Striving to Stay in Striver's Row

Block-association head Elois Dupree in the living room of her home on Striver's Row. Claudio Papapietro for The Wall Street Journal

Striver's Row is facing an identity crisis.

Last week, an 1891 house sold for almost $2.89 million, a record price for the Harlem neighborhood that left some older Strivers worried something neighborly was being lost as affluent buyers bid up prices.

"After a point, only certain wealthy people can afford to move in," said Montez Davidson, the widow of a physician and acupuncturist who practiced out of their home on West 139th Street for many years. "I don't know that the new people moving in are Strivers. They have made it."

Striver's Row was once a center for the African-American elite in the golden age of Harlem. Doctors, lawyers, businessmen and musicians lived in rows of elegant homes on West 138th and West 139th streets between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass boulevards.

Eubie Blake, the pianist and composer, lived there, as did W.C. Handy, the blues composer, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the pastor and long-serving congressman, and Louis T. Wright, the first black surgeon on the staff of Harlem Hospital.

As Harlem declined in the 1960s and 1970s, some properties in the neighborhood fell into disrepair and some became single-room occupancy hotels. Eventually, a long slow turnaround began.

In the last decade, more than a third of the houses have sold. Most of the buyers are whites and Asian, say residents, attracted to the neighborhood as much by its leafy streets and its relatively affordable prices as its history.

In the surrounding neighborhood, whites rose from 1.3% of the population to 6% between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census. The census counted 711 more white residents and 699 fewer blacks.

The name Striver's Row reflected both the admiration and envy of those who lived on the blocks and the fact that many prominent households were still financially striving. Many rented out parts of their houses to boarders to make ends meet, said Michael Henry Adams, a preservationist and historian.

Houses on West 138th Street in Harlem's Strivers' Row, where a sale price has set a neighborhood record Claudio Papapietro for The Wall Street Journal

But with many houses selling, even some longtime boosters of the neighborhood said they were ambivalent about the changes. Elois Dupree, the head of a block association on Striver's Row, said the tight bonds in the neighborhood were loosening.

"You don't get that sense of camaraderie we had before," she said. "Children would play on the block and neighbors would watch out for them. Now children stay indoors."

Some new buyers say they feel welcome in the neighborhood—at least most of the time.

Philippe Courtois, an owner of a Paris decorative painting company, Atelier Premiere, that did work on the Oval Office in White House, moved in last year with his wife and three children.

He sent his youngest daughter to a neighborhood public preschool and his older children to a bilingual French-English charter school on West 120th Street.

He said he had good relations with his neighbors but "some don't like the changes."

"They are afraid that Harlem will not be the Harlem they always knew," he said. "They have no choice. The changes are progress, it is going to improve itself more and more."

On the other hand, Denise Fisher, who bought a house on West 139th Street in 2008, says she and her husband, Robert, a dentist, spend more time with neighbors in Harlem than they did in their last neighborhood in Chappaqua.

"We are very cognizant of some of the history" of the neighborhood she said.

Striver's Way was built in 1891 by David H. King Jr. , a builder who created the masonry base of the Statue of Liberty. The houses are built of limestone and brick, in varying combinations, and they have rear alleys—an unusual feature for New York.

But they were put up during a speculative wave of investment that ended in panic, and Mr. King lost control of the project. From the first it was a project for whites. Blacks were offered a chance to buy houses in 1919. Some of the houses were priced at about $8,000.

Prices and interest in Striver's Row have revived. In 1986, Bob Dylan bought a house there for $395,000, and sold it in 2000 for $560,000. During the last real-estate boom, sales were strong and one home sold for $2.4 million.

So in April, when two agents from Halstead Property, Ivonne Velasquez and Norman McHugh, listed the 20-foot-wide house at 221 E. 138th St., the asking price was set at $2.445 million. They soon had multiple offers.

The winning bid at almost $2.89 million came from Josh Zoia, the superintendent of KIPP charter schools in New York City. Mr. Zoia's broker, Andrew Azoulay of Town Residential, said Mr. Zoia and his family originally planned to live in the house, but decided instead to renovate the space and rent it out.

Carl McCaskill, who lives in a nearby Strivers Row house, was the executor for the estate of the last owner of the house, who purchased it in 2011 for $1.324 million.

Mr. McCaskill, a founder of a new black television network, Soul of the South Television, embraces the change. He noted that Harlem has always been on the cutting edge—from jazz to Malcolm X.

"If Harlem is not new it is not Harlem," he said. "Harlem is all about the avant guard."

Houses along West 139th Street Claudio Papapietro for The Wall Street Journal

Write to Josh Barbanel at