up in the booming real estate market it had fueled. In 2014, the organization sold a historic Harlem ballroom to a private developer who planned to demolish it to build apartments, four-fifths of which would be leased at market rates. Likewise, ADC sold the Pathmark supermarket to one of New York’s most powerful developers; the store closed in 2015 and redevelopment will soon begin. Such decisions brought a barrage of criticism directed toward Butts.
Yet it would be difficult to call Butts, or ADC, or the many groups that played similar roles in Harlem, either detrimental or benevolent. Looking closely at who gentrifies suggests a painting in shades of gray, not black and white. Would Harlem have fallen apart without Abyssinian’s efforts? Would it have changed even more quickly? Would Harlemites have gained any affordable housing at all, or the stores they had long demanded? While we can’t answer such questions with certainty, we can say this outcome represented a specific vision of what it meant to improve Harlem, one with roots in community-based actions, not simply those imposed from elsewhere. A historian’s tools can help to expose those roots. The past they describe suggests the need to engage these debates with more nuance in the present, even as they continue to unfold.
- Butts quoted in Frank White, III, “The Yuppies are Coming: Young, Affluent Whites are Taking Over Urban Ghettos,” Ebony, April 1985, 155. ↩
- Wilson considers responses to this research in an afterword to the book’s second edition. See William Julius Wilson, “Reflections on Responses to The Truly Disadvantaged,” in The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012). ↩
- “Harlem Bound!,” ca. 1993, Box 42, Folder 30, Abyssinian Baptist Church Records, Series XII, Subseries C, Abyssinian Baptist Church, New York, New York. ↩