Habitat's Work Mirrors Harlem's Overall Rejuvenation
In the early part of this century, Harlem was the cultural capital of
the world for Americans of African descent. It was a cohesive community with thriving businesses and a rich, energized culture. The Apollo Theatre and the Cotton Club provided venues for such stellar talents as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown.
"This community was strongest when it was segregated," admits Karen
Phillips chief executive officer of the Abyssinian Development Corp., a
community development agency under the auspices of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church that has developed more than 1,000 housing units in Harlem.
With the civil rights movement, new communities opened to the
African-American residents of Harlem, and many of the successful
residents left to pursue the 'American dream' of life in the suburbs. Those who lacked the resources to leave stayed in the community, creating a population that was disproportionately poor and needy.
The 1970s and early 1980s were dark, dangerous times for Harlem,
Phillips says. The city's fiscal crisis of 1975 led to the abandonment of countless buildings whose owners walked away or burned them down for insurance money. Crime, drugs and despair fueled violence, and Harlem gained a reputation as a place to avoid at all costs.
But in 1985, the city began investing in housing, and community
churches, synagogues and mosques began to take leadership roles in the
development of housing. The same energy that existed in the 1920s and 1930s has returned; the Apollo Theatre and the Cotton Club are still here, joined by the National Black Theatre and Dance Theatre of Harlem, one of the world's premiere dance companies. Today, Harlem supports hospitals, schools, cultural institutions and innumerable businesses from tiny storefronts to national chains. Attractive for its short commuting distance to jobs in Manhattan, Harlem is home to about 500,000 residents of every economic level.
"The community is supportive of Habitat because we want diversity,"
Phillips says. "The Habitat houses we're building this week are on the same street with brownstones that sell for a half-million dollars."