Little Senegal Struggles to Survive Gentrification

By Michelle Arrouas

“Press line 2,” Malick El Hadji, known as Malick Tall, says to his co-anchor Abdou Diaw.
It’s Tuesday evening close to midnight, and WPAT-AM’s “African Global News,” the weekly broadcast of global news from Senegal plus local news from Harlem’s Little Senegal, is on the air.
Callers are debating how West African governments have handled the Ebola outbreak. The lines are busy, as they are every week; the program draws several thousand listeners, always eager to chime in.
As the neighborhood called Little Senegal, located along West 116th Street in Harlem, has begun slowly diminishing, the program has increasingly become a virtual gathering place. The Senegalese Association estimates that 20 to 30 percent of New York State’s roughly 16,000 Senegalese immigrants, historically concentrated in Harlem, have left the area in recent years as gentrification has caused rents to soar and African businesses to close. The anchors relax during the commercial break, featuring ads in French for immigration, visa and travel services.
“Little Senegal is still a hangout, but people are moving away from the area. It’s too expensive to live there, so we have to try a bit harder to keep in touch,” El Hadji says, alternating between English and French.
People still come to Little Senegal to go to church, buy products in specialty stores and socialize at African restaurants, he says, but many of his friends can no longer afford to live there.
El Hadji came to New York from Senegal 14 years ago and lived for many years on 115th Street and Morningside Avenue, close to the center of Little Senegal. A few years ago his family moved to northern Harlem as the rent went up. “Gentrification is real. There’s nothing you can do about it,” he says. Walking along West 116th Street, the effects of gentrification El Hadji talks about are evident everywhere. While West African music still blasts from many shops and women in traditional African robes chat on the street, more than a dozen storefronts, bearing signs advertising African products and notices that they are available for lease, are shuttered.
At the Senegalese Association on 116th Street, Kaaw Sow, the 25-year-old organization’s office manager and only full-time employee, is doing paperwork while a group of men talk in front of a television showing news from Africa and women mill outside.
Before gentrification set in seven to 10 years ago, about 80 percent of the Senegalese immigrants in New York State lived in the area; now it’s down to a little over 50 percent, Sow says.
“I’m worried that there isn’t going to be a Little Senegal in 10 to 20 years,” he says. “People are leaving the area so fast”. He himself has been forced out. Sow says a one-bedroom apartment that cost $640 a month 10 years ago now easily goes for $1700, while three-bedroom apartments that used to rent for $850 are at $2500.
Recent reports document the trend: Rental prices in Harlem reached a five-year high this summer, a report from the real estate firm MNS shows. Faith Consolo, who works at Douglas Elliman Real Estate, says that Harlem has witnessed a residential boom due to “the rebirth of this historic area,” and that some streets have seen rents nearly double since 2007, causing new restaurants, retailers and residents to flock to the area.
In interviews, residents repeat the same story: It is too expensive to live here now. Rising rent not only makes it harder for people to afford housing, but also hurts their employment chances as businesses that would have employed Senegalese immigrants close.
“It’s getting really hard for people to find jobs, both those with papers and the undocumented immigrants,” Sow says. Many Senegalese immigrants speak little English and struggle to find jobs outside the French- and Arabic- speaking Little Senegal.
Prominent Senegalese restaurants have closed within the last few years, several – including Dibiterie Cheikh, Kaloum Restaurant, Salimata Restaurant and Africa Kine – this year alone, Sow says.
The association helps people with paperwork, immigration services, medical referrals and interpreters, and arranges after-school programs, amateur soccer tournaments and charity parties.
Some Senegalese immigrants are returning to Senegal because it is too hard to find work, Sow added. “A lot of people are leaving; we see them returning to Senegal every week,” he says.
“If you have to take money from your savings to survive here, instead of sending money back home or increasing your savings, then what do you do? What’s the point in staying?” Outside the association, Pape Diagne is waiting for some friends. Laid off from his job at a hospital, he’s now looking for work. While he is not considering going home to Senegal – not yet, at least – he knows many people who’ve left the States when they found it too difficult to find jobs and affordable apartments.
“People are not proud of it, but it is better to return to Senegal than to stay in the States and spend your savings if you can’t find a job,” he says in French.
Asking around in the Senegalese community, the same story emerges: Almost everyone knows someone who has gone back to Senegal. But people leave quietly; many consider it a defeat.
“People are leaving for sure, but not in great numbers,” says Malick El Hadji. “But it is getting harder to make enough money to stay.”
Ibrahim Sakho, who works for a Senegalese company selling electronics in the States, is certain that Little Senegal will be hard to recognize in 10 years. “It is too expensive to live here, and too hard to find a good job”.
He is planning to return to Senegal with his own young family in two to three years, he says. “Immigration is over.”

Source: The Uptowner

Posted by on Nov 16 2014. Filed under Community News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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