On Whole Foods, Gentrification and the Erasure of Black Harlem

Bye-bye, black Harlem, glad I knew ye. Hello, Whole Foods, I do enjoy your products, but if you can gentrify greens, what chance do we really have? 


I first moved to Harlem in 1998. I was a young single mother in graduate school with a 2-year-old. Harlem offered me respite, refuge and safety in blackness and an affordable apartment in a doorman building. For me, after working downtown or going to New York University and being picked apart by microaggressions, Harlem was a place where I could blend in and relax. Take off the mask and just be.

Where some people saw violence, I saw community. Where others saw pathology, I glimpsed my reflection in the shiny faces of little girls in cornrows and big teeth. I heard my tongue in snatches of passed conversation, and tasted my culture from the old men who sold collard greens and watermelons on the corner. And there was always music, sweet music, coming from its very pores.

In the beginning, there were many thriving black businesses uptown, like 22 West, where my daughter and I used to feast on oxtails or fried-chicken dinners under postcards from Malcolm X; Pan-Pan, whose biscuits I still dream of; Majester’s fried fish; Odell’s Sugar Bar; Liberation Books; Harlem Lanes. PJs. The St. Nicholas Pub. The legendary Lenox Lounge, where the jukebox played serious soul music, and the art deco zebra prints on the wall made you feel like a fucking superstar. All black-owned. All now gone.

I’m not going to lie, Harlem was no utopia—I have known both friends and family who have died violently on Harlem’s streets—but I was never afraid. Harlem was a truly diverse community made up of all sorts: professionals, gay people, West Africans; bougie, hood, old, young; grown-ass boys with mad spit game; and curvy girls with bright-colored sneakers and even louder attitudes.

It was indeed a food desert back then; my mother used to rail against the supermarket owners for the subpar cuts of meat or shoddy produce with sky-high prices. There was no sushi or Mexican or Asian fusion in those days—more like blocks and blocks of fried-chicken shacks and bulletproof Chinese.


Yet there was always something exhilarating about crossing 110th Street. Harlem was the stuff of legend, and I liked to imagine James Baldwin, Langston Hughes or Zora Neale Hurston—giants in black literature—walking the same streets. Or passing the church where Marcus Garvey had his first meeting. Paying homage to James Brown at the Apollo after his death. Hell, I used to see DMX and Cam’ron on the regular. It was the best house parties and going to see Dave Chappelle’s show over on 106th and Park.

But slowly, surely, things began to change. It first happened with real estate. A Starbucks opened on 125th Street in 1999. Then Bill Clinton moved his office uptown in 2001. Magic Johnson opened a movie theater. A Mormon church took up shop on Lenox Avenue. And in the last five years, the rents started to skyrocket. As Al Sharpton once said, Harlem is perfectly located—20 minutes to midtown, 20 minutes to the airport, 20 minutes to the Bronx, New Jersey or Westchester County. It seems that folks got hip to my little snatch of black paradise.


The rents went up, the whites and tour buses started to come, and black people started to leave, relocating to New Jersey, Connecticut, the Bronx, even “down South,” in search of affordable housing. Many friends and family left. The shops began to close, and houses that were once $300,000 now easily go for well over $1 million. Studios that were once $500 are now $1,800 if you’re lucky.

And this was years ago...I’m sure it’s much worse now.

Every other day, there is a new restaurant opening, or new construction of “luxury” apartments, new bars with $17 cocktails and $30 entrees. The median household income in Central Harlem was $38,621 in 2015, less than New York City as a whole, but that’s mostly because of the many public housing projects in its small area. Who can afford this stuff?

And now Whole Foods. A Whole Foods opened in the dead center of Harlem last week, on one of its most iconic corners: 125th Street and Lenox Avenue. Many see this, like the Starbucks many years before, as a dark portent. Or, to put it bluntly, the final nail in black Harlem’s coffin.


When I stepped into the Whole Foods on opening day, it was overwhelming, but I had to admit I was impressed. They were giving out samples of this Brazilian cheese bread. (If you think those Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuits are crack ... you haven’t yet indulged in these gluten-free puffs of paradise.) There were $5 lobster tails, sleeves of caramel cookies, cherries on sale and $2 potted sunflowers. I was open, and strangely seduced. Surprisingly, I was also kind of emotional.

I choked up seeing native Harlemites—Puerto Rican mamis with two Jesus pieces trying to figure out mochi ice cream bars; African Muslim women in colorful headwraps, with their babies tied to them in vivid cloth; hood chicks tatted up; and granddaddies with canes having access to what many with money take for granted.


We, too, deserve weird-looking, bumpy heirloom tomatoes and organic bok choy and grass-fed beef in our neighborhoods. We also deserve quick access to five types of rice milk for our lactose intolerance, wild-caught fish and organic cereal for our kids. We fucking deserve 17 million types of cheese and rows of probiotics for our guts.

But—and this is a big but—at what cost? I’ve been around the block a few times now, and I know that things that first seem good are not always so. I mean, Magic Johnson was a black man “investing” in Harlem many years ago. But what has that really wrought in this historically black community? Small-store closures. Skyrocketing rents. Displacement. The death of character. I liken it to charter schools. Sure, they fill a gaping void, and may help a few, but their repercussions are far more detrimental to the community as a whole.


Will Whole Foods become just another place in the hood where we will eventually feel unwelcome? Or yet another store or restaurant with offerings that the average Harlemite can’t afford? Our noses literally pressed to the window?

Right before the launch on July 21, Whole Foods was blowing up my Instagram timeline touting the fact that it has brought in “20 local vendors” as well as “jobs for the community.” But can the even 200 people whom Whole Foods employs make up for the impact of rising rent on a whole community? Can it prevent the Whole Foods effect, which is shown to drive up property values by as much as 40 percent (good for the few brownstone owners in the vicinity—not so much for renters)?


I actually spoke to some of the store’s employees, and they say the company pays a good wage with benefits. Most of them, according to store manager Damon Young, live in upper Manhattan or the Bronx and were able to transfer to the new store. All say that they eat better because of their Whole Foods education.

But this story is not really about Whole Foods. It’s really about my sense of place and belonging in a community I have called my home for nearly 20 years. It’s about something you knew and loved intimately being snatched away. It’s about erasure and helplessness. It’s about anger and loss. There are now places in Harlem that seem to be white havens. Some of the new residents have seemingly carved out all-white spaces for themselves in certain restaurants and bars (it’s still very racially segregated in many ways) where they can “be comfortable” and perhaps “feel safe.” Ironic, isn’t it?


Yep, this is about gentrification. In one of the most symbolic black communities in the world. Do I blame Whole Foods? Nah. It is far bigger than that. Gentrification did not begin with Whole Foods, but deep in my heart, I know that this new development does not bode well for those who are not wealthy.

The verdict? Yes, I will be up in Whole Foods more than a little bit. But if I could have saved my beloved Harlem—its swaggy culture, black businesses and vibrant original people —I would give it up in a New York minute, cheese bread and all.

Ms. Bronner Helm is the Senior Editorial Director at Colorlines. Mouthy Black Girl. Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow. Shea Butter Feminist. Virgo Sun, Aries Moon.


I appreciate that the author does mention the problem of food deserts in majority minority inner city neighborhoods-meaning she sees the contradiction in her argument. My problem with the whole issue of gentrification is simply this. As more and more people want to live in a certain locality prices will go up. Now there are two separate impacted types of residents. Those that own their homes and can sell in a hot market for 3-5 times the amount they bought the property (these people control their decision), and those who rent and the landlord says hey we are jacking up the rent (these people are the real victims). The problem is that in a free economy there is nothing to be done. NY’s rent controls create more trouble then they are worth.