Whole Foods was the ultimate sign that Harlem had become a NEW Harlem. It showed outsiders that the residents were willing to conform and change, willing to assimilate into mass society. Something as simple as Whole Foods took away the identity, the individualism, the uniqueness of Harlem. To me, it signified the end of a cultural era.
I am very much hesitant about the gentrification that is happening in my current neighborhood. However, it’s not just taking place in Harlem, but it is occurring across various urban neighborhoods and cities across the U.S. Even when I go back home to Cincinnati, I see areas that were once untouched by some and feared by white communities to venture because of their alleged rough reputations. Basically, they were areas containing high percentages of minorities due to white flight. (“White flight” refers to when white residents fled to the suburbs from urban areas due to an increase in black residents; black residents are known to bring down neighborhood house values.) As times have changed and white communities realize the value of these pocket areas that are typically closer to cities, they end up gentrifying the neighborhoods — what is considered the current “reverse white flight” movement.
When reverse white flight takes place, there are definitely positive impacts that more resources become available, authorities are more aware and quicker to react whenever crime takes place, and typically the upkeep of the area progresses. However, the positivity only lasts but for so long. Many people of color who originated in these areas are priced out of their homes because rent and homeownership values increase. A neighborhood where they once felt so comfortable becomes foreign with restaurants and shops that no longer cater to their needs. In the ONE area where they could feel at home without completely being singled out, they now feel out of place. It’s no longer a safe haven. And bit by bit, the number of people of color dwindles, and they get pushed out farther and farther.
Living in Harlem, I noticed the slight signs of gentrification creeping over the double-dutch rope when I first moved into the neighborhood. It’s an area that I love for its history; it resonates in my artistic and revolutionary bones. I love the fact of knowing that Maya Angelou carried out her career here, I love knowing that Zora Neale Hurston held meetings in her apartment with Langston Hughes and other founding members of the Harlem Renaissance, I love seeing Frederick Douglass Boulevard or a statue of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. standing on the corner of an iconic street of American history. I love seeing all the places where Malcolm X spoke to the public; I love knowing that other major black figures still come to the area to feel that same energy. Nonetheless, two central Starbucks locations showed me that the area was on the verge of changing. At that time, I just didn’t know to what extent.
Starbucks is known to be a leader of gentrification. It’s like it makes other people more comfortable in an area that was once questionable. When in doubt, visitors can always go to Starbucks and get something trendy that they know they’ll like. Something healthy even. Something familiar that they can order at any other Starbucks.
Initially, I didn’t pay much attention to the coffee shop. I figured that as long as black and brown people worked there and were customers, there shouldn’t be too much of a threat of gentrification. But slowly, more construction started taking place. Rental places appeared and tried to rebrand the area to separate it from its “ethnic past.” People who lived in Harlem all of their lives started to sell their homes, buildings, and businesses to outside realtors and landlords whose offers sounded too good to pass up. Little did they know that by selling their property, they were also selling the solace of a people. Stores and restaurants opened, shouting black culture, but were in the hands of white owners collecting black dollars at a higher price than normal. American Eagle popped up; Bed Bath and Beyond became competition for local, independent furniture retailers; and, finally, Whole Foods made its grand entrance to Harlem.
Yes, the Apollo still showcases original acts and is a staple to the black community. Yes, you can see people excitedly on their dirt bikes and four-wheelers on a warm, summer day, and others on the corner selling watermelon or spreading messages of their versions of religion and spirituality. But Harlem has been on the process of becoming more commercial. More unfamiliar faces are starting to be seen. Buses tour through with only white faces looking down upon the Harlem residents. Buildings no longer house friendly neighbors smiling to one another for the past several years or decades. Harlem is beginning to redefine itself in a 21st century uncomfortable, oppressive way.
Over the last week, I was bombarded with some tough and heartbreaking news: I was gluten-intolerant. This meant that I could no longer enjoy the rolls that my mother makes from scratch during holidays, the biscuits and gravy I devour at Cracker Barrel whenever I have the chance, pancakes, French Toast, COOKIES, croissants, cupcakes, brownies, pies, or anything that tastes amazing and makes a good percentage of life worth living. Yep, against my own will, I found out that I had to give up the most common forms of bread. If you understand my Kentucky roots, you realize just how difficult this was — and still is.
Now being both lactose and gluten-intolerant, I had to find options that could serve my dietary needs. I’m very much into supporting small businesses and independent stores, but finding food options that are gluten-free isn’t easy. Especially in a black neighborhood. As I explained earlier: We tend to love bread. Fortunately but unfortunately, I found myself in Whole Foods. I never thought it would happen. I protested it for a year since its doors opened. But now, I would probably end up being a regular whether I wanted to be or not.
I first saw signs that Whole Foods was coming to Harlem back in 2014. There was an open field that seemed to stay empty forever. Then, construction finally started, and it seemed to last forever. Eventually, a building was there with other retails spaces available, and Whole Foods still hadn’t opened. Once the healthy foods market finally welcomed everyone inside, I was disgusted to see how quickly Harlem seemed to turn its back on its cultural origins. CitiBikes graced each corner; it’s as if it all became a marketing ploy to hash out the old and bring in the new.
Even before becoming a sensitive eater, I wondered how I could contribute on NOT being a part of the gentrification process. Support local and small businesses, uplift independent black companies, be involved with local groups or platforms. But now that I have morphed into one of those yuppie people who always asks, “Do you have a gluten-free option,” I feel as if I, too, am a part of the society that is gentrifying a place that I loved so much for it’s ethnic innovation. By placing my money in the hands of a mega corporation that is known to alter its surrounding location rather than the pockets of neighborhood business owners, what could I do as an alternative?
As a millennial of color, I definitely think that we come in contact with this conflict quite often. We are in the age of the reverse white flight, and gentrification is taking over neighborhoods that were probably “too dangerous” for our white counterparts 10 to 15 years ago. But as people of color who are educated and with a sense of awareness on trying to uplift our people and one another, how do we keep from falling into the same mess of taking neighborhoods from ourselves and handing it over to another community? How can we push for progression in financial, economic, educational, physical, nutritional health with modern resources without completely selling out?
But something as big and mega as Whole Foods or Starbucks can’t be downsized — no matter the neighborhood. Regardless of the stories we hear and see in the news about people who look like us who aren’t always welcomed through their doors, they will still survive. But how do we survive during their invasion? Especially at times when sometimes we need them for our benefit?
I have constantly battled with the idea of gentrification and I’ve watched it creep along. Parts of it make me angry, but then there are benefits to it as well. As someone who is in love with history, I understand that no area stays the same during the entirety of its existence. Even a cultural icon like Harlem has gone through a multitude of changes — both good and bad. And minority communities have seen it on both sides.
The idea of Harlem, or any urban home, always has a place close to our hearts. We take pride in it; it helped us become the people who we’ve grown to be. We remember the neighborhood staples that mean so much to us, landmarks that help us float back to memories we thought we forgot.
But at the same time, black communities haven’t always taken care of their own. Granted, we’re not provided with the same amount of resources or equity, but even our sense of pride of where we consider to be our safe haven hasn’t been the best. I think that this is — though, not the main cause — helped perpetuate the rise of the current wave of gentrification. We haven’t always taken ownership when we should have. If the city neglected a part of our community, we would further the neglect. Our sense of protesting in that regard has had a way of backfiring on us.
As hard of a measure as it is I have to remind myself to embrace the community change — but to a certain extent. Accept that a new wave wants to reinvent an area and bring it back to life like it once was 50 years ago. Accept the rush of excitement, the liveliness, the fact that the area can once again live up to its name. But remember the history and remember the people who make the area unique: the boutique owners, the families who pass their brownstones down from generation to the next, historical landmarks that hold national value. There’s no need to be completely greedy if we weren’t going to respect her worth and legacy.
Moving forward, I will continue to shop at my independent stores. Again, I’m all for supporting small businesses; it’s that heritage that helped promote Harlem as the pocket neighborhood that it’s become over the past century. And hell, if I’m going to pay the expensive price for 22 ounces of gluten-free flour at Whole Foods, I have no need to complain about the price a private, black retailer suggests. Ultimately, we need to keep our money in our communities; that’s the only way we will fully prosper and help one another grow. This is the only way to rebirth the second coming of a renaissance and the means to sustain our community — to sustain us as a people.