Harlem on my mind

In this historic center of African American cultural life, Harlem, the main issue today is the lack of affordable housing.

Right now in Harlem, the prices of all forms of housing — from public projects to affordable rental and coop apartments for middle-income families under the city-state-federal Mitchell-Lama program, to condos — are going sky high.

To the developers and the politicians who are in their pockets, Harlem is a gold mine. It is a beautiful community with broad boulevards, lovely parks — including the northern part of Central Park, and a good stock of large apartments with large rooms and high-ceilings. It is one of the few New York neighborhoods that still have a substantial stock of turn-of-the-century brownstones. And there is plenty of rundown housing stock that can be renovated and sold or rented at market rates. There is a lot of money to be made in real estate in this community.

Location, location, location: Harlem is within minutes of midtown’s jobs, culture, business, entertainment and shopping.

If Bush’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), New York Mayor Bloomberg and the developers have their way, there will be no affordable housing left in Harlem. Public housing will be privatized and the cost of housing in Harlem will soar way beyond the financial means of the average Harlem resident.

Currently the median income in Harlem is a little over $24,000. With the high cost of housing, the working-class Black and Latino people who currently live here will not be able to stay. Already tens of thousands have been run out of Harlem and its sister African American community, Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.

What is Harlem?

Harlem is its people. It’s not just buildings and streets. What makes Harlem Harlem is the culture, the working-class Black folks who built the large churches, who brought us jazz, R&B and blues, who in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s migrated from the South and the Caribbean and brought wonderful cuisine, music, dancing and style to this community. These are the people who gave us the street sports, the sharp clothes and, most importantly, who supported progressive politicians and artists who had a big impact on the world. They gave us the Harlem Renaissance: Countee Colleen, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Adam Clayton Powell, Ben Davis and Duke Ellington.

Harlem is the capital of Black America, and it has also benefited all of humankind.

If the developers have their way, Harlem as we know it will be gone. It will be gone because working class Black folks and Latinos in east Harlem will be gentrified out. We said in the sixties, “Urban renewal is Negro removal.” That’s what we are still dealing with and it is a huge battle.

It is not unlike what is happening on the Gulf Coast. They are using devastation caused by Katrina to remove thousands of low-income Black families, to gentrify New Orleans and make it a playground mainly for rich white folks. The Black folks from there have been dispersed all over the country. We are losing a sense of community as a people.

This is headed toward the destruction of Black communities, which weakens the political and therefore economic power of our people.

Housing is a big part of the problems of African American life, along with health care, education and the biggest problem of all: jobs. Building quality affordable housing is one of the best answers. We should use the current vacant buildings and empty lots for this purpose.

Such a program will push the prices of all housing down (even luxury housing). It will create public works jobs rebuilding Harlem for its people. It will make it possible for working-class people to stay here. It will preserve the community.

Who will pay for this?

One: restore the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Make them pay their share of taxes. Super-profits ought to mean super-taxes.

Two: end the war in Iraq. Currently we are wasting $250 million a day in Iraq. This war is costing us $1 trillion right now and if it’s not stopped could cost us $2 trillion.

With those two sources alone there is enough money to pay for a national program to restore the ghettos and barrios of our nation.

Frederick Douglass’ brilliant observation from the anti-slavery period needs to be understood today. He said, “Power concedes nothing with out a struggle.” History has shown us that Douglass was right.

Morally, politically and economically, we can’t be passive on this most basic human right — a decent place to live. It’s time to fight.

We need to revive the civil rights movement and organize and confront the powers that control the housing market. With a strong united movement, power will be forced to concede.

A broad movement is rising to demand affordable housing around the slogan “New York is Our Home.” On May 23, thousands of New York tenants will gather at the Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village housing complex in what may be the largest demonstration for affordable housing in many years. The time is now to build a movement for affordable housing in New York City.

Jarvis Tyner (jtyner @cpusa.org) is executive vice chair of the Communist Party USA. This article is based on remarks given at a meeting of Harlem’s Tau Omega chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority earlier this month.