Monday, February 17, 2014

Harlem, Marcus Samuelson, East Tampa, and Neighborhood Identity

Friends at Red Rooster in Harlem.
Marcus Samuelson, the famed chef and restaurateur, has an interesting opinion piece in the New York Times about his experiences in Harlem in Manhattan.  You can read it here.  His restaurant, Red Rooster, is a famous institution in Harlem.  It's on my regular brunch circuit and the singer in the combo that entertains always remembers me.  I am an outsider, but I always feel welcome.  Red Rooster is part of the Harlem renaissance that is transforming the neighborhood from what it was to something new.  The question of course is what that new thing will be. Samuelson gets it right when he wonders in the piece what is meant when people ask him if Harlem has become "good".  Is it "good" when outsiders perceive it to be good or when residents are pleased with their home?

 Certainly I am drawn to Harlem by the food and ambiance.  I'm not alone.   Many outsiders are moving to the area.  According to Trulia, the median home price is harlem is over $670,000.  Up 13% from last year.  Wowza!  I wonder how many are priced out of living in this new world.

Certainly Harlem is different from most U.S. African American neighborhoods because of the broader New York regional housing market.  Most of these neighborhoods are not experiencing a similar renaissance and I am not sure that they would want to have the same growth in property values.

 I am always struck by how so many outsiders want to "fix" these neighborhoods from something "bad" into something "good".  I've always been curious about the motivations of the "fixes" and the construction of the identity of the neighborhoods.  Certainly some of these neighborhoods have places where there are environmental problems.  In East Tampa, for example I and many of my colleagues did research on lead pollution, problems with storm water flooding, identification of brownfields, and a variety of waste management issues  These are solvable problems and they don't make the neighborhood "bad".  Local residents love East Tampa.  It's a great location.  But outsiders often perceived it as a "bad" neighborhood.  I guess if home prices went up by 13% it might be perceived as good.
The Taco Bus in East Tampa.  Click for photo credit.

While East Tampa doesn't have a celebrity chef or restaurants with the acclaim of Red Rooster, it does have the The Taco Bus and Big Johns Alabama Barbecue.  I'll happily match the food from Red Rooster with either of these places (sorry chef Samuelson, just keeping it real--you're in good company with these places).  I lived for years in a neighborhood adjacent to East Tampa and I was just as welcome in Big Johns as I was in Red Rooster.  Plus the median home price is about $60,000--definitely not Harlem prices.

So do residents in Harlem have it better as property values increase or do the people of East Tampa have it better with stable housing costs?  I'm not sure, but I am sure that the construction of neighborhood identity as "good" or "bad" is something that has real financial consequences for both residents and outsiders.

The construction of neighborhood identity is always fascinating...part 2 of this post tomorrow...the changing language of community engagement and why outsiders have a financial interest into tagging neighborhoods as "bad".

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