On his long-awaited trip to America, Pope Francis, "pope of the people," will conduct mass at Madison Square Garden, witness the pristine, disconsolate splendor of the 9/11 Memorial, and say a prayer at New York's magnificently grandiose St. Patrick's Cathedral across the street from high-end destinations like Rockefeller Center and Saks Fifth Avenue.
But, he will also visit a much more modest part of town, one that is quickly changing to resemble flashier, pricier areas further downtown. The Pope is scheduled to visit Our Lady Queen of Angels School, a Catholic elementary and middle school located in an East Harlem neighborhood quickly giving in to gentrification.
At Our Lady Queen of Angels School, the students reflect a portion of the population who many view as most in need of a blessing from the Pope. Most come from families whose income qualifies them for financial aid. Many live below the poverty line.
Just a few blocks from this school that serves some of New York's most economically underprivileged students, a handful of restaurants serve meals that cost more than many Americans make in a day. On Frederick Douglass Boulevard, Harlem's burgeoning 'restaurant row,' a new class of Harlem residents can be seen popping in and out of bars and restaurants like 67 Orange Street where a cocktail costs almost twice the minimum wage or Vinateria where cheese and charcuterie could break the bank.
Statistics have shown that this new wave of gentrification has a mostly positive effect on the area. The murder rate has gone down. Schools have improved. The trash is cleaned up faster, and flowers are being planted where they were not before.
However, many of the neighborhood's current residents may not be able to experience the benefits of gentrification as rent has risen by two hundred percent or more in some areas. The rise in rent means that the children at Our Lady Queen of Angels School currently enjoy the benefits of life in a freshly improved area of the city, but they may soon find that their families have been priced out. As the Reverend Mark Warlond who leads a congregation of 9,000 Harlem residents told The Guardian in May, ""Right now, we have an average rent of $2,400 a month, with average income of $21,000. That's not sustainable."
Not only will the neighborhood's residents have to move away, but the businesses these same residents support will also have to shutter their doors, meaning that the very soul and energy that has made Harlem so vibrant for so long could be mere history soon. The Senegalese shops selling palm oil and fonio, the black barbershops and soul food restaurants may have to close as more generic locales open up. In just a few months, this neighborhood will see the opening of a Whole Foods.
While upper middle class residents fled the city at the turn of the twentieth century in a mass migration that became known as White Flight, the reverse is being seen today. To turn the tide of lower middle class residents moving further from the city's center, New York needs to make affordable housing available in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.
As Harlem becomes home to an increasing number of luxury housing developments, the city needs to designate that a percentage of these units be priced so lower income residents can live there. Already, a handful of developers have agreed to this arrangement.
On East 116th Street in Harlem, Blumenfeld Development Group and Forest City Ratner Companies are developing a three tower housing complex that will bring 1,100 new units to the neighborhood. Of these 1,100 units, twenty-five percent will be priced so that families making thirty to sixty percent of the neighborhood's average income can still afford to live there. The rent will vary from $494 a month for a studio to $1,181 for a three bedroom. The developers' willingness to include affordable housing as part of the project demonstrates that it can be included without drastically cutting into profit margins and deterring new construction.
When Pope Francis visits Our Lady Queen of Angels School on Friday, he will meet young, Harlem students with a bright future ahead of them. They live in an up and coming neighborhood where improvements are rampant. To ensure that they can keep living there and reap some of the benefits of gentrification, affordable housing must be made increasingly available as the neighborhood changes.