Harlem, America’s Most Famous Neighborhood, is Not a Place of Ruin and Despair

Remember the Harlem Children’s Zone? Barack Obama was very impressed with the Harlem Children’s Zone in  2008.

You’ll find hope in 97 neighborhood blocks in the heart of Harlem, in New York City, in New York State. This is the home of the Harlem Children’s Zone, an all encompassing anti-poverty program that is literally saving a generation of children in a neighborhood where they were never supposed to have a chance. The philosophy behind the project is simple — if poverty is a disease that infects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence; failing schools and broken homes, then we can’t just treat those symptoms in isolation.  We have to heal that entire community.  And we have to focus on what actually works . . .  .  And it is working . . . .  And if we know it works, there’s no reason this program should stop at the end of those blocks in Harlem.

It’s kind of funny to describe Harlem as a place where children were “never supposed to have a chance”- this is perhaps the most storied and famous neighborhood in the country, which from the 1920s onward had plenty of well-off black residents over the years, along with an endless list of famous sons and daughters who most certainly decided they had a chance despite growing up north of 110th street. More pointedly, while the average home value when Obama was speaking was not the over 930K that it currently takes to buy an apartment or home in Harlem, it was already over $600,000. As of today, for example, it looks like it takes at least $2 million for one of those classic brownstones in decent condition, but you can get a two-bedroom two-bath apartment on Adam Clayton Powell and 131st street for only $1.1 million:



(This is one of the reasons why I thought it was nuts for Moving to Opportunity to use Harlem as the “concentrated poverty” counterfactual for their experiment on moving Section 8 recipients to supposedly richer neighborhoods.)

In any case, yes, there were and are a lot of poor parents and kids in Harlem (I’ve known a few), and many of them were probably happy to get the services that Geoffrey Canada started offering more expansively in 1997. (There was actually an earlier anti-truancy program called the Rheedlen Center that had existed since 1970 and that Canada took over and renamed before expanding dramatically.) Paul Tough, who (despite his name) was hugely enamored of the HCZ, wrote a whole book praising Canada and the HCZ:

This is where Geoffrey Canada comes in. Canada, if you haven’t heard of him already, is the man behind the Harlem Children’s Zone Project, a hugely ambitious effort to improve lives in a 97-block swath of New York City. Others, like Marian Wright Edelman or Wendy Kopp, have worked as tirelessly on behalf of America’s children. But the Harlem Children’s Zone, founded in 1997, is perhaps the most intensive set of youth programs of our time.

As Paul Tough explains in “Whatever It Takes,” Canada “believed that he could find the ideal intervention for each age of a child’s life, and then connect those interventions into an unbroken chain of support.” Its “conveyor belt” begins when expectant parents learn about safety gates and mothers of toddlers learn to turn supermarkets into learning labs. Prekindergartners were enrolled for 10 hours a day, with an intensive focus on language, including French vocabulary. Canada’s high school, middle school and two elementary schools — all charters — can’t educate all the children in the zone; those left out can still attend computer workshops, fitness classes or college prep. Canada isn’t satisfied with propelling selected children to a better life; his goal is to “contaminate”the entire culture of Harlem with aspirational values, disciplined self-improvement and the cognitive tools to do better than those who came before. That depends on offering services to as many people as possible. Employees approach teenagers with strollers and stake out Laundromats.

“Whatever It Takes” is engaged throughout, nowhere more so than in a vivid section on Baby College. Tough’s account of this parenting class illustrates the challenges Canada and his staff face. Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton have sung Canada’s praises, Barack Obama has promised to replicate the zone in 20 cities, Wall Street backers have helped boost its budget to more than $40 million a year. But superstar fans go only so far when it comes to teaching the value of time-outs to an expectant father whose discipline philosophy is based on pinching.Poor people typically don’t view their children as improvement projects the way middle-class parents do, and Tough presents the social science that shows how this can leave their children at an almost insurmountable disadvantage. Telling poor people how to raise their children is sometimes denounced as racism or “cultural imperialism,” but Canada sees attentive, careful parenting — of the type middle-class parents read about in baby books — as the first step toward overcoming poverty. As he puts it, “We want our parents to have the same information the rest of America has.”

Roland Fryer, who is a relatively conservative black economist at Harvard (one of his most well known papers is “Racial Inequality in the 21st Century: The Declining Significance of Discrimination,”) was also hugely impressed with the HCZ, and also has the same odd habit of pretending 21st Century Harlem is a place of ruin and despair:
This is despite Fryer’s own research suggesting that the long-term effects of the HCZ are kinda meh. For example, when he tracked down kids who were lotteried into the charter schools and compared them to the kids who weren’t, the lottery winners were more likely to enter a 4-year college, less likely to enter a 2-year college, and hadn’t completed significantly more semesters or been more likely to enter college overall:
The values under the treatment group/lottery winners columns are regression coefficients, so this means that kids who won the lottery had attended 1.2 semesters of college, the kids who lost the lottery attended 1.04 semesters of college- the difference was less than a single completed college class.
The New York City Department of Education’s numbers for the Harlem Children’s Zone are even more middling. The class graduating high school in 2016 was among the first who went through the whole soup-to-nuts birth-through-grade-12 set of intensive HCZ services, and at the end of these eighteen years of intensive supports…the parents and kids who answered the school climate survey are slightly less satisfied than average for city schools:
HCZ sat
And on standardized tests, the kids are lower-achieving than average for the city and also lower achieving than the “comparison group” (presumably of schools with a lot of low-income students, though perhaps not):
The graduation rates seem less “meh” than suspicious. The city notes that only 60% of 9th graders completed enough credits to be on track to graduate, far below average for the city, but 94% of 10th graders did, and then strangely 98% of students graduated in 4 years. Gary Rubinstein, a former TFA teacher who teaches at Stuyvesant High School and now is very critical of education reform, noted a few years ago that Geoffrey Canada had literally thrown out the school’s first class of 9th graders so as to hide the fact that they weren’t doing all that well. It sounds hard to believe this would happen without any consequences for Geoffrey Canada, but either way I wouldn’t trust that the school “really” has a 98% graduation rate (maybe it’s more like, what percentage of the kids who graduated only took 4 years to do it?)
Grad Rates
All in all, the Harlem Children’s Zone charter school seems like a somewhat below average New York City school, nothing awful but nothing great. The wraparound “starting at birth” services made essentially no difference for these kids, probably because they live in a well-off neighborhood in a rich city in a rich country and would have gotten pretty good services either way. Canada was an incredible booster and fund raiser who did a great job attracting influential admirers and a moderately lousy job running a school. Contrary to a beacon of hope in one of the most “blighted” neighborhoods, as Fryer claims even as of 2017, this is a somewhat depressing story of mediocre public schooling in one of America’s most famous, storied, and even expensive neighborhoods.
As much as journalists need a better bullshit meter for when something sounds too good to be true, they also need a bullshit detector for when something pretty good is being made out to sound awful, even more.

6 thoughts on “Harlem, America’s Most Famous Neighborhood, is Not a Place of Ruin and Despair

  1. As a non-New Yorker, maybe you don’t know this, but people buying $2 million brownstones in Harlem don’t have kids, or if they do, can send them to Dalton or some other fancy private school. Almost all public school children in Harlem come from the public housing projects that litter the neighborhood. I get your point, Harlem is not East New York, but it’s misleading, and not really a good critique of people like Canada, Obama, or Fryer to suggest it’s a rich neighborhood because there is a tiny part of it that is economically diverse.


    1. I’m not saying there aren’t a large population of poor kids. But describing it as blighted or as a place where kids grow up thinking they never had a chance is just wrong.


  2. I dismissed the harlem project in a professional development- pretty much for the reasons you and Sailer cite. Nobody wanted to engage me on it, so the facilitator just moved on to other supposed innovations being touted.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Using house prices is a bad proxy for determining how well-off the neighborhood is. You’re not taking into account the fact that home ownership in Harlem is very low by national standards (roughly 12% compared to roughly 65% nation-wide), so it is not the case that most people who live there are benefiting from the real estate boom. The median household income in Harlem is roughly the national average (around $55,000), but incomes in Harlem are more heavily skewed towards both the top and the bottom than the national average. The poverty rate is roughly 25% compared to the national poverty rate of around 15%. Rents in Harlem have also continued to rise, and are higher than the national average, and roughly 1/3 of households are considered “severely rent-burdened” by the city.

    House prices are high in Harlem because the future gentrification of the area is priced in. It’s clear that given its location, history, housing stock, and public transport links to the rest of the city that Harlem will continue to gentrify. It’s not the case that Harlem is a well-off neighborhood. It is a roughly average to somewhat poorer neighborhood that will be a well-off neighborhood in the future.


    1. All good points, but I still think Obama was off-base in 2008 in calling Harlem a place where kids thought they would never have a chance, and I think a lot of the hoopla over the HCZ was framed by a wildly negative view of any majority black neighborhood that isn’t really appropriate to Northern Manhattan.


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