Displaying gleaming new shopping centers and refurbished row houses, Harlem today bears little resemblance to the neighborhood of the midcentury urban crisis. Brian 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.
[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.
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. Goldstein investigates how structures of racism, paternalism, and the creative destruction wrought by capitalism intersect in this iconic ‘underserved’ neighborhood, and how residents fought—and fight—to retain a degree of autonomy. The author skillfully links events in Harlem to the broader black power and civil rights movements, and to shifting political regimes. This volume covers a considerable span, from the early 1960s during the heyday of blanket ‘urban revitalization,’ which threatened to clear swaths of ‘urban blight,’ to the late 1990s.
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.
The most fascinating question posed again and again by Harlem residents, and echoed throughout Goldstein’s book, is what the streets of Harlem should look like, who should design them, and who gets to inhabit them…His point, essentially, is to debunk the idea that the gentrification of Harlem was solely imposed by outside developers and investors…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.
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 both by 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.
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.
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.
Goldstein shows us how the neighborhood that nurtured Malcolm X also gave birth to one of the first community development corporations in the United States, 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.
- 2019, Winner of the Lewis Mumford Prize
- 400 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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