For decades, Harlem’s 137th Street has been plagued by drugs and gangs who have de facto run the neighborhood with impunity.
But recently the street has seen a big change.
The block was the site of a recent drug bust.
The bust resulted in more than a dozen people being arrested for slinging crack and casting a dark cloud of violence over the street. But long-term Black residents of the street between Lenox and Seventh Avenue are saying that new white residents in the neighborhood may have played a role in the arrests.
Last month there were a significant number of media reports about NYPD arrests of several people who had for years allegedly terrorized residents of 137th Street. To those on the outside, it appeared to be a victory on the part of the NYPD for getting the so-called “thugs” off of the street and cleaning up the block, but those who live in the neighborhood say that gentrification is the real hero.
“What they have been saying in the community is that this was going on for a while, and it became important because the demographic of the community changed,” said community activist and Harlem resident Iesha Sekou. “For a long time this was OK, and it was going on a few blocks away from the police precinct. All of a sudden this is a major issue. Why is it that when certain people move into the neighborhood now these things have become urgent matters?”
Evidence of a decline in crime rates and a rise in complaints can be seen in census numbers, in corroboration with NYPD statistics. The number of white residents in Harlem increased to some 5,000 people, or 4.3 percent of the population, in 2005. As of September 2008, this number was estimated to have tripled.
Upcoming census numbers due out in coming weeks could reveal even more information about the increase of white residents of Harlem.
While crime in Harlem has seen a dramatic decrease in the last decade, the NYPD saw a 73 percent increase in complaints to the 32nd Precinct, where 137th Street is located, between 1990 and 2008.
Residents of the area say that there has been an increase in patrolling by the NYPD and that they’ve noticed an increase in officers breaking up moderate-sized gatherings of people, even when nothing is going on. Some also said that they have seen an increase in the NYPD responding to noise complaints in recent years.
The Rev. Vernon Williams, who works in the streets to prevent gang battles, said that what happened on 137th Street is similar to what happened in Marcus Garvey Park when new residents moved in and complained about the traditional African drumming that had taken place there for years.
“Harlem as a whole is seeing a surge of people complaining about things they don’t like,” he said. “The new Harlemites did not like the African drumming, but when they wanted a dog run they lobbied.”
Williams added that, even though the NYPD removed a large number of people who were causing problems on 137th Street, there could be a resurgence as drug dealers recruit new people to work the block. He said that some have toned down their fight in the neighborhood but, with upcoming budget cuts to youth services and warmer weather on the way, now is the time to be vigilant.
While Harlem is seeing a shift in NYPD patrolling–which some see as unfair–because of new white residents, gentrification in other Black neighborhoods across the city is resulting the NYPD’s focus on crime in those neighborhoods which have been ignored for decades.
Graham Witherspoon, a retired NYPD detective and a member of One Hundred Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, said a similar trend is happening in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, which is also seeing an increase in white residents. One example, he said, is Bed-Stuy’s 79th Precinct’s increase in patrols of Tompkins Park in the early morning hours so new residents can walk their dogs safely.
“Policing is definitely reflective of the people moving into the area,” he said. “It’s interesting to watch the services that non-whites get from municipalities. Gentrification is utilized as a means that things are going to be improved. People paying $750,000 for a co-op, after getting mugged, get together–they will be listened to and their concerns will be addressed.”