The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle Over Harlem

Brian Goldstein’s current project, The Roots of Urban Renaissance, examines Harlem, perhaps America’s most famous neighborhood, during a period of tremendous change. The Roots of Urban Renaissance connects the ambitious, often radical social movements that arose in Harlem in the 1960s with the increasingly privatized and economically gentrified reality that marked the neighborhood by the turn of the millennium. Indeed, the Harlem of the new century – with large-scale commercial development on 125th Street and new middle-class housing in its neighborhoods – was not imposed on an unwitting neighborhood by outsiders but grew from the very movements that had emerged decades earlier to give Harlemites new control over their community. Gentrification resulted from transformations at the global, national, and local level, but so too did residents themselves produce the landscape that observers called Harlem’s “second renaissance.”

This research explores the history of community development corporations, little-known community organizations, self-help housing efforts, and an array of imaginative residents who acted as their own architects and planners—in many cases without professional training. Inspired by calls for community control of political institutions, schools, and the built environment that arose from the radical shift of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s, Harlemites demanded new influence over their neighborhood. The community-based institutions they formed in this pursuit subsequently served as the crucibles in which residents offered and debated competing conceptions of what Harlem should look like and who should occupy its streets. Through a social, political, and architectural history of their struggle to determine the future of one place, The Roots of Urban Renaissance explains the broader story of the emergence of community-based organizations as major players in contemporary urban development; the changing ideas of what it meant to improve a community; the lasting, often ironic spatial consequences of 1960s demands for participatory democracy; and the unexpected, often radical roots of the phenomena that today characterize the neoliberal city.