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

Winner of the 2019 Lewis Mumford Prize for the Best Book on American City and Regional Planning History

Roots_CoverDisplaying gleaming new shopping centers and refurbished row houses, Harlem today bears little resemblance to the neighborhood of the midcentury urban crisis. Brian D. Goldstein traces Harlem’s widely noted “Second Renaissance” to a surprising source: the radical 1960s social movements that resisted city officials and fought to give Harlemites control of their own destiny.

In the post–World War II era, large-scale government-backed redevelopment drove the economic and physical transformation of urban neighborhoods. But in the 1960s, young Harlem activists inspired by the civil rights movement recognized urban renewal as one more example of a power structure that gave black Americans little voice in the decisions that most affected them. They demanded the right to plan their own redevelopment and founded new community-based organizations to achieve that goal. In the following decades, those organizations became the crucibles in which Harlemites debated what their streets should look like and who should inhabit them. Radical activists envisioned a Harlem built by and for its low-income, predominantly African-American population.

In the succeeding decades, however, community-based organizations came to pursue a very different goal: a neighborhood with national retailers and increasingly affluent residents. In charting the history that transformed Harlem by the twenty-first century, The Roots of Urban Renaissance demonstrates that gentrification was not imposed on an unwitting community by unscrupulous developers or opportunistic outsiders. Rather, it grew from the neighborhood’s grassroots, producing a legacy that benefited some longtime residents and threatened others.

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“[A] meticulously researched account of Harlemites’ efforts to exercise control over their area since the urban crisis of the 1960s… Full of telling details. [This] is not a popular history but a work of rigorous scholarship.” Benjamin George FriedmanTimes Literary Supplement

The Roots of Urban Renaissance is a social and political history of the built environment. In it, Goldstein tells the story of Harlem’s gentrification from the inside out: rather than chronicle the experiences of migrants to the neighborhood, he recovers the points of view of the people who were already there… [It] is a pleasure to read and a major contribution to urban studies, to the history of the black freedom struggle, and to twentieth-century American social and political history writ large.” Tracy Neumann, American Historical Review

Intensely detailed, this important historical analysis reads not like a play-by-play account but rather like a drama, due to the author’s strong sense of narrative. The story is deeply relevant today as the processes of gentrification and the resistance to those processes continue to produce and reproduce urban spaces across the U.S. and throughout New York City, including Harlem.”A. B. Audant, CHOICE

The Roots of Urban Renaissance is important for anyone who wants to understand how gentrification works… It gives a face and name to those whose work for the community against overarching city, state, and federal powers has been erased through the sands of time, often forgotten. Goldstein’s book illustrates various levels of success in design informed and driven by the community.”Amber Wiley, Journal of Architectural Education

“‘In what image will Harlem be re-created?’ It’s a question New Yorkers will never stop asking of their neighborhoods. But Goldstein illustrates well how Harlemites not only asked, but thoroughly engaged. Although the results were mixed, it’s impossible to deny how the neighborhood was radically shaped by the opinions, persistence, and ingenuity of the people who actually lived there.”Emily Nonko, The Architect’s Newspaper

The Roots of Urban Renaissance provides a powerful counternarrative to conventional views of gentrification that view the process as something imposed on communities from the outside. Outside forces were important in Harlem, to be sure. The book shows, however, that people and institutions indigenous to Harlem were the driving forces behind its revitalization.”Lance Freeman, Journal of Urban Affairs

“Goldstein elucidates our understanding of the history of urban redevelopment in the US…Goldstein’s meticulously researched and elegantly written book on the history of housing politics and urban policy in Harlem also doubles as a piece of African-American history, as a micro-history of the Civil Rights movement as it happened in Harlem during the 1960s… It is not least Goldstein’s forceful and convincing fusion of these two histories and narrative strands that make The Roots of Urban Renaissance required and urgent reading for anyone interested in the (urban) America of today.” —Nico Völker, KULT_online

“The metamorphosis of Harlem since the mid twentieth century has been remarkable. A symbol of urban crisis and a black power utopia, it was reshaped by both advocates of community participation and by the forces of global capitalism. With attention to the ironies of urban renewal, community control, black power, and privatization, Goldstein takes us on a surprising, unpredictable and revelatory tour of one of America’s most famous neighborhoods.” Thomas J. Sugrue, author of The Origins of the Urban Crisis

“A fascinating book that will make a major impact on our understanding of Harlem and the life of the American city. The Roots of Urban Renaissance is a must-read for those interested in urban design and politics, the civil rights movement, and African American history.” —Suleiman Osman, author of The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn

“We’ve waited far too long for a book like Goldstein’s. We see, through his efforts, how debates over community control, modernist and insurgent architecture, and public/private partnerships owe much of their ongoing salience to the experience of redevelopment in Harlem. Indeed, if the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s captures a distinctive cultural flowering, the Harlem of the 1960s and 1970s, in Goldstein’s able hands, similarly stands in for America.” —N. D. B. Connolly, author of A World More Concrete

“Goldstein shows us how the neighborhood that nurtured Malcolm X also gave birth to one of the first community development corporations in the U.S., helping readers to understand the multifarious and shifting forces―from self-determination and radical democratization, to privatization and gentrification―that ultimately created the Harlem we know today. By knowing Harlem, Goldstein demonstrates, we can better understand the complex histories of the inner city in the last decades of the twentieth century.” —Dianne Harris, author of Little White Houses

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