The Washington Times - September 10, 2008, 03:17PM

A good friend of mine from New York, Ivette, called me the other day and she was pretty upset. She lives in Harlem and what upset her was the article that appeared in the Sunday New York Times entitled, “In an Evolving Harlem, Newcomers Try to Fit In“  by Timothy Williams. This article discussed the tension between the new mostly white residents of Harlem and the longtime mostly African American residents. According to the author, the new folks want to change the flavor and landscape of what old timers call “The Village of Harlem.”

So I will ask my usual question. Why am I writing about this? This question is even more valid this week because I am writing about something that appeared in an out of town newspaper involving another city, region, state, etc. Well it does apply to the mission of this Blog, which is to focus on our interconnectedness and building community.

This article about the new residents of Harlem reminded me of some of my experiences in my DC neighborhood of close to thirty years, which is called Brookland and is located in Northeast Washington. Brookland is racially and economically diverse and can boast of such prominent residents as Ralph Bunche, Sterling Brown, Edward Brooke, Ellis O. Knox, Rayford W. Logan, Pearl Bailey, John P. Davis, Jean Kerr, and Robert C. Weaver. Like Harlem it has experienced an influx of new residents for many reasons such as great affordable housing, proximity to public transportation, and stability.

Also, like the new folks in Harlem, some of the new arrivals in my neighborhood have brought their values, judgments, and fears with them.  Many of their fears, values and judgments collide with the long timers.  These fears range from differences involving development, commercial establishments, historic landmarks, streetscapes, city services, and cultural issues. For example like Harlem, our new residents complain about the type of businesses we have and too many churches.

Well I say to the new folks in Brookland and Harlem, those things predate your arrival and were part of the life of our communities. By all means seek and entice the services and things you need to the neighborhood, but don’t diminish the things that we value or have faithfully served or been a part of our community for years. For example, storefront churches may not hold the best or highest value for a neighborhood’s commercial district. However, in the years where urban commercial districts lay in decay, they brought life and activity to vacant building and revenues to the local businesses that rode out the difficult years.

Now as far as the old time residents in our neighborhoods are concerned, you must embrace change. Not all change is bad. Change in many cases as it relates to rebuilding our cities means displacement of course and that is certainly the case in many neighborhoods in DC and New York. Your fears are well founded in this case. Anger is even appropriate. But, don’t let your anger or fear obscure your vision of some of the positives that the new comers bring. I am sure that most of them are looking for an affordable, safe and good place to live and they appreciate the uniqueness and flavor of their new community.

But, I have learned that a vocal and visible minority of newcomers can exacerbate the tensions that come with change and transition in many of our communities including mine. Those that have a true sense of community building should not to let this disruptive minority prevent positive and balanced change. Yes, we need to separate the community builders from the destroyers and work together. I even have a motto for us, ” Savor the flavor and embrace the change.” Remember, in our communities we can find much more in common than what divide us.


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