Decades ago, 96th Street Station was the last outpost of civilization for most riders on trains and buses heading to Harlem and the Bronx. After 96th Street Station, trains and buses looked [empty] as if they were bound for the train yard or bus depot. Nowadays it is a totally different story, trains and buses are crowded or overcrowded going thru the Station. Thanks to the cuts and closings of the MTA, on one hand, and to the population boom in Harlem and the Bronx on the other hand. It is also due to new developments being built and the low cost of rent compared to the rest of the city. The City and state have also contributed in favor of low income housing thru various economic programs.

Today’s Harlem doesn’t look like the apocalyptic image of the Harlem of yesterday. Harlem was a neighborhood plagued with crime, violence, prostitution, drugs, and poverty. The signs of burned and rundown buildings were everywhere. Harlem was a world away from Manhattan of which it is part. Quality of life was at its lowest. Graffiti was sprayed all over, empty buildings were full of squatters, and it looked like a war zone or a town of zombies. People lived under unofficial curfew. Winter or summer it was hard to see anyone walking the streets after sunset.

Today, twenty, thirty and forty years later, Harlem looks like any trendy neighborhood in the city with its new and modern buildings, historic landmarks such as the Apollo theater, the Cotton Club and Sylvia’s restaurant. Buildings are being renovated all over the neighborhood to accommodate the new need in housing. Community boards are overwhelmed with requests for zoning changes. High rises are coming out of the ground at a very fast pace as if they want to say “Harlem is back”. 125th Street, the main commercial artery also cleaned up its act. Streets vendors are no longer obstructing pedestrians. Streets are being widened with increased lightning and repaved. Parks and recreation areas are being upgraded to meet city and state standards. Harlem is thriving; Starbucks, Duane Read, Rite Aid, Path Mark and Costco, just to name a few, are among the new comers. Trendy shops and restaurants are opening everywhere in the neighborhood. After many years of hibernation, Spring has arrived in Harlem and with it the Second Renaissance of this historic, mythic and lovely neighborhood. This second renaissance is not simply due to these new developments or the low income housing programs initiated by the City and State. It is also not due to the economic package poured into the neighborhood by the federal government. It came from an unexpected source: immigrants from Africa.

Since the conquistadors, Harlem has always been home to diverse ethnic groups, Native Americans, Europeans, African Americans and Asian Americans. A Community of immigrants, Harlem is still a major gateway for new immigrants in North America. Unlike the 50’s, 60’s, and late 70’s when most Africans in New York City were either diplomats or students, today’s immigrants from Africa come from all over Africa and every part of society. They have settled in various neighborhoods in Harlem and called it home. From Central Park North (110th Street) to 155th Street and from Morningside Avenue to 1st Avenue. With courage, dignity and hard work they have helped bring hope back to one of the most devastated neighborhoods of New York City. They came to Harlem when everyone else was leaving. Street by street, block by block, avenue by avenue, they helped bring Harlem back from the depths of chaos and anarchy to the light of renaissance. Africa is often associated with wars, hunger or natural disasters, nepotism and corruption. Western nations have often equated it with welfare states and assisted nations.

Well, not anymore. In Harlem, Africa and Africans are synonymous with energy, vitality, rebirth and hope. They are part of the new stimulus for Harlem. To witness this change just stroll down 116th Street, Eighth Avenue, Lenox Avenue and the rest of the neighborhood. These new comers did not come alone, but, with them they brought their faith, culture, entrepreneurship, and savoir faire. From mosques to churches to temples to restaurants to car services to hair salons (especially hair braiding) to grocery stores you name it and they own it. All this entrepreneurship is without the help of banks, financial institutions or the City. It doesn’t stop there, they even have a hand full of nurses and doctors who are helping bring down the language and cultural barriers at Harlem Hospital. Let’s not forget teachers and professors at nearby Columbia University. Who would have thought of Africa helping Harlem get back on its feet? What a wounderful lesson in integration.

To those of you who have always doubted Africa and Africans, today’s Harlem is your answer. To the African leaders who always hide behind the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to deny opportunities to their people this is your answer. The only thing people ask for are opportunities. If conditions and opportunities are available, people will free up the creative energy to build, develop and prosper. /.

Cherif Diallo for www.balekonews.com