For nearly a century, Harlem has been synonymous with black urban America. Given its magnetic and growing appeal to younger black professionals and its historic residential enclaves and cultural institutions, the neighborhood’s reputation as the capital of black America seems unlikely to change soon.
But the neighborhood is in the midst of a profound and accelerating shift. In greater Harlem, which runs river to river, and from East 96th Street and West 106th Street to West 155th Street, blacks are no longer a majority of the population — a shift that actually occurred a decade ago, but was largely overlooked.
Change has been even more pronounced in the narrow north-south corridor defined as central Harlem, which planners roughly define as north of 110th Street between Fifth and St. Nicholas Avenues.
There, blacks account for 6 in 10 residents, but those born in the United States make up barely half of all residents. Since 2000, the proportion of whites living there has more than doubled, to more than one in 10 residents — the highest since the 1940s. The Hispanic population, which was concentrated in East Harlem, is now at an all-time high in central Harlem, up 27 percent since 2000.
Harlem, said Michael Henry Adams, a historian of the neighborhood and a resident, “is poised again at a point of pivotal transition.” Harlem is hardly the only ethnic neighborhood to have metamorphosed because of inroads by housing pioneers seeking bargains and more space — Little Italy, for instance, has been largely gobbled up by immigrants expanding the boundaries of Chinatown and by creeping gentrification from SoHo. But Harlem has evolved uniquely.
Because so much of the community was devastated by demolition for urban renewal, arson and abandonment beginning in the 1960s, many newcomers have not so much dislodged existing residents as succeeded them. In the 1970s alone, the black population of central Harlem declined by more than 30 percent.
“There are people who would like to maintain Harlem as a ‘black enclave,’ but the only way to do that is to own it,” Mr. Dodson said. “That having been said, you can’t have it both ways: You can’t on the one hand say you oppose being discriminated against by others who prevent you from living where you want to, and say out of the other side of your mouth that nobody but black people can live in Harlem.”