Not too long ago, New York City was sensibly auctioning off derelict Harlem property to the highest bidder, believing that the market knew best what use to make of it, whether it’s to build a Tower Records, a Starbucks, or who knows what. Then Harlem’s “community leaders” began to complain. “The highest bidder,” stressed Manhattan borough president Virginia Fields, “does not necessarily know what’s best for a community.” City Council member Bill Perkins, who represents central Harlem, agreed: “Without a plan for the land, it will be at best accidental that the vision of the community is fulfilled.” This summer, the New York Times reports, Perkins blocked an auction of 24 plots of vacant land in his district to thwart what the councilman calls “speculators and profiteers.” Can’t trust that invisible hand.
What’s best for the community, Harlem’s spokesmen believe, is more and more low-income housing. Thus Fields, together with the city’s Housing Department, devised a clever scheme: the city would now sell for $1 vacant lots to developers who could come up with viable proposals to build “affordable” housing on the sites.
The giveaway is a misguided approach to revitalizing Harlem’s large swathes of developable land. By assuming that government knows best what to do with the property, this course prevents us from ever learning what new and creative uses the market might bring to it. Worse, it’s hard to believe that more subsidized low-income housing is what Harlem needs. The profusion of it in the neighborhood has kept the area from joining fully in the revival of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, notwithstanding all the revivification that has happened north of 125th Street. Subsidized housing becomes property locked evermore into a particular low-value use.
But equally troubling is the idea of “the community” that Fields, Perkins, and Harlem’s spokesmen in general embrace. Call it the frozen neighborhood. In their vision, tomorrow’s Harlem will be just like today’s: largely poor, largely minority, forever in need of low-income housing, no matter how much prosperity the city enjoys or how much welfare reform succeeds. The Harlem politicians who defend this idea treat anything that might change the neighborhood—outside investment, say, or gentrification—as a threat. It’s why at least some Harlem leaders were unhappy with the first round of lot “sales” in April. Only one Harlem-based developer won building rights (out of six winners). After all, this action should belong to the community.
Of course, for politicians whose livelihood depends on delivering government-subsidized housing to grateful, and dependent, tenants, these things are threats because they’re signs of a living city with a vital economy. In a living city, neighborhoods go through cycles of decline and renewal, as old residents move out and new ones arrive. A new Harlem might be very different—economically and demographically—from today’s. It might have little low-income housing, or none.
To say the living city would hurt the poor is ridiculous. In fact, it would benefit the poor by providing abundant opportunities for upward mobility. But it might make Harlem’s “community leaders” painfully obsolete. The Giuliani administration should resist putting any conditions on future Harlem land sales. Doing so would be an important step toward thawing the frozen neighborhood.