By: Neha Mulay

On November 19, 2019, I attended a panel discussion at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, entitled, “Fashion Culture: Building Community Through Fashion in Harlem.” Moderated by fashion anthropologist Mikaila Brown, the panel featured: Princess Jenkins, Founder & CEO of The Brownstone and Women in the Black, Sharene Wood of Harlem Haberdashery, Katrine Paris Pinn of NiLu, Atim Annette Oton of Calabar Imports, and Marime Conde of Femme Progressive. All the panel guests are business owners in the dynamic and rapidly shifting neighborhood of Harlem.

The famed Harlem Renaissance of the 20th Century resulted in a time of revival and prolific creation by monumental African-American artists such as Langston Hughes and Louis Armstrong. Consequently, Harlem became an African-American cultural mecca. In the 21st century, however, the neighborhood is falling prey to the familiar onslaught of gentrification, a process which drives up rental costs and consequently displaces inhabitants of the neighborhood.  Low income people of color are often the most negatively affected.

As small business owners, members of the panel discussed the complexities of gentrification. Mikaila Brown began the discussion with a touching story about Ibrahima and Fatimah, who originated from Mali in West Africa and moved to Harlem 20 years ago. After selling t-shirts out of the trunk of their car, they rented their first boutique in Harlem. Recently, however, exorbitant rental costs forced them to shut down their boutique. Stories such as these often characterize the process of gentrification, as small entrepreneurs are no longer able to compete with bigger brands that seek to populate and invest in rapidly shifting neighborhoods. This process is problematic not only because it is socio-economically discriminatory but also because it has an impact on cultural diversity and artistic production.

FIT panelists

Photo Credit: Neha Mulay

Brown emphasized, “A lack of diversity can be considered the biggest Achilles heel to the fashion industry today. Minority designers often don’t have the educational or financial background to be taken seriously by multinational, larger or luxury brands. But we know they have the creativity, we know that because while these larger brands often don’t give these small minority designers a chance, they aren’t above being inspired by their creativity for their own designs.”

Fashion in Harlem has been a unique product of small entrepreneurs who give minority designers a platform and therefore showcase a unique variety of products. Boutique stores in Harlem attract shoppers for the unique and original nature of products available there. Furthermore, products purchased from small boutiques are often far more likely to be ethically sourced and provide artists with the requisite credits and compensation.

Atim Annette Oton of Calabar Imports spoke about the unique products of small businesses and the tensions surrounding gentrification.

“I am looking for a very particular kind of customer, a customer that wants to be unique. That customer is not necessarily looking to buy what I sell on Amazon …As a small business you are a very powerful thing to large corporations. I have received offers from Amazon and I have refused to make an Amazon account. That is intentional because I want to be independent, but I also want a different corporation who has a different ethical value cause my products are handmade and anybody who goes into Amazon gets copied in a variety of ways, so I have some ethical views.”

Amazon has received scrutiny for not doing enough to prevent what some have labelled the “counterfeit problem.” Original products are copied and mass-produced and sold at lower prices, a clear violation of patent and copyright laws. While small-business owners choose to disengage from platforms such as Amazon to some extent, gentrification can nevertheless be more difficult to combat. While smaller boutiques frequently offer unique and ethically sourced and sustainable choices, for a consumer, the cheaper, mass-produced option is often the more affordable one.

Gentrification is often a mixed bag because while some small business owners are negatively affected, luxury and boutique stores may sometimes benefit from the arrival of tourists and people who have the disposable income to purchase unique and expensive products.

Marime Conde of Femme Progressive emphasized, “I try to be an optimist about gentrification. We all are going through changes…it is important to have a mindset of progress, to make culture better and still embrace new things.”

While the members of the panel discussion are all undoubtedly brilliant and hardworking entrepreneurs, I could not help thinking that the discussion lacked a certain understanding of gentrification and sometimes devolved into a promotion of businesses. While a discussion focussed on business is understandable in a panel focussed on fashion, certain crucial aspects of gentrification were not adequately represented in the discussion.

For example, the panelists did not adequately discuss housing, nor did they address the disparity in class and race that underlies gentrification. As author Michael Henry Adams writes, “These are just some of the myths newcomers like to tell themselves, that gentrification isn’t about race, but about wealth and social class. But especially in Harlem, is this not a distinction without a difference?…Political reform has not yet brought economic parity. The median white household is worth around $141,000 today, but a typical black household’s wealth is only $11,000.”

I was grateful to be in the presence of such creative and dedicated small-business owners. The very existence of these businesses and these incredible women is essential to maintain the cultural legacy of Harlem. However, discussions of gentrification are remiss without addressing the broader issues at play, such as historical oppression, capitalism and the highly problematic economic disparity which affects America today.

Neha Mulay is a New York based Australian-Indian writer. She believes in the power of poetry, the importance of sustainability and the pleasure of a perfectly made cup of coffee.