Urban Fortunes Come and Go

Thanks to Google Street view, I ventured to Harlem to see the modern-day version that Sharon Zukin describes in Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. I did the same thing a couple of weeks ago to check out Jesus Bom da Mata in Brazil. Thanks for the Google Maps saved a 3 day round trip.

I virtually stood on the corner of 125th Street and Lenox Avenue to reflect on what Zukin described. The Growth Machine nearly three decades later is still struggling along dragging the past and pushing the future.

At the intersection, the commodity of retail space has displaced restaurants like Settapani from its original location. The space that Settapani once occupied has been taken over by a row of fast-food chain restaurants. Across the road, front and centre on the corner is the obligatory Starbucks store. The red awnings described in the book are now the signature of the Red Rooster restaurant. Settapanni has been reborn a few times and as recently as May this year reopening after renovations.

In the Urban fortunes: the political economy of place, it mentions the Darwinism of Space. The big economic businesses like fast food, banks, supermarkets take central place and displace the smaller “less” essential businesses both physically and socially. Like in suburban Melbourne, how many small butchers and greengrocers economically banished from suburban shopping centres. There seems to be a modern-day fightback as we become more socially, maybe politically, aware of our health and the blatant commercialism of the big supermarket brands.

Look around further, and you notice that like many cities, the air space and sides of the building have become transactional spaces. A ‘huge’ billboard is promoting the Whole Foods store across the road. A significant change from the book which reflects on poor health and food security issues. I’m sure that those economically disadvantaged by these changes are not shopping at Whole Foods.

What has happened to Urban Harlem?

Zukin describes the Harlem of the 70s & 80s as desolate, people who did live there too scared to venture out even during the day. Today the virtual scene shows a fantastic multicultural mix. There is a noticeable African and Asian people. I guess that the “whites” didn’t take over after all. The fashions have changed to reflect the multicultural change and visible wealth (or lack thereof). I can see several women wearing hijabs, and even some dressed in regal African dress. It is almost like walking through Footscray on the weekend. There is still evidence of the economically diverse community; some look possibly homeless amongst others strolling past with their new H&M shopping bags. The Change Machine (Urban Fortunes, p399) appears to work more quickly for some, isolating and marginalising those most at risk.

Even the road space, more to the point parking, is a commodity. In Harlem, the pedestrians seem to rule the streets, ignoring traffic signals even right in front of the NYPD. So much to see on the roads with high priced Audi and Mercedes parked outside rundown brown-brick terraces.

The Change Machine

Look closely enough to what looks like the street vendors along 125th street like those in Duneier’s Sidewalk. They have set up a vast network of stalls amongst the piles of disregarded rubbish. But they have been pushed away from the main intersection, near boarded up “under renovation” buildings. The Change Machine marches on right in front of those least likely to benefit from it. As the area grew, Mayor Giuliani sent to police in to move the West African vendors to a nearby vacant block. Now they are back, a new generation of street entrepreneurs.

Every second person seems to be staring at a phone, just like Bourke street at lunchtime. The new communication technology installed on rooftops provides use-value to the new tech-addicted population. Another example of air space having exchange value.

It seems that Harlem may have become gentrified, but some of the old community are hiding in the shadows. Like Fitzroy and Brunswick, they seem to offer the foundations of the local culture. This foundation is interwoven with new intricate and rich stories, always changing to create new transitional places.

I’m sure a new generation of songwriters will write about how buzzing of delivery drones, hover cars and alien backpackers have ruined the old gentrified Fitzroy.