Harlem’s most ubiquitous activist and resident Cassandra, Sikhulu Shange, has been warning against the perils of gentrification and the displacement of small businesses in the community for decades. He became living proof of his most dire prophesies this summer when he was forced to close his iconic music store on 125th Street, the Record Shack, after losing a two-year legal battle with his landlord.
A team of city marshals seized all of his inventory and evicted him on July 24 from the store he occupied for 36 years — more than three months after the May 31 deadline a civil court judge had given Mr. Shange to vacate the space. He claims he was in the process of appealing the decision, and did not know that "they would be coming after me after a certain date."
His apartment is now packed with boxes of the estimated $200,000 worth of confiscated music and films that he redeemed from a warehouse in Yonkers in August for $6,500. Now, a few feet from his vacant former storefront at 274 West 125th Street, Mr. Shange sets up daily a table piled with CDs and DVDs.
"It’s a very gloomy day in our community, seeing that everything is being taken over," he said Friday from his outpost in front of a new Foot Locker store. "Peoples’ homes are being taken over [and] businesses that people have been used to for generations and generations, like my business.
"The children who were little girls and boys running around my store when I started are now grandmothers and great-grandmothers."
Mr. Shange believes the Record Shack is one of many casualties of what he calls the "gentrification and displacement process." Bobby’s Happy House Records, a 52-year-old Harlem staple on Frederick Douglass Boulevard that was once the Record Shack’s friendly rival, was evicted in January. The neighboring stores between 125th and 126th streets have followed as their leases expire.
His landlord, the United House of Prayer for All People church, never gave him a chance to renegotiate his lease, Mr. Shange says. "They just wanted me out," he said. "’We are not talking about increments or increasing your rent.’"
The United House of Prayer could not be reached for comment.
"The big corporations are clamoring for space, and they are favorable because they have much more money than I do," Mr. Shange said. "Now the displacement is in full gear. I don’t know what they’re going to do [for the community]. Duane Reade has been here, and we don’t see much except young people carrying the broom and sweeping up the floors."
Even without a store, Mr. Shange remains a Harlem fixture.
In the span of a half-hour, four pedestrians greeted him as they walked by — one calling out, "Peace my brother," and another "Black Power." A customer gave Mr. Shange a $20 bill for a $10 CD and told him to keep the change — a fairly regular occurrence since he got evicted, he said.
"It’s not really about money," Mr. Shange said of the bill in his hands. "This is the tears of the people, showing me that they still need and respect my services."
Another friend stopped by to see how Mr. Shange was doing and to offer words of encouragement.
"How are you on the job," the man asked.
"Always working," Mr. Shange said. "I have to do something."
"You gotta do something," his friend agreed. "That’s what it’s all about. Like they say, once you accept the way things are, then you can change your reality. That’s my quote.
"Out. Peace," he called as he walked away.
Though Mr. Shange is not unrealistic about the neighborhood’s future, he seems willing to fight interminably to preserve the old Harlem reality. He’s currently looking for a lawyer to represent him in a suit against the city marshals for failing to inventory the merchandise they seized from his store and for a new space so he can stop vending on the street. But with the rents being asked, he is not optimistic.
"The future of the Record Shack is dismal," he said.
"The only hope is that the economy is crumbling and it’s not going to get them to where they want to go," Mr. Shange said.
"For instance, they were supposed to have a big network on Park Avenue going up 21 stories," he said of the Major League Baseball headquarters being developed by Vornado Realty Trust. "Now, they are saying 15 or 16 stories. That’s a sign that people are failing to finance the big corporations. … This unsung depression or recession within the United States looks like it possibly may make them start pulling back."