- The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle Over Harlem by Brian D. Goldstein
Contemporary Harlem, with its multimillion-dollar townhouses and majority non-black population, may seem to have little connection to the area’s twentieth-century history as a racially segregated yet culturally pre-eminent black Mecca. James Weldon Johnson, celebrating the community’s initial renaissance in the 1920s, was able to imagine a hypothetical moment when its blocks might be wrested away from African Americans but only in the far-distant future.1 However, re-development conflicts from the intervening decades remain vitally relevant to any deeper understanding of Harlem’s community politics today. As Goldstein demonstrates in his compelling study, even oppositional moments in the area’s political history, such as the radical “community control” mobilizations of the 1960s, furnished important (if sometimes unintentional) conditions for the gentrification of black America’s most iconic urban center.
The Roots of Urban Renaissance provides a well-researched reconstruction of the late twentieth-century struggles over the future of Harlem. The book’s most striking contribution is the seemingly paradoxical claim that Harlem’s advocacy-planning insurgency, influenced [End Page 162] by Black Power notions of community self-determination, bequeathed political claims and organizational vehicles that strongly influenced the area’s subsequent development—from new middle-class housing to the chain retail stores that now line 125th Street. Goldstein begins with a thorough examination of the activist planners who fought slum-clearance urban renewal and created several of the community development corporations (cdcs) that succeeded it. He traces the creative and complex tensions—between African-American leadership and institutional alliance building, market entrepreneurialism and tactical confrontation, and government support and community control—that refocused community visions from the housing and social-service needs of Harlem’s poor majority to “mixed-income” and “market-rate” re-development. For Goldstein, a historian of architecture and urban design, the ambiguities inherent in “community development” offered not only new opportunities for creative planning, participation, and leadership but also an ever-changing succession of community actors to shape these development projects.
Recent historical work about urban development and gentrification in the twentieth-century American city has been marked by interdisciplinary engagements across the fields of architecture and design, cultural studies, urban political economy, and American Studies.2 Goldstein’s early chapters are particularly good at examining the design elements and social implications of competing community visions within a single optic, and the book’s extensive array of archival sources—including federal and state planning documents, church records, organizational archives, and the private papers of key urban planners—makes for a highly textured and nuanced account. An unusually generous assortment of illustrations, including maps, photographs, and reproductions of key planning documents, further contributes to the quality of the work.
This detailed study is less interested in mounting a critique than in recognizing contributions, explicating processes, and taking note of historical ironies. Placing community activists and entrepreneurs at the center of this story, however, leads Goldstein at times to underestimate the influence of such external powerbrokers as mayors, governors, and financiers. Moreover, Goldstein never fully elucidates whether the shrinking presence of low-income African Americans within the Harlem community ultimately represents a triumph for neoliberal gentrification or the emergence of some sort of mixed-income “third way” (a recurring, murky term). Yet The Roots of Urban Renaissance is a deeply researched [End Page 163] and well-written account that makes a significant contribution to historical understandings of race, conflict, and community change.
1. James Weldon Johnson, “Harlem: The Culture Capital,” in Alain Locke (ed.), The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance (New York, 1925), 301–311.
2. See, for example, Eric Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles (Berkeley, 2004); Samuel Zipp, Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York (New York, 2010); Christopher Klemek, The Transatlantic Collapse of Urban Renewal: Postwar Urbanism...