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The Negro invasion must be vigilantly fought, fought until it is permanently checked, or the invaders will slowly but surely drive the whites out of Harlem.

Harlem Home News, July 1911

Along the boulevards of Harlem these days, hands are wringing over the shifting demographics of the two races that still matter in this republic.  

“No Longer Majority Black; Harlem is in Transition” teased the headline from the New York Times. A profound and accelerating shift has gripped the neighborhood that for nearly a century has been synonymous with black urban America. The hometown paper then conceded, without apology, that this reported loss of Harlem’s black majority trumpeted in Tuesday paper actually occurred a decade ago, but was largely overlooked.

Others are not so sure it has occurred even now. You can’t get agreement on the boundaries of Harlem, so it’s nearly impossible to gauge the shift, said Randy Daniels, the former New York Secretary of State, who lived in the hamlet for some two decades.  

Harlem, of course, has not always been black. The virtually all-white hamlet first took on color in 1900 as Negroes from the Lower West Side moved north. After a show of resistance, backed by churches, newspapers and the stout-hearted, the mostly German inhabitants packed in their singing clubs, zithers, and Weinstuben and headed for the hills.

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By the onset of the Harlem Renaissance in 1930, the hamlet was a brown new bag.

As designated by previous occupants, this New Harlem was still bordered on the South by 110th Street, north by 155th Street, on the east by the river, and on the west by St. Nicholas Avenue and Morningside Drive. As the population exploded, however, the borders of this black Promised Land crept across Morningside and St. Nicholas toward the Hudson, and even north toward Washington Heights.

Beyond the grounding of its real estate, Harlem had become a state of mind. New York was heaven to me, Malcolm X wrote in his autobiography, upon first touching down. And Harlem was seventh heaven! With its jazz, hustle and mesmerizing art and church music, Harlem was identified as any terrain across 110th Street where blacks settled en masse.        

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Ralph Ellison, the author of Invisible Man, made this very point about Harlem’s floating boundaries in a 1966 appearance before Congress. I live on Riverside Drive at 150th Street, he said. It isn’t exactly Harlem, but Harlem has a way of expanding. It goes where Negroes go, or where we go in certain numbers. So, some of us think of it as Harlem, though it is really Washington Heights.

The boundaries still seem to float depending upon who’s chalking the lines.

The Times explained its racial population shift with an accordion-like slide between central and greater Harlem.  The larger unit where blacks supposedly dropped to 41 percent in 2008—was described as running river to river, and from East 96th Street and West 106th Street to West 155th Street. Long-time dwellers disagree.  

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Instead, they say, the boundaries of Harlem traditionally start at 110th Street and run to 155th, river to river, minus the terrain east of 5th Avenue, running from 96th Street roughly to 125th Street. This multi-block parcel has long been considered East Harlem, and occupied over the years by Spanish and other ethnic whites with never much of a black presence.

By adding East Harlem as a component of the shift, the Times appears to pad its non-black population ledgers and thus distort the overall demographics. Further, the paper’s description of central Harlem, which reportedly dropped from 98 percent black in 1950 to 62 percent in 2008, is confusing to long-time residents.

Born in Harlem Hospital and reared on its mean streets, Sherman Edmiston was perplexed by the Times’ boundaries that would, among other markers, exclude from central Harlem the Essie Green Art Gallery that he owns and manages at 419 Convent Avenue. The impression the Times gave is that Harlem is becoming predominantly white, Edmiston said. The larger demographics shift is Latino, not white. And if you walk your dogs around the corners up here, you’ll also see a lot of Asians.

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The demographic shifting of Harlem, whatever the precise boundary and numbers, is occurring at a time of evolving patterns in other boroughs of the city. At less than 40 percent, white Americans, for example, find themselves no longer constituting the majority of the overall population of New York City. This fact has not yet been reflected by the demographics of those running things both public and private.

In the November mayoral election, exit polling showed for the first time in the city’s history that white votes tallied less than 50 percent of the count. Some 46 percent of voters clocked in as whites; with blacks at 23 percent; Hispanics at 21 percent; and Asians at 7 percent. Key questions are raised about the meaning of the demographics shift, not just in Harlem but also in the city and nationwide.

When renting a room, G. K. Chesterton once remarked, one should not simply inquire about the furniture, the linen, or even the rent. One should instead fix the landlady with an unstaring eye and ask: Madam, what is your total view of the universe? The Times gentrification story settled for an inquiry about the linen. Quite beyond mere furniture and linen, that elusive Harlem of the universe remains much more a state of mind.

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Harlem, indeed, has not always been black; but, as Yogi Berra might say, it always will be.

Les Payne, a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter, owns a home in Harlem and is writing a biography of Malcolm X.