Central Harlem’s soul stays alive through the city’s changing times

Residents in Central Harlem are working together to protect the neighborhood’s soul through its changing times.

The sense of community in the area is visible: Residents stop along the double-wide avenues to converse with neighbors and hang out together on their stoops.

Locals have a fondness for the nabe’s mom-and-pop shops and delicious restaurants that fill their bellies, according to Connie Lee, president of Marcus Garvey Park Alliance.

“Harlem is famous for its art and culture,” she said.

Nothing is more emblematic of Central Harlem’s artistic side than the iconic Apollo Theater on West 125th Street, which first opened in 1914.

Its churches, such as the Abyssinian Baptist Church on West 138th Street and the Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church on West 137th Street, constructed in the 1920s, contribute to the area’s historical value.

Parents like to bring their children to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on Malcolm X Boulevard for a lesson in black history — “not just in sports and music but in engineering and science and stuff like that,” said Lermond Mayes, chief of staff for local Councilwoman Inez Dickens.

And at night, Harlem changes into another character, according to 25-year-old personal trainer and Harlem native Roger Hatchet: It becomes a place where young people and celebrities alike show off flashy cars and trendy clothes.

“It’s a good place to come through; it’s exciting to be seen,” Hatchet said of 125th Street after dark. “Sometimes it’s like a stage out here.”

But if you want to move into this cultural neighborhood, look soon, as real estate prices are rising.

Waves of gentrification in Harlem since the 1990s have broken the hearts of longtime residents, like 60-year-old native Stella Davis. She described the expensive restaurants and new condos — like those going up in Frederick Douglass Circle, at 110th Street next to Central Park — as an unwanted change to the area’s distinct character.

“It ain’t Harlem. It’s Manhattan now,” Davis lamented.

Rental rates in Central, West and East Harlem combined rose an average of 90% between 2002 and 2015, according to Community Service Society, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting poverty in New York City, which compiled census data for a real estate report released last year.

Real estate listings site StreetEasy predicts rates in Central Harlem will continue to increase in 2016 by an additional 10.6% — four times faster than the rest of the borough.

According to StreetEasy, the median sales price in the area rose 20.1% from $540,000 in 2014 to $648,294 in 2015, according to StreetEasy. The median rental price went up 8.3% from $2,100 to $2,275.

In the face of these changes however, Davis is hopeful that long-time residents can rely on their close-knit community to keep their culture alive.

“It’s a strong block,” Davis said. “We’re always trying to find something to do to keep the block together.” (WITH HEATHER SENISON)