Friday, October 12, 2007

Harlem No More?

Newly constructed apartment buildings give Harlem a spiffy new image. So much so that, if you don't pay attention, you have no idea you're actually in Harlem.

Today I had a chance to take a bus ride up Frederick Douglass Boulevard (8th Ave.) into Harlem. I had not been up that way in a number of years and I was stunned by the transformation. Gone were the nice, historical Harlem buildings and corner stores:

Replacing them, all over the place (and I do mean all over the place), shiny new, utterly bland, apartment buildings:

The new buildings are nice, in a nondescript kind of way, and most are only a few stories high so, at least in that regard, they do manage to blend in with the few remaining old buildings. Thankfully I didn't see too many of those insufferable all glass skyscrapers that are popping up all over the city. [If you really want a challenge, try telling two of those apart.]

The problem with the new buildings is that they have a dulling effect; they're like giant erasers orderly going about eliminating all the interesting, original, colorful, unruly marks, and leaving behind a blank, mostly beige, page. There was no sense that you're in Harlem. Even the street life seemed muted; there were almost no people about, and most of the storefronts in the new buildings were still empty. [For those not familiar with the city, 8th Ave. is a major residential and commercial street.]

Mind you, I used to live on 119th/Amsterdam so I'm in no way romanticizing the past, when sights like this abandoned building were common place:

The empty, boarded, or even burnt, up buildings were terrible and detracted from the appearance of the neighborhood, not to mention the quality of life of its residents. But still, the area managed to somehow retain its character and vibrancy. What I saw today was a sparkly, sanitized version of pod suburbia, USA.

I'm all for progress and modern conveniences, but I must say I was surprised to see what a drastic effect modernization has on a neighborhood's identity.

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