July 27, 2015

Empowerment Zones, Heritage Tourism, and Gentrification in Harlem

TigonzalesBy Teresa Irene Gonzales

A recent article in the Guardian discusses the ongoing gentrification of Central Harlem. As I mentioned in a previous post, gentrification in the United States is not only about one ethnic or racial group replacing another one. There is also a social class element, as higher-income residents displace lower-income residents. The active involvement of local city officials and real-estate developers make this happen, through targeted policies and investment.

So how does Harlem fit into this?

For over a century, Harlem has been home to a large domestic and international Black diaspora community. Beginning with the Harlem Renaissance and continuing to today, it has become synonymous with a strong Black arts and cultural scene.

According to the Center for Urban Research at CUNY, using a block-by-block analysis, researchers found that between 2000 to 2010 the overall population in Harlem increased. The White and Latin@ populations had the highest rates of increase. The Black population, however, decreased significantly, particularly in Central Harlem (by approximately -11,000).  Some areas of Harlem with a predominantly Black population in 2000, were mixed or predominantly White or Latin@ in 2010.

This change in demographics might be attributed to the availability of relatively affordable and/or vacant housing, increased development via public initiatives—particularly empowerment zones--the popularity of Harlem as a culturally important neighborhood, or a combination of these and other factors.

The Guardian highlights the role of culture in courting gentrification:

A very particular brand of black pride is being curated, sold and embraced—a move that is at the same time celebrating and threatening the very core of a dynamic black heritage and culture.

The branding of a culture or heritage by city officials, real-estate developers, and local community organizations for economic gain is known as racial heritage tourism. This form of local economic development operates to (re)develop low-income minority neighborhoods into tourist destinations.

As an extension of heritage tourism,  developers, city planners, and municipal officials focus on ethno-racial historical and cultural preservation and restoration of a given neighborhood. This can be through physical structures, a focus on certain cultural practices (e.g. music, food, dance) or traditions, and/or a heightened celebration of a specific historical period (particularly one that is profitable and generates feelings of nostalgia and a fixation with a utopic, yet historically inaccurate and/or irrelevant, bygone era).

This process, critics argue, commodifies the places, histories, and people that live within the target tourist area. On the other hand, scholars such as Susan Fainstein and John C. Powers argue that local economic development policies such as racial heritage tourism can change negative perceptions and narratives of low-income and ethno-racial minority neighborhoods. This in turn may result in higher investments from both the private and public arenas.  

In her study of racial heritage tourism in a majority Black neighborhood of Chicago, Michelle R. Boyd argues that racial heritage tourism can also create solidarity amongst residents;  residents come to see themselves as authentic representations of the neighborhood. This can result in a politically-charged collective identity that empowers residents to advocate for development plans that are closely linked to their vision of the neighborhood.

Branding a community may attract residents who are interested in participating in a specific kind of culture. For instance, According to the Guardian article, Kwame Binea, a Ghanian-born artist and musician, moved to Harlem eight years ago because of its cultural and artistic Black-American heritage. He has since benefited from local elders who provide support (e.g. advice and help with his music videos).

Karl Williams, the owner of a local bar 67 Orange Street told the Guardian that he opened his business in Harlem “because winning in this market meant more to [him] as a black entrepreneur.” For him, the gentrification of Harlem is more an issue of class than race since many of the people moving in are of the Black middle-class. Yet according to the CUNY study noted above, the Black population is declining in Harlem.

Who then benefits from a branded neighborhood, particularly one that is tied to a specific ethnic or racial heritage? And, who works to brand a community?

In her article “Empowered Culture? New York City’s Empowerment Zone and the Selling of El Barrio,” anthropologist Arlene Davila discusses the impact of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone (UMEZ) legislation and the Cultural Industry Investment Fund (CIIF) on increasing heritage tourism industries in Upper Manhattan, which includes Harlem.

Formed in 1995 as a response to federal empowerment zone legislation, the UMEZ receives funding from the federal government, the City of New York, and the State of New York.  It mainly focuses on workforce development, increasing employment, and supporting cultural programs and organizational development. According to their website, the UMEZ has infused roughly $225 million via grants, loans, and tax-exempt bonds, and courted over $1 billion of private investments into Upper Manhattan.

In 2004, the UMEZ created the CIIF to support the variety and density of arts organizations in Upper Manhattan. According to Davila, this includes a focus on cultural production and tourism that fits into a constructed “tourist bubble.” This means that only specific kinds of culture and history that are marketable to a large population are viewed as relevant to a tourist economy.

Criticisms of EZ plans highlight their tendency to support organizations and business personnel who know how to speak industry language, can frame their ideas around prosperity, can show that their ideas will be profitable, and, in the case of UMEZ, know how to fit their ideas into a traditional framework of culture and cultural production (via museums, galleries, and tour routes, for instance).

Within Upper Manhattan, Davila contends that the UMEZ’s preference for “competitive proposals” privileged large corporations and developers; in the first 9 years of the program, this is where much of the funding went. These developers and large corporations were then able to displace local mom-and-pop shops, as well as residents as rents increased.

Conversely, local residents and small business owners faced consistent barriers and stringent requirements to UMEZ and CIIF funds.  As Davila states, “residents had to prove that their cultural initiatives could create jobs and monies.” This was particularly difficult when UMEZ board members didn’t recognize certain histories and cultures as relevant or profitable.

Although Davila focuses primarily on the Latin@ neighborhood of East Harlem, locally referred to as El Barrio, all of Harlem is included in this empowerment zone. Furthermore, her insights into cultural marketing and development also ring true in Central Harlem – where the commodification of a specific form of Black culture and arts is highlighted as a lucrative business model and plan.

Marketable tourist attractions ignores many parts of Harlem’s history and present , such as its activism around labor rights, housing, and politics, and the strong Puerto Rican history, culture, and presence in East Harlem.

What is gained from heritage tourism? And what might be lost? Finally, how might local residents benefit from these development strategies without suffering displacement?


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