News | West Harlem

An aging Rangel faces a changing Harlem and a new Hispanic majority

  • DISTRICT 13 | Counterclockise from top right: a panorama of Harlem as seen from East Campus, Harlem’s iconic Apollo Theater, the Columbia University Medical Center in Washington Heights, the statue of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. on 125th Street, and Rep. Charles Rangel (pictured here in 1998) are features of northern Manhattan’s congressional district.
  • A DIVERSE SET OF STREETSCAPES | Clockwise from top left: pedestrians crossing 125th Street toward the Apollo; a mural in Central Harlem; straphangers entering one of the city’s deepest subway stations in Inwood; the view of New Jersey from Washington Heights. | Jillian Kumagai for Spectator / photo effects by Instagram

This article is the first in a two-part series exploring the history and changing dynamics of Congressional District 13, which is centered in Harlem. Read part two here.

In the mid-1960s, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Harlem’s first congressman, a local hero and nationally known politician, found himself plagued by ethical dilemmas.

In the span of a decade, Powell would become embroiled in a slander trial, exiled from New York City by threat of arrest, and, in the culmination of a House ethics investigation, stripped of his committee chairmanship on the Education and Labor Committee and excluded from his seat by a vote by the full House.

The man who had once been the most powerful African-American in Congress saw his health deteriorate and, with this power depleted, began spending more and more time at his house in the Bahamas.

Then, in 1969, a young member of the State Assembly named Charles Rangel paid the ailing congressman a visit.

“He was thinking about running, but he wanted to ask Powell first,” Kevin McGruder, a scholar-in-residence at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, said. “It’s said that Powell said, ‘Do what you got to do,’ whereas he was expecting him to say, ‘Yeah, don’t run against me.’”

Rangel went on to defeat Powell by a razor-thin 300-vote margin. He has handily won his seat back every election since, often with over 95 percent of the vote. But 41 years after he first took office, the congressman faces another difficult race, in a district that has changed dramatically from the Powell years.

FORTY-ONE YEARS
Rangel, in a telephone interview Monday, called Powell one of the preeminent figures in Harlem.

“Adam Clayton Powell was the only voice that we had that would be reported to the outside world when we were talking about radio and newspapers,” Rangel said. “Nobody had the attention of the Harlem community like Adam Clayton Powell. I won’t go challenge that he was certainly one of the most effective legislators the Congress has ever had.”

Going up against him, Rangel, a Korean War veteran and a former assistant U.S. attorney, had just four years in the New York State Assembly under his belt. But after taking over Powell’s seat in 1971, he’s shown extraordinary staying power.

Over his 21 terms in office, Rangel has advocated a vast range of policies, among them cracking down on drug trafficking, promoting economic empowerment, and reinstating the military draft. His legislation created nine so-called “empowerment zones,” including the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization that created jobs and assisted small businesses.

As the third-most-senior congressman, Rangel has been in a position that allows him to impact the district, the city, and even the entire country.

City Council member Robert Jackson said Rangel’s tenure as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee from 2007 to 2010 helped “bring home the types of resources our city and our district needs overall.”

“Charlie has been the mainstay as far as the delegation is concerned,” Jackson said. “As someone that senior, he has a lot of political clout.”

Fundraising goes hand-in-hand with strong leadership, and Rangel’s supporters say he has both.

“Rangel funneled a tremendous amount of money into the district, and provided leadership in the state and in the nation for people of color and particularly Harlem residents,” Democratic State Committee member Dan Cohen said. “He’s done a very good job that way of getting money into the district—millions of millions of dollars.”

“He was the guy who protected New York in the House of Representatives,” longtime political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said. “He served as the symbolic power broker in black politics at a time that, maybe, that was needed.”

But like Powell before him, Rangel has faced a series of scandals. The House Ethics Committee investigated Rangel for failure to pay taxes on a property in the Dominican Republic, improper fundraising, and misreporting his personal income. He stepped down as chair of his beloved Ways and Means Committee during the investigations and, in November 2010, was found guilty of 11 counts of ethics violations in a well-publicized hearing.

Rangel’s ethics problems have persisted in recent months. In March, Rangel agreed to pay a $23,000 civil penalty for using a rent-stabilized apartment as a campaign office.

And at 81, Rangel’s health is a concern: A back injury sidelined him from the House for two months—the longest he had been absent in his long career. He plans to return to Capitol Hill this week.

To his unfazed constituents, however, Rangel is still their congressman.

“I think he’s been very supportive in the community,” resident Christina Braggs said. “If you ever have concerns, you can write him anything or go to his office.”

Justine Adjowa, a lifelong Harlem resident, said Rangel “did a good job as the years go on. I like him still.” She said she sees his fight for funding Harlem Hospital as one of his most commendable actions.

And when it comes to Rangel’s ethics troubles, community members are divided.

“I can’t say it’s true, you can’t say it’s true. There are a lot of false allegations going around,” Robert Brown, who has lived in Harlem since 1960, said.

Others say they can’t overlook Rangel’s actions, especially the use of the rent-controlled apartments when so many other residents can’t afford their own rents.

“I don’t feel that was fair at all,” Braggs said. “I don’t take too well to that … if you’re an elected official or a spokesperson for the community, it matters how you’re living.”

NEW FACES
In many ways, Rangel’s district is no longer the same as the one he won 41 years ago.

“Forty years ago, when Rangel beat Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the lines of the congressional district itself were basically the Harlem neighborhood,” Cohen said. “The Harlem seat was in totality one district.”

Over the years, the district has ballooned to cover all of Upper Manhattan, and in the most recent round of congressional redistricting earlier this year, it extended into the Bronx.

“Back then, you could see a person elected being ‘the Harlem congressman,’” Cohen said. “Now, it’s the Manhattan Valley, Harlem, Washington Heights, the Bronx. It’s muddied the district from being seen largely as a black seat to a multiethnic one.”

At its peak, the district’s voting-age population was more than 80 percent black; now, it’s 35.7 percent. Today, Hispanics make up the majority of the voting-age population, at 52.7 percent.

Brown said he has seen that change firsthand. “There were no Caucasian people in Harlem, only the police, the sanitation workers—white people didn’t even drive through Harlem,” Brown said, watching a multi-ethnic crowd go by on 125th Street. “On the 2/3 train, they didn’t go past 96th Street—the train would stop, and all the white people would get off.”

“Everyone who’s lived here 30 years has to go to shelters, the projects, drugs, the streets,” he said. “We’ve been here all our lives, and it’s like we don’t belong here.”

While Brown said he was sad that Harlem is no longer the traditionally black community it was, other residents said a more diverse district is a good thing.

“The big change I see is diversification, and it’s good to see more cultures and races around the neighborhood,” Braggs said. “But I’d like to see people who move into the community partake in the community. Instead of just coming and going, people should get involved.”

HIGHER RENTS
Locals point to higher rents as a sign of gentrification, but they acknowledge that Upper Manhattan has also changed for the better.

Washington Heights resident Ibrahima Lette said in his neighborhood “there’s less crime, the quality of life is up, things are cleaner, and overall, it’s more friendly.”

“It’s much safer than before,” Inwood resident Giselle Suazo said. “People volunteer in their own community. Small businesses are booming. People want ownership, local people.”

“After 40, 50 years, of course there have been dramatic changes,” Rangel said. “We had cats running across our streets, houses were abandoned, arsons being committed all around our town. We had overcrowding, misery, pain, and drugs being sold on street corners. And it was legal.”

In his day, Brown said, “You could live here for $100 a month.” However, “Harlem used to be a drug factory—on every corner, they were selling drugs.”

Improving that situation “had a lot to do with legislation and with Mayor [David] Dinkins,” Rangel said. “We were able to turn over the abandoned properties to the city and they could come in with affordable rents. Instead of a so-called ‘inner-city community,’ it’s one of the most prized places that people want to live.”

According to McGruder, the Harlem historian, the paradoxical effect of the civil rights movement was that with the advent of open housing, middle-income residents began moving out of the neighborhood, and Harlem’s socioeconomic status dropped.

“Gentrification is a loaded term,” McGruder said. “I think that when people mention it, they mean that the cost to buy or to rent affordable housing has gone up, but there’s a flip side in that we have a lot of services that we didn’t have—choices in restaurants that didn’t even come here, businesses as basic as drugstores we take for granted. But 20 years ago, that wasn’t true.”

For a neighborhood that is nearly synonymous with African-American history, it’s tough for residents to swallow the physical and demographic changes that gentrification entails.

Tens of thousands of residents have been displaced over the last decade as a result of what Craig Schley, a community activist who is challenging Rangel for his House seat, called “Frankenstein rezoning proposals.”

“You know, every now and then, it would be nice to get off of any subway in the district and smell oxtails and gravy and rice and beans before you smell Starbucks,” Schley said. “There’s nothing wrong with Starbucks, but I like rice and beans, too.”

Clyde Williams, former adviser to President Bill Clinton and a candidate for Rangel’s seat, called the changes a “natural progression.”

“I don’t think this community is that different than other communities, where you’ve seen tremendous growth, and you see people moving there because of available housing,” he said. But he added it was important to continue off the momentum of economic revitalization—even if that came with higher rents—and make sure that long-term residents benefit.

UNCHARTED TERRITORY
While Rangel’s district has changed in very real ways for the people who live in it, that’s also a result of its changing borders. The district now includes part of the Bronx and less of Manhattan than it used to.

For a district that has seen only two congressional representatives—both African-American—the new Hispanic majority has the possibility to be a major factor.

The redistricting process this year focused especially on race. Hispanic community leaders advocated for a new, Hispanic district, separate from Rangel’s. The congressman’s African-American political base supported this, searching for a way to ensure the district remained black. But the two-district plan was foiled by the federal magistrate who drew the lines, merging the predominantly Hispanic Washington Heights and Inwood with Harlem.

Although many critics accused state legislators of trying to gerrymander the district lines to ensure a Rangel re-election, Herman Farrell, a State Assembly member and longtime Rangel ally, said, “We were never concerned about whether he could get elected or not. The issue was about the next person who could come in—if you didn’t shift the district, you would make it harder for African-American candidates” down the line.

In order to make sure that the future would hold an African-American representing Harlem in Congress, Democrats at one point even considered extending the district into Westchester County and the Bronx.

But after the state legislature came to a deadlock on the new district lines and the task to redraw them was sent to the courts, the end result of District 13 was a single district for Upper Manhattan that was majority Hispanic but still encompassed Harlem. The biggest change was the removal of some areas farther south in Manhattan—including Columbia’s Morningside campus—and the addition of Bronx communities.

“Charlie Rangel is going to now have to make sure that he looks at those areas that are new, look at what their needs are, and advocate,” Jackson said.

With the district lines on the map and the candidates on the campaign trail, the scene is set for what could be the closest election Rangel will face since 1970.

Read part two of the series, which explores the state of the congressional race, here. What shot do the candidates have against Rangel?

news@columbiaspectator.com

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Rangel was found guilty of 13, not 11, counts of ethics violations in a 2010 trial, not a hearing. Spectator regrets the errors.

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Anonymous posted on

Rangel is way too old and out of touch and scandal ridden. He has lived in free housing and a free office for fifty years. Give someone else a chance.

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Anonymous posted on

Congratulations, anon, you're half-right.

Finally. Rangel has taken advantage of his position to get rent-controlled apartments, and he should have paid taxes on his foreign rental income.

But your comment that he's too old shows that you're an age-ist, in addition to what we already know about you (that you're a fascist, for instance).

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rick131 posted on

Why isn't anon above entitled to his/her opinions? I/we have read your bullying posts over and over for months now. If he/she feels Rangel is not the right person to represent him/her for whatever reason, he/she is entitled to his/her opinion. And why are you defending someone you admit broke the law anyway?

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Anonymous posted on

Anon is completely entitled to express her opinions. If I see those opinions as obnoxious and condescending to my neighborhood and her facts as wrong (which they are more often than not), then I'm entitled to respond accordingly. Game on.

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rick131 posted on

I think that is part of your problem. It is not "your" neighborhood. You share this neighborhood with 28,500 Columbia University students, 12,000 plus Columbia employees, and various other people and spin off industries and businesses that depend on Columbia's existence to survive. They all have a voice, and an opinion, and a say, too. Its not all about you and your point of view only.

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Anonymous posted on

OK, to be clear, I am expressing my opinions about the neighborhood in which I live, in which I own property, and in which I am raising my children. I do feel that I have a long-term interest in the health of the community. But that is the only sense in which I use the phrase "my neighborhood." My particular objection to anon's fascist/racist/dismissive rants about my neighborhood are based on the many comments that she's made about it. Her debating style is particularly objectionable--she initiates the conversation with a reflexively obnoxious comment, makes up facts to bolster her case, and launches into personal attacks when her facts are shown to be nonsense. I can show you any number of posts where she's told me that I had no right to be expressing my opinion (along with one especially risible thought that the Spectator shouldn't even be reporting on community stories). I have never once suggested that she shouldn't comment on my neighborhood (again, in the limited sense that I mean my neighborhood).

I don't believe there is a monolithic opinion which could encompass the feelings of the neighborhood as a whole. A lot of my fellow co-op owners are thrilled about the Manhattanville CU expansion. They're happy about what this will do to property values in the area. I would be too, if not for use of eminent domain. I am expressing my own opinions. I'll continue to do so. I'd be happy to have a civil conversation (that includes facts based in reality) in this forum with anyone.

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Anonymous posted on

 Also, I don't mean to over-emphasize your lack of local knowledge (you do a fine job of that yourself), but there is a difference between free housing and rent-stabilized and rent-controlled housing.

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Anonymous posted on

Yes, in this area rent control means drug and gun dealing.  It means section 8 vouchers and welfare checks,  it means the safety of the community is at the hands of the criminals. It means Rangle is out of touch.  It means his best days are behind him.  he should retire before he ends up in jail with the other criminals in this area.  FACT: he was convicted.  He is a criminal.  Much worse than a traffic infraction.  He has ripped off the very community that supported him and took advantage of those who he has helped.  There is no integrity in these actions.   

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Anonymous posted on

 "...Yes, in this area rent control means drug and gun dealing. "

Thank you for proving my point about your mean, racist, fascist attitude. As Maggie Thatcher once said, never interfere with your enemies when they're in the process of destroying themselves.

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Anonymous posted on

Saying that he is too old for the job is not the same as being an agist.   Perhaps it could be said differently by pointing out that he is so ego-driven that he has been in the position for 40+ years (poster child for term limits) and has done nothing in terms of mentoring or grooming a successor.   He is too arrogant to step down in spite of his excessive tenure and ethics violations, even when his health is failing and he can no longer effectively represent his constituency by being present for important votes.   A decent person who really cared about more than himself would have retired years ago.    Bring on term limits!!!   

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Anonymous posted on

I'm in total agreement that it's time for Rangel to step down. The guy is a war hero, and he's done a lot of good for the community over the decades, and I've voted for him many times. I'd love for him to step aside this fall, and see that he gets the send-off accolades that he deserves.

But it is the very definition of age-ism to say that someone is too old for a given job by nature of their age. Someone could be 90 and the picture of vitality and capable of performing a given role. Someone could be 60 and in failing health and incapable of doing the same job.

Term limits are a separate issue from age. What if you're elected to your first term as an elected official when you're 85?

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Anonymous posted on

hm it iS interesting that we see this happening now.  why is there a hisPanic population in nEw york City in the firSt place?  i think these are the sorts of qUestions we should be asking ourselves.  for example, Consider how much of a boon immigration has been for the united states.  we are a nation built on immigration, and so to isolate one group as someone unique or separate seems a bit of a stretch.  Instead I thinK we need to reach out to the entire community and work on community buildingS which can create a whole new level of cooperation.

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Anonymous posted on

11, counts of ethics violations in a 2010 trial.  WOW

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