Harlem and Detroit: Same difference

Herb Boyd | 7/3/2014, 11:56 a.m.
Researching the history of the Black community in Detroit, my hometown, I am struck by the number of commonalities it ...

And no matter who comes out on top in the primaries and the subsequent election, the congressmen representing Harlem and Detroit’s 13th Districts will witness communities undergoing dramatic changes in constituencies. Gentrification is as much an issue in Harlem as it is in Detroit, if their cores are compared.

A recent poll of registered voters in Harlem shows that 25 percent are white, making them an increasingly potent voting bloc. If the influx of white homeowners continues at the current pace, Harlem will begin, from a standpoint of color, to look like it did in the 19th century, when whites comprised the majority.

Not too long ago there was a steady flow of whites and people of other colors into Detroit’s downtown and midtown areas, but while the stream continues, it’s far less intense in a residential sense. Rather than seeking a comparison of gentrification between the two communities, it is best to view them through a prism of class, one elected official in Detroit advised.

“As I see it,” he said, “it’s a question of classism and people in Detroit, like folks in Harlem or any place else, the issue is one of parity. So long as there’s a level playing field and equal opportunity, I don’t care who moves in next door if they keep their property up.”

Both Harlem and Detroit are enduring dramatic population decline, and the flock in flight is Black and white residents desiring better schools, safer streets and a place where their middle-class dreams can be realized. During my two separate months of research in Detroit, I saw many of the conditions so prevalent in Harlem. Clearly, poverty, homelessness, infrastructure needs and unrelieved unemployment, particularly of young Black men, are as evident in Sugar Hill in Harlem as they are on the East Side of Detroit.

Even so, there are signs of hope and recovery in both communities—a shared resilience and resurgence that makes my venture so rewarding, so promising. There is a line in a poem by Jessica Caremoore about Malcolm X, “a Harlem man with a Detroit walk,” that once more ties the two communities together.

A Harlem on the rebound can be seen in the renewed neighborhood harmony; increased attendance at community board meetings; and the ever-expanding activism stimulated by newcomers who refuse to tolerate traditionally poor city services, potholed streets, slow assistance at the post office and slow snow removal.

There are indications of improvement in Detroit as well, with local leaders expressing an abiding interest in the plight of the young; the spread of urban gardens in the vast number of vacant lots; and the encouraging, intergenerational dialogue between veteran activists and eager neophytes.

Yes, Detroit is constantly in the news because of the withering fiscal crisis and the woeful bankruptcy, and those stories resonate for Harlem readers in an inescapable way, reminding them of impending doom and how to possibly avoid a similar collapse.

In a few days, I will return to Harlem with a fresh sense of Detroit’s dismay and its gradual rise from the ruins. But all it takes is one trek, one drive through my neighborhood to keep my hometown out of the rearview mirror.