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In Harlem's Ravaged Heart, Revival

This is a menu of the topics on this page (click on any): February 18, 2001, Sunday    
In Harlem's Ravaged Heart, Revival     By AMY WALDMAN     revitalization    empowerment   .

February 18, 2001, Sunday

In Harlem's Ravaged Heart, Revival

Burgers grilling, fruit punch staining baby faces, summer scenting the air. In a courtyard on 129th Street, the tenants are having a barbecue.

The architecture is Mediterranean in feel, a plaza flanked by two buildings freshly painted peach and yellow. To the front, a gate to protect the pristine setting. To the rear, a Technicolor splash of green: a garden with gazebo.

Urania Muniz, a film editor, teaches her 4-year-old to say ''Excuse me'' before interrupting. Tuesday Brooks, a young woman starting a cable television talk show, sits near Terrence Booth, 25, a retail pricing analyst.

A blues trio rocks, and Janice Anderson, a religious retiree opposed to such entertainment, rolls her eyes. The president of the tenants' association reprimands a child roller-skating in the courtyard. The rules forbid it.

The details of the scene are ordinary, the change they signal extraordinary. Not long ago, there were no rules on this block, West 129th Street between Fifth and Lenox Avenues in Harlem. The courtyard was a vacant lot where drug dealers ran from the police. The adjacent buildings had long been empty, their only fresh paint new graffiti. Ms. Anderson and some of the older folks at the barbecue lived on the block. The rest -- black, white and Hispanic young professionals secure in the information economy -- wouldn't have dreamed of it.

In 1994, The New York Times described 129th Street as ''another America,'' such was its isolation and deprivation. The block, then almost uniformly black, had been bent by poverty, welfare and unemployment, by alienation between men and women, by drug dealing, addiction and violence.

The block's reputation was so fearsome that police dispatchers issued warnings before sending officers. Cabs collected residents only off the block. The walls of tenements blotted out the sky, and the future. Empty lots became the defining image of childhood for a rap producer raised here, who named his record label Vacant Lot.

Change, it seemed, would never come.

But it did. More than six years later, 129th Street is, increasingly, just an American block. It has moved, in Ms. Anderson's turn on a biblical phrase, ''from the darkness and into the marvelous light.''

The years have brought unprecedented economic growth; a startling decrease in crime; the ebb of crack; the remaking of welfare; an influx of immigrants; a city drive to redevelop the housing stock under its control; and the rise of neighborhood organizations focused on restoration.

Months on 129th Street, from that summer barbecue to the first day of school to a Christmas celebration, showed the dimension of its changes. Visits at dawn and midnight, conversations in homes and on corners, illuminated their texture and their limitations. Even from July to January, the evolution on 129th Street was remarkable: buildings renovated or sold, jobs lost and found, lives undone or refashioned. It seemed a constantly molting place, reflecting both the churning that is always a staple of poverty, and the ever faster rate of change here.

Change, too, has rippled across Harlem, once the nation's black cultural capital, but more recently a landscape of despair. From 1970 to 1990, central Harlem's population dropped by more than a third. In 1990, its median income was $19,169, compared with
$41,415 citywide. Harlem had been severed, in essence, from the island of Manhattan. Now, slowly, it is rejoining it.

The changes have played out differently on different blocks. On some, revitalization has been slowed because a federal program to underwrite home loans fell prey to unscrupulous profiteers. On others, the city has yet to restore derelict housing. And 129th Street itself is a work in progress, with much unchanged for its roughly 1,400 residents.

But the block, which once embodied everything wrong with America's inner cities, today reflects much that can go right. So far, 17 of the block's 35 buildings, from town houses to tenements, have been rehabilitated. The block now has an art gallery, a Mormon church, a racially mixed preschool. A community development office matches residents with jobs. A lush little garden, tended by residents, thrives.

Deliverymen actually deliver food, and cabs deliver passengers. Trees -- notable for their long absence -- are growing. This fall, the street was repaved, smooth as ice, for the first time in years. Housing was even built on one of the last vacant lots, which had been used for the rap company's poster.

The reduction in crime has erased old fears and thus old borders. New life suffuses the block. Artists, actors and taxi drivers. A mortgage consultant and import-export entrepreneurs. Young black professionals looking for cheap rent. Middle-class, middle-aged black homeowners. Police officers. Africans in glorious robes. Hispanics. Whites.

Many of those profiled in The Times's 1994 series have since experienced transformations large and small. A teenage mother now works for a city official. A young man paralyzed in a drive-by shooting in 1993 left the block in search of better housing while his brother became a rap artist. A studious young man finished college and is in the Navy. His sister, now off the block, and his mother, still on it, found their lives altered, like many here, by the imperatives of new welfare laws. Those laws, which require work in exchange for benefits before they are cut off entirely, pushed many residents into the work force. Their landing has been cushioned by an economy as supportive as a trampoline.

That is not to say that the poor have bounced into the middle class. In 1999, the median household income in Central Harlem was $20,625, barely up from 1990. But the routines of work, combined with better housing and lower crime, have made the block feel more like a middle-class place.

If 129th Street is -- in its architecture, geography and population -- idiosyncratic, it is also emblematic. Its rebirth has been duplicated in urban neighborhoods from Brooklyn to Houston to Oakland. It has all taken place during the longest and deepest economic expansion in American history. But since previous booms left no impression on this block or others like it, the story of 129th Street's, and Harlem's, transformation is clearly more complex, and often politically contradictory.

Conservatives can point to tough-minded welfare policies and aggressive police work. Liberals can point to the lowering of immigration bars, which brought an influx of strivers, and to the $300 million the city has invested in housing in Harlem since 1994. Government policies like the Community Reinvestment Act pushed banks back into inner cities. A federal empowerment zone helped lure some new businesses, but more came because they needed new retail markets. And then there are powerful, unpredictable human factors, like a younger generation turning against crack, or exhibiting, perhaps, a greater tolerance for integration.

Consider the mix of factors that brought new, better-off residents to 129th Street. As the boom fueled the real estate market, and the city failed to build much new affordable housing, prices in better neighborhoods zoomed out of reach. At the same time, housing officials, community leaders and landlords, determined to break Harlem's resolute concentration of poverty, to transform a ghetto into a neighborhood, were recruiting a new type of resident.

The fruits of that effort are perfectly displayed at the block's prize building, 38-44, with its courtyard. Its upwardly mobile tenants have been picked as carefully as actors for a film. And in a place where doors are left open and stoops are extensions of living rooms, their complex is separated from the street by filigreed iron bars. It is a gated community.

An oasis in the ghetto, one resident says, for much of the ghetto remains intact. Amid the transformed buildings and transplanted residents, the way up, or out, for many of the block's residents still seems poorly mapped. Limestone facades can be scrubbed. Limited education, racism, defeatist thinking, addiction and a shifting economy are harder to overcome.

Poverty has shadowed residents from welfare to work, while other people's prosperity may price them out of Harlem. And for some, a rising tide has revealed only how low they are marooned.

The drug economy still thrives here, as does the war on it. At twilight, Harlem's fabled street life bursts forth. A gun skirmish over the summer between two Bloods was a reminder how easily violence can reignite. As the block hovers between ghetto and neighborhood, cultural, racial and class tensions eddy quietly. And some worry that on a block where vast extended families created a village, the gain in normalcy may mean a loss of community.

The block is on the cusp, as is Harlem. A recession or a spike in crime could reverse its progress. And moving forward, for some, has its perils, too. Decades of decline could not erase Harlem's historic black identity. Success may be more powerful.

Doors of Gentrification

Wendi Higginbotham has lived in an elegantly refurbished brownstone on this block for two and a half years. Ethlyn, or Effie, Fredricks has lived in a tenement here off and on since she was two days old.

A mother of three, Ms. Higginbotham is a lawyer for the city's housing department. Ms. Fredricks, a mother of six, is a former welfare recipient now making moccachinos at a Midtown coffee bar.

Ms. Higginbotham, a distant cousin of A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., the judge, and J. C. Higginbotham, the jazz trombonist, is short-haired and no-nonsense. Ms. Fredricks, with red bangs and a breathless way of speaking, appears at first glance as if she is doing constant battle with life, and at second glance as if she is winning.

They are unlikely cohabitants of the block, but not accidental ones.

Both live in buildings that were owned and neglected by the city for years. If 129th Street's eclectic architecture -- from an 1860's house built when Harlem was a suburban village to the brownstones and tenements built during its boom -- tells of its rise, the few buildings still sealed up hint at how it sank. The drugs and riots came, the middle class left, and in the 1970's the city began taking, and sitting on, vast quantities of property from tax-delinquent landlords. As of 1994, the city owned 1,381 buildings in Harlem, 615 of which were vacant.

That truth withstood the housing efforts of Mayors Edward I. Koch and David N. Dinkins, and outlasted the Bronx's resurgence. In 1994, 129th Street and surrounding blocks were a forgotten pocket, with buildings sealed like scars or usurped by drug users.

But starting in 1994, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani established an array of programs to transfer city-owned properties to private owners. The goals were to relieve the city of the burden and expense of property management, and to restore whole neighborhoods rather than individual buildings.

Officials from the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development mapped out particularly distressed clusters. In dozens of buildings on 129th Street and four surrounding blocks, the city either renovated brownstones to be sold outright or turned tenements over to developers to restore and eventually own.

Entered from Lenox Avenue, 129th Street is still fronted by failure: on one corner, a once-grand privately owned apartment building brought to its knees by neglect, and on the other, where the dance hall Connie's Ballroom once stood, a half-finished building owned by the Pentecostal Faith Church that has blighted this block for years. But walk east, and fresh facades abound.

Even the brownstone doors, with burnished wood and brass panels, shine. ''I got to go all the way up to Westchester County to see doors like that,'' one carpenter observes. ''The doors say everything.''

They say how private passion shaped public policy. When the brownstones' doors first arrived, Ibo Balton, the housing department's planning director for Manhattan and a black resident of Central Harlem, rejected them as too institutional looking. People, he said, need a sense of arriving home. For him, rescuing Harlem was personal. ''This is the spiritual capital of the African diaspora,'' he says. ''Something had to be done.''

That something included creating a more economically diverse populace anchored by new homeowners -- particularly black ones -- in an area where the ownership rate stood at just 6.7 percent in 1993. Aware that so many other urban revivals have failed, public officials hoped that an increase in homeowners, along with thorough rehabilitations, private investment and oversight by strong neighborhood organizations, would preserve Harlem's gains.

To that end, Ms. Higginbotham was able to buy a redone brownstone. And Ms. Fredricks hopes to buy her apartment for $250, as part of a low-income co-op, after renovations.

''I'm trying to leave something for my children,'' she says. ''I want to give them a sense of accomplishment.''

Sixty percent of the units the city has built or rehabilitated in Harlem since 1994 have been for low-income families -- defined by the city as earning $44,960 or less. The rest are for those who earn more.

Preferences for brownstones like Ms. Higginbotham's went to Harlem residents, but they sold for $200,000 to $300,000 to buyers earning up to $89,920. The next round is being sold at market rates, $400,000 and up, to buyers with no maximum income.

Along with the market, then, the city is gentrifying Harlem, and on this block, it has had an active partner. The Abyssinian Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization based in Harlem, owns dozens of buildings, including four on this block, and has worked with the city to develop more.

Similar organizations helped revive the South Bronx, and they have played an increasingly active role in other inner cities. They are nonideological, working closely with government but also believing that the market must be lured back.

Abyssinian Development was founded in 1989 by the Abyssinian Baptist Church, a venerable black institution, to revitalize Harlem partly by bolstering its middle class. It wanted to reseed Harlem with a proudly bourgeois element, to make it more than a warehouse for the poor.

''Our intent was always to have a diversity of income levels,'' says Karen A. Phillips, Abyssinian's chief executive.

On this block, the people are being selected as carefully as the doors.

The Developer as Social Scientist

The man doing much of the selecting at the vividly styled 38-44 and at six other buildings on this block is Gregory Pascal, who was picked by the city under a program that gives minority entrepreneurs its buildings to renovate, manage and own.

He is 57 years old, virtually bald, lanky and black. Born in poverty to West Indian parents who lived in Venezuela, he came to the United States in 1968. He picked oranges in Florida and apples in Michigan, drove a cab, became a citizen and began managing housing in the Bronx.

Now he has 24 buildings in five blocks of Harlem. He lives in the Bronx. The city requires him to allow those who lived in his buildings to return after renovations, and to reserve 75 percent of the apartments for low-income tenants for 15 years. But otherwise, he is the neighborhood chessmaster.

He has relocated hundreds of tenants during renovations, sometimes placing them in remarkably unpleasant conditions. He has told mothers that children selling drugs had to go. He has shrunk apartments, forcing families with many children to squeeze -- or move, and stripping others of income they had gained from renting extra rooms. He has ordered lifelong residents to give away appliances and beloved pets.

Mr. Pascal wanted a Spanish touch for 38-44, hence its courtyard and colors. He wanted to relax its tenants, and so installed a system that plays soft jazz in the halls.

When one tenant complained about his selection, Mr. Pascal asked, ''What do you want me to play, rap?''

Later, he says, wincing, ''I will pull out the whole system before I will play rap.''

Soft of voice, strong of conviction, Mr. Pascal believes that this block needs new models and values, more working people and less homogeneity. Empowered, he has set out to make it happen.

His motives combine self-interest and social engineering. He sees the concentration of poor blacks as bad for his buildings and for the poor. If you do not diversify economically and racially, he says, ''you're just making a more expensive ghetto.''

He believes in competition, in keeping up with the Joneses.

And the Joneses are here. People like Patricia Johnson, 35, a market research analyst married to an investment banker, and a member of the Abyssinian Baptist Church. To her and other new arrivals, 129th Street is an affordable way station that will allow her to save. ''The next time I move,'' she says, ''I will be buying a house.''

People like Urania Muniz, 30, and her husband, Huascar Pimentel, 32, a stagehand, who came from Queens for the low rents, but also the proximity to Manhattan's parks and museums. Nearly 100 years after the Lenox Avenue subway joined Harlem with Midtown, its convenience is being rediscovered.

And people like Tuesday Brooks, a Teachers College graduate and Army Reserve veteran, drawn by low rent, or Terrence Booth, a child of military parents, raised in Germany, who came to New York for its career opportunities.

Off the Stoop, on the Payroll

As Effie Fredricks saw it, her mother and father worked and paid taxes their whole lives. When she went on welfare as a young mother, she felt she was simply taking back what they had put into the system so that she could stay home with her six children. She had raised only some of them to adulthood when the government told her to get to work.

When The Times visited here in 1994, Ms. Fredricks's household was not unusual. Some people on the block worked, but enough did not that by day, 129th Street had a crowded lassitude. Welfare let the many single mothers here give their children in time what they could not in material things. It also unmoored them from the mainstream economy.

Then came a vast political and philosophical shift in public policy: the end of entitlement. In 1995, New York City began requiring able-bodied welfare recipients to work for their benefits. The next year, the federal government passed legislation that put a five-year lifetime limit on benefits.

The greatest consequences of those changes are yet to come. But already, the number of welfare recipients in 129th Street's ZIP code dropped to 5,925 in 2000 from 10,317 in 1994.

Many residents, angry at having to work for, in effect, less than minimum wage, left the rolls and got jobs or disability payments, or leaned on boyfriends. Some were cut off only for missing an appointment with a caseworker.

Ms. Fredricks adapted. She found the job in the coffee bar. At first, her calves ached each night after standing on her feet all day. She took hot baths and persevered. She had no choice.

Some, certainly, felt transformed. Deborah Wynns Williams arrived on the block three years ago just off drugs and still on welfare. She spent her days on the stoop, angry at the world. Then welfare began giving her problems. So a year ago, she found a job as a security guard, working 40 hours a week for $5.25 an hour, with health care. Beaming, she calls the job, if not the pay, ''the light of my life.''

Most of the block's former welfare recipients have become security guards or home health aides. The wages are minimum or just above; the challenge, to better that -- through, for example, a union job. Women here, once able to offer expert counsel at wresting welfare benefits, now help one another navigate the labor marketplace. Two women from the block were hired at Ms. Williams's security company on her recommendation, she says with pride.

The individual effects of welfare reform may take years to shake out. Children are learning the value of work and reaping the benefits of higher incomes, but also spending more time alone, and with greater economic insecurity. But the broader effect on 129th Street, where almost no building has been untouched by the new laws, is already clear.

Each morning last summer, a collage of uniforms, a current of purpose, left the block, passing Ralph Acosta, 70, a former chef who has watched life here from a corner post for a decade. Where once there had been a trickle of workers, there was now a steady stream. Mr. Acosta said so many good mornings it wore him out. At noon, when he turned his grizzled head to survey a street depopulated by work, he would say, ''I ain't never seen the block this quiet.''

The morning exodus included Terrance Washington, a towering 22-year-old in Army greens who works at the 125th Street Armed Forces Recruiting Station. Mr. Washington left the block for the Army, but drawn by word of change, he returned. His morning march in full uniform suggests the block's increasing accommodation of all sorts of aspirations.

In the past, peer pressures on 129th Street militated against achievement -- what people call ''the crab syndrome'' in that anyone climbing out of the barrel was pulled back. To succeed, or to try to, was to be ''white,'' a description still heard as an insult here.

Those pressures are diminishing. The government basically ordered residents to go out and try. The city's prosperity, which has cut unemployment to 5.5 percent, made trying seem just a little more possible.

Some have made their start just blocks away, where chain stores and other businesses are reshaping Harlem's commercial face. Last year, Michael Eberstadt opened Slice of Harlem, a pizza parlor, and Bayou, a more formal restaurant, at Lenox Avenue and 125th Street, creating 50 jobs, most of them filled by Harlem residents.

Dawn McKnight, 33, a former welfare recipient living on 129th Street, is now a Slice of Harlem cashier. She earns $6 an hour and still needs government help to pay rent. Still, she is working.

But in a reminder how interdependent and fragile the pieces of this community's resurrection are, Mr. Eberstadt says that the survival of those low-end but badly needed jobs depends on an increase in high-end customers, specifically homeowners.

Crackdown Works, Like It or Not

The busiest business on 129th Street in 1994 was drugs, specifically crack. Lines stretched down the street, looking, residents say, like people waiting for free cheese.

With the drug trade came violent crime. The old people on 129th Street, afraid of flying bullets, mostly just stayed inside. Young people, losing friends to casual vendettas, became schooled in funeral protocols and steeped in grief.

Old and young had long ago stopped expecting the police to do much about it, and the police had seemed to stop wanting to. When they came to the block, bottles hurled from rooftops greeted them. The 32nd Precinct called it the ''problem block.''

Back then, Sgt. Theodore Wright had been at the 32nd barely a year. A black man, he kept a file of newspaper clippings on innocent people who had been shot in the city. He saw ending the slaughter, on 129th Street and elsewhere, as a mission.

He recently retired after 20 years on the force, having seen homicides in the 32nd Precinct drop to 17 in 2000 from 52 in 1994. Every major crime is down, in fact, from robberies to assaults.

The old people sit outside at night now, worrying only about where their grandchildren are. The latest generation of teenagers does not spend weekends at funeral parlors.

Sergeant Wright credits many factors. Killings eliminated some of the most violent offenders, and a younger generation turned its back on crack. And then there was the change in police tactics and ambitions. Beginning in 1994, the police force began precinct-based, focused assaults on both violent crime and quality-of-life crime, be it public urination or open-air drug markets. On 129th Street, that meant major drug dealers were arrested, and minor infractions -- smoking marijuana in public -- could land you in jail as officers checked for outstanding warrants. The police demanded identification from young men in front of buildings, including their own.

Hanging out and public drinking declined. So did the carrying of guns, in light of regular police pat-downs. Young men on the block, reluctant to credit the police, today describe carrying weapons as ''outdated.''

The drug trade has far from vanished, but the long lines are gone. Much of the traffic has gone indoors, with the police trying to follow it. Under the Manhattan district attorney's ''No Trespassing'' program, officers can arrest anyone unable to prove they live in or are visiting someone in a building.

Using nuisance abatement statutes, they are closing small stores that peddle drugs along with cigarettes or beer.

Prosperity has also given the police new allies -- landlords, who once had little economic incentive to keep drug dealing out of their buildings. Mr. Pascal, for example, bought out a store over the summer that he thought was peddling drugs and guns. ''With the economic upturn there is no reason to play games,'' says retired Deputy Inspector Kevin Barry, who until recently oversaw the Manhattan North Narcotics zone. ''There are plenty of good tenants out there.''

And the new tenants, particularly homeowners mindful of their investment, are plenty willing to call the police.

Throughout the city, the newly aggressive enforcement led to heated debate, most notably after the killing of Amadou Diallo; 129th Street had that debate, too, and it continues. Many young people saw the more intense police work as harassment at best, racism at worst.

But to Sergeant Wright, the human dividends -- the lives saved, the fear banished -- justified the methods. ''Was it constitutionally right?'' he asks of some enforcement. ''I would say no. Did it serve a community purpose? I would say absolutely.''

Same Songs, but New Lives

Young men like Big Stan and Dame Grease would have been nettles on Sergeant Wright's skin when he came to the 32nd Precint. They were drug hustlers, huddling in the cold, running from the police, passing time by passing joints.

They had had what they describe as typical childhoods on 129th Street, which is to say no real childhood. ''When we came up, all we seen was violence and drugs,'' Stan says. ''That's all we knew.'' Their families were cobbled together -- aunts, godmothers, the streets and each other. School seemed irrelevant, work ludicrous. Why give up $1,000 a week at 13 or 14? Stan thought he would hustle until he was gone.

Back then, he was Dennis, and Dame was Damon. Dennis's younger brother Mel, profiled in the 1994 articles, had been paralyzed in 1993 in a drive-by shooting. Murders were taking their friends. They became fathers. It was enough to make them think.

''There had to be something we knew how to do,'' Stan says. ''We weren't here to do nothing.''

They had learned music on the side as the rap industry exploded. Stan found he could write. Dame produced much of the million-selling first album of a young man, Earl Simmons, now known as DMX, who is from Yonkers but hung out on 129th Street. Suddenly, the block had an export.

Today, Big Stan is a rapper, writing lyrics like these: ''Accept the fact that now I'm a grown man standing on my own two/Used to hate guns but now I own two/Twin glocks for cops/Use? I promise to/I ain't going out like Amadou.''

Dame Grease, 26, founded a record label of his own, Vacant Lot, on 129th Street. Its first album, ''Live on Lenox,'' was released last fall in the new Harlem USA shopping complex, itself a vacant lot in 1994.

''We never thought we'd be rapping this way,'' goes the refrain of one song on the album. It is easy to understand why. The block did not casually produce recognized artists and legitimate entrepreneurs. ''Out of 100,'' Dame Grease says, ''3 people knew how to stop and build a business.''

Stan says his skin crawls when he sees younger versions of himself. He wants the next generation to have something to strive for. ''Even if I don't make it I know I found my purpose,'' he says. ''I found something that meant something.''

The years since 1994 have turned his whole outlook around, he says. ''I used to be real dark.'' His success, and Dame's, has lifted the block's outlook too. On 129th Street, 2000 was the year of Vacant Lot -- the graffiti everywhere, the T-shirts on backs, the posters on bikes, like a country's colors worn by patriotic citizens.

A group of younger men from the block have also formed a record label, Famo. Stan watches, ambivalent only because he knows that as few will ''blow up'' in rap as make it in pro basketball. It is too soon, as well, to tell whether the block's young men will follow the model offered by Dame Grease's business, or the message -- a gangsta rap glorification of outlaw life -- in his music.

And for Stan and Dame, the crazed life on the old block shaped their lyrics. Harlem, raw and dangerous, was their muse. What happens when the muse is tamed?

Integrating All Over Again

Starting a century ago, boom and depression, land speculation and migration transformed Harlem into the epicenter of black consciousness. Within those larger forces, individuals also brokered change. As overbuilding created an excess of vacancies in the then-white area, Philip A. Payton Jr., a black real estate agent, sensed opportunity and persuaded a landlord to rent to blacks.

This block turned from white to black in what seemed a historical instant. Now, in degrees, it is turning again, transformed again by individual initiative.

In 1987, Lars Westvind, a Swedish-born artist, bought a shell of a building on 130th Street, historic Astor Row, and made it a home, raising three children there. In 1994, he bought his first 129th Street building for $43,000 because it abutted his backyard. He bought a second, then a third, restoring them with his own sweat. Other than a few studios, they function as rooming houses.

He is riding the Manhattan real estate market, in which professionals see a Harlem studio for $800 as a bargain. While some new tenants who can pay Mr. Westvind's rents are black, more are not. Many who find their way to him are Europeans like Mr. Westvind and his wife, who is Turkish.

And so, almost single-handedly, he integrated 129th Street. White people have long passed through to buy drugs, and some still do. These days, though, they are more likely to be walking home after work.

''I'm not looking at color,'' Mr. Westvind says. ''Just at who can pay the rent.''

Africans, Not African-Americans

Africans can pay the rent. That is a credo that Ismail Shamsid-Deen increasingly makes a living from.

In the 1970's, Mr. Shamsid-Deen, who is black, founded a nonprofit agency, Development Outreach Inc., to provide housing for Harlem's people. His target block was 129th Street. He wanted to serve his community.

But after two decades of providing housing to what he sees as ungrateful, destructive tenants with capped rents, Mr. Shamsid-Deen is despairing. His three buildings on 129th Street are crumbling. His finances are troubled. His bitterness chokes him.

So now, he is filling empty apartments with immigrant Africans. In the 1990's, the government significantly expanded the number of visas available to Africans, and others have come fleeing unrest or seeking education. The number of Africans in New York now exceeds 100,000, with many concentrated around 116th Street in Harlem. More than 100 have settled on 129th Street, enlivening it with their colorful robes.

Waves of immigration, and the new energy, values and customs that immigrants bring to flagging neighborhoods, fit a pattern as old as American cities. The Africans on 129th Street came to America to fill needs, find opportunity or both. Amadou Ahmed Bah, 73, and his wife, Mariama, 42, fled Liberia, where he was a physician's assistant, because of civil war.

Mamadou Kone, a 45-year-old taxi driver, came to America from Mali after his father died. In the shoebox bedroom his two daughters share, the elder, Aminata, 17, goes online beneath a busty Lil' Kim poster on one wall and the wizened grandmother, now over 100, she left behind in Mali on another.

Out on the street, Ibrahima Diop, 53, stands robed and sandaled, cell phone in hand, making reservations for his tricontinental life. An import-export entrepreneur, he shuttles among this block, where he shares an apartment with three others, Paris, where his family lives, and Senegal.

The Africans come to 129th Street to be near Harlem's mosques and part of its informal economy. They come because the drop in crime has provided a safe feeling. ''Before, Africans were scared to come because of the violence,'' Mr. Kone says.

And some have come to this block because word of mouth tells of a welcoming landlord. The owner of the three buildings housing many of the block's Africans is a ''Muslim agency,'' says Mr. Diop, who is, like most of the Africans, Muslim. ''They only give apartments to Africans because they don't do drugs, they pay their rents.''

The founders of Development Outreach Inc. are Muslims, but Mr. Shamsid-Deen insists that the apartments are open to anyone -- anyone not on welfare. It just happens, he says, that the Africans are the only ones coming, which suits him fine. They work, he says. They run their own businesses. And, although many live doubled up or worse, they will pay $700 or $800 in rent.

A Civic Life, or Death

In October, the signs go up: ''Your Block. Your Choice.'' For the first time in about four years, the 129th Street Block Association is to meet.

Tired of struggling against neglect from without and rot from within, those striving for better conditions retreated. The street's once-thriving block association was divided by drugs -- some were unhappy that dealers financed block parties memorializing fallen comrades -- and weakened by apathy. When the renovations temporarily dispersed residents, the association died.

But today, new and old residents are demanding services they believe affluent neighborhoods receive. When discussing erratic police response, poor sanitation collection or the lack of speed bumps, the refrain is always the same, as is the demarcation: ''Below 96th Street, you wouldn't see this.''

The ever louder complaints about ever smaller problems are a sure sign of the block's health. Transforming that energy into action is Abyssinian Development's Community Vision office on 129th Street, financed by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. Its staff, Pat Simon and Gil Gonzalez, does everything from prepare r´sum´s to mediate tenant-landlord disputes.

Mostly, however, they have been coaxing building and block associations into being. They recognize that if housing, jobs and crime reduction are the muscle and bone of this block's restoration, the rebuilding of civic life is the sinew -- the lasting tissue that will bind it enduringly.

The drive to revive 129th Street's association came from two new residents -- Sonja Manly, a paralegal, and Janice Wilson, a professional dancer. They put up the signs. More than a dozen residents came.

With many new to the block, they turned to Janice Anderson, a 30-year resident, for some history. She recounted 129th Street's fall and rise and concluded, ''People are getting a mind now to want to do things.''

But, she said, many longtime residents also were struggling to adjust. As if to underscore her sentiment, a dispute followed over whether young drug hustlers on the block should be dealt with through job counseling or a police crackdown.

West 129th Street has come from the darkness into the marvelous light. But some, unsettled by change, blink in the brightness. Others, bypassed, still live in the shadows.

An American Block

Six years after profiling life on West 129th Street in Harlem, The Times found a transformed block.

TODAY: The face of change.
TOMORROW: Stubborn problems.
WEDNESDAY: Living together.

Articles in this series are available at The New York Times on the Web:
Readers can also visit the site to read the articles from 1994, find an interactive map, view special 360-degree photographs of the block and more.

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Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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