Changing Face of Harlem (2016)

Among New York City’s neighborhoods, Harlem has seen the most dramatic highs and harrowing lows: it was a cultural epicenter during the 1920s and a beacon for African-Americans seeking an escape from the Jim Crow South, but economic deprivations during the Great Depression and acute social inequalities in the post-World War II years saw the community’s standard of living rapidly decline.

Shawn Batey’s documentary captures Harlem’s revitalization with new commercial and residential developments. On the surface, the changes are astonishing: streets that were pockmarked with burned out tenements and boarded-up storefronts are now rich with luxury apartment complexes and a mix of top-tier retail outlets and a new wave of black-owned independent businesses. And for the first time since the 1920s, this new Harlem is also attracting white residents to the neighborhood.

But not every longtime Harlem resident is eager for gentrification, especially one hothead at a community meeting that threatened to burn down any new high-rises. Objections regarding the introduction of more expensive housing are overtly stated, while concerns by African-Americans over a new influx of white residents are expressed with more subtlety. And for many older residents, their discomfort with the changes going on about them makes it impossible for them to exorcise their memories of the neighborhood’s glory days.

But while Harlem’s future potential is celebrated by many, its current woes remain—most notably when a building superintendent complains about the inconsistent nature of sanitation pick-up and the erratic pace of redevelopment. “It’s a wonderful place to live, if you can cope with it,” the superintendent laments.

This mature consideration of a neighborhood in an uncertain swirl of transformation offers an invigorating view of New York City at its best and worst.