Should We 'Preserve' the Ghetto?

And here we thought Harlem fell above Park Slope on the New York City cool spectrum.

“We want to be Park Slope with charming little stores and become a destination for people,” said Ruthann Richert, a 25-year resident who is treasurer of a local group, the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association. “A store like that is going to attract the people hanging out, drinking wine, so if you’re looking to buy a $30 bottle of wine, you’re not going to go in there.”

Laurent Delly, a Haitian-born engineer and real estate agent who is the association’s vice president, was especially unhappy with the sign.

“I wouldn’t use the word ghetto, but I would say it’s garish,” he said.

This passage comes from—where else?—a Times story about a new liquor store about to open in the Mount Morris Park section of south-central Harlem. It appears the store is dead in the water, thanks to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The sign was never approved, and, from The Observer‘s experience at the commission, never will be. Something “tasteful” will no doubt replace it.

The affair raises and interesting question, though: Should the city preserve its “ghetto” fabric, the same way it fights for its prewar grandees and, increasingly, modernist masterpieces? After all, we have spent the past two decades unmaking the decline of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, but if it all disappears, if the city becomes one giant Disneyfied Times Square playground version of itself, have we erased an important part of our history? This is no landmark, of course, but if the unseemly liquor store has not place in New York anymore, neither do the people who used to frequent them.

Look at the Lower East Side, at Five Point, at, uh, Chumbo. Excepting the Tenement Museum and the over-priced pastrami at Katz’s, little of the history of European immigration there, of that storied old ghetto, remains. No bialys, no Gus’ pickles and, sure, no more muggings. Instead, we have the Little Italy of the Torrisi Brothers, faux pawn shops megaclubs and the bourgie Hester Street Fair.

This is not to say that a new, garish liquor store on the streets of reRenaissance Harlem is somehow a work of adaptive reuse, but it still begs the question of what, exactly, is “appropriate” in this neighborhood. The Observer is an avowed fan of preservation, but what are we losing by erasing this part of the city’s history?

mchaban [at] | @MC_NYC


  1. gabe goodman says:

    So what if a down-scale liquor store moves into the (their?)  neighborhood. While they deride the cheap bodega, we still need places that sell the 50-cents cup of coffee, $3 wings and fries, the NY Beacon, Big Red and the Daily Challenge.
    The strength of Harlem for generations was the fact that our doctors lived next to our numbers runners and our elevator operators and our maids who lived with our schoolteachers who might’ve been our sister, daughter or mother. Some called it eclectic. We called it our extended family. We called this our community.  We chose between the Flash Inn, the rib joints, Copeland’s, Barron’s Exclusive, the original Red Rooster, countless greasy spoon joints or M &G’s.
    Now the New Harlemites want to make this their exclusive neighborhood that serves $4 lattes and hosts catered dinners while clucking their tongues at the homeless guy on the corner who used to be a tenant in their two-million-dollar brownstone.
    Whose streets?  Our streets — where Black Jack and Janey knew everyone’s children and parents.
    Whose brownstones? Well…. They may have bought (stolen) their historic brownstones from white-minded up-and-comers who think success means distancing  yourself from people of your own hue and heritage. To bourgeois ex-Harlemites, sometimes it’s a mark of progress to move out their parents’ Harlem.
    Historically, most Harlemites have been low-income tenants not owners of brownstones.   Most Harlemites make less than $30,000 a year and cannot afford the wine-tastings and soirees that Ms. Richert and her cohorts idealize. Most Harlemites can no longer afford to live in Harlem. We need inexpensive stores that serve us, stores that we can afford to patronize. (BTW, Cheap hooch has always been part of the Harlem landscape.)
    Money can never replace culture. Displace it yes, but never replace it.
    Meanwhile, they play want a larger dog run in ‘Mount Morris Park‘ and never meet anyone on ‘Malcolm X Boulevard.’
    Whose Harlem is it anyway?