THE BLOG
03/12/2009 10:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

IN PRAISE OF DIVERSITY: How Public Policy Impacts Race and Class Conflict in Today's Harlem?

"For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed... nothing will be impossible for you." Matthew 17:19-20

With determination and hard work, anything is possible, we're guaranteed as children. Thanks to an historic election, it's now asserted that this applies to everyone equally, irrespective of race, class, gender or ethnicity.

Nonetheless, there's lots that should be regarded as unacceptable, that most Americans are cold-bloodedly willing to put out of our minds.

Through force of habit maybe, even many of the most dubious agnostics; readily admit to the proverbial mustard seed-sized reserve of faith. As secular a Jew as I am an Episcopalian, my friend Peter Hellman, the distinguished journalist, recently surprised me then. Responding to familiar complaints, using the same words as Judas, he said with unusually unbecoming resignation,

"The poor, Michael, will always be with us."

Someone who has never earned more than $25,000 in a given year I thought he might be referring to me. If ever so obliquely, as he clarified his declaration, I realized, Peter was.

Reminding my friend, how he had just returned from France, I inquired if he knew of anywhere, in all of Western Europe, where the rate and depth of poverty or extremes of disparity, matched ours in America? Pausing a moment, Peter conceded,

"Well yes, they do have a greater safety net abroad, that's true. But it cost a lot! Besides, there are some people, who no matter what, can never hold onto a job or money...Look at that boxer, you know, what's his name?"

Given the USA's flawed history, one perhaps oughtn't to have minded Michael Tyson epitomizing for Peter Hellman, black failings or chronic poverty?

Still, somewhat stunned I remarked, He's just illiterate Peter, going on to suggest that merely by improving public schools; couldn't we begin to help to obliterate poverty too? Look, I said, shouldn't a superb education be obtainable in all American public schools, no matter where they're located, so that even the Obamas would be happy to send their daughters to one? Doesn't their and other people's putting their kids into a private school, just divert scarce resources from public education, promoting inequality and even elitism?

Offering no answers, Peter remembered a pressing errand.

No less annoying than a portrayal of Mike Tyson as a picture of ineptitude are the mounting number of references to the President, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice as examples of all that it's possible to achieve today. At best, both types of African American role models seem stereotypical. At worst, each is utterly specious. Successful black sports figures or rappers might be relatively few and far between, but far less so than black CEO's, cabinet officers or Presidents.

Moreover, doesn't it trivialize Barack Obama's victory, considered by many as nothing short of miraculous, to suggest that any old ambitious and dedicated contender could do or can do, the very same thing?

Watching amazed, one was duly impressed as the then Presidential Candidate, exhibited again and again, supper-human will-power. Coolly controlled, notwithstanding outrageous provocations, he refrained from striking either of his trying top opponents. How delighting too is his effortless erudition and tactical prowess. Surely, here is a leader, not just exceptional, but uniquely qualified to remedy much of the crisis of our uncertain times?

Such outstanding qualities are all the more remarkable because no matter how much the President might urge disadvantaged youth to do themselves and us a favor, by staying in school, graduating and going off to college, America's meritocracy remains imperfectly skewed. Contrary to what's promised while we're still young, far too frequently, exerting all the effort and brilliance in the world, still only results in frustration and failure.

However long we live, one would like to leave behind, something of value. Many interested in making the most significant impression, naturally come to New York. Long famed as the land of opportunity and tolerance, the city that once never slept, is increasingly stratified, divided and segregated.

Even 23 years ago, inexperienced but hopeful, my introduction to Harlem inspired a deep ambivalence. As an historian and aspiring preservationist, Harlem's extraordinary old architecture and fabled lore held great appeal. A very different and unsettling matter was the district's dereliction and its persisting neglect.

Initially, filled with what I felt certain to be optimism, I reasoned that Harlem's lot would inevitably "improve". By this I meant that, black, white or brown, gay or straight, more "nice," well paid, industrious, college trained residents, people like me, would unfailingly move into this wonderful, undiscovered neighborhood?

Exactly when my attitudes began to shift is difficult to say. Just what was the process by which ignoring a middle class, Columbia University nurtured sense of privilege; I began to become "radicalized"? How was it that heretofore wildly alien ideas, like comprehensive rent regulation or universally affordable health care, came to lose sinister implications, becoming instead, means towards greater fairness and common decency?

My personal metamorphosis probably started as soon I began to better understand what it is to be black and poor in the United States. Even Richard Parsons has said, despite wealth and position,

"Because I'm black, every day, I'm second-guessed, my motives and wisdom are questioned..."

As for me, my experiences in graduate school at Columbia were hardly different. If my life, like Parson's, was difficult, what, I more and more wondered, must it be like for others?

Insisting, "The only color that matters in Harlem now is green!" some chide us here with, "Why didn't blacks buy Harlem houses or apartments before the white population soared, when spacious accommodations were still plentiful and cheap?" Well aware at the onset, of Harlem's ignoble past, they nonetheless cynically pretend that its history is unconnected to the legacy of "long ago slavery"or Jim Crow.

Designated a black ghetto a century ago, this teeming quarter was one of the few New York Neighborhoods where African Americans were permitted to live free from harassment. Considered a safeguard against disputes with all-white trades unions, Harlem blacks, unable to easily or affordability live elsewhere, also helped to maintain property values uptown as whites ever increasingly abandoned the city.

Redlining, making it close to impossible for local depositors to secure home-loans or mortgages from area banks, only further codified the aims of those in power.

Driving a largely coal and oil, steel and automobile based economy, even as streetcar networks in town were ripped up, federally financed highways were extended ever further to expanding, exclusively-white suburbs. Returning soldiers used the GI Bill and FHA financing to move from the city and were soon joined by relocating factories, offices and stores.

Now, in the wake of a reverse trend, Harlem and urban America's intensifying gentrification, some contend, doesn't result from concerted social-engineering, but rather, is only some benign function of the marketplace.

This is precisely what my dear friend, the artist Walter Biggs maintains. Forced here from his Brooklyn apartment of ten years, he calls that process "wrenching", but an unexpected blessing.

"Because my folks died just about then, Clara and I were just able to afford our house in Harlem."

He says.

We are sitting in a tiny but trendy cafe on Broadway. Nearly all the young patrons there are white. It's the very sort of place we chic blacks used to dream of 20 years ago, when one felt as if one knew every white inhabitant who lived here. Friends and I, waiting for our orders in Sylvia's, or Londell's Restaurant, would pass the time, playing a game, watching passersby. One accumulated points, by most closely calculating how long it might take to spot the next white person.

Back then, an entire afternoon might elapse without a single sighting. According to the most recent census data, quadrupling each of the last three years, whites currently account for just over 14% of Harlem's population.

Dislocated from every borough, leaving Tribeca, Fort Green and St. George, they have alighted here for the very same reasons that I have. Those like the Biggs, raising families, are only doing what we'd expect of any parents: providing the best, nicest, most comfortable and convenient home for their kids, they are able to identify.

If in moving to Harlem some whites have any illusions that the displacement they represent is any less real or as dire as arrival of European colonists was for Native Americans, they're mistaken. But though too often displaced themselves, overwhelmed by the high cost of survival paid in New York, they may not be up to affecting the required remedy.

That will take getting rid of trickle-down capitalist leaders, like the billionaire mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg. Most are hardly entirely in accord with his honor's tireless efforts to replace poor people with the affluent: employing eminent domain to hand over 37 acres of private property in West Harlem to Columbia; or policies making $900,000 condominiums the average in Harlem, were the average yearly wage is only $36,000.

Committed to spending whatever it takes to secure "reelection", Bloomberg's secret weapon is the similarly veiled ruthlessness with which his police force assures law and order. What this requires of subverting the law is akin to a far more intolerable expense. Downplaying the plight of the needy, too many, both black and white, also willingly bargain away an across-the-board application, of fairness and common decency.