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Cold Shoulders

The streets were bright with promise on the sunny July day in 2001 when former President Bill Clinton arrived in Harlem, the historic capital of black America, to celebrate the opening of his office on 125th Street. A chant of “We love Bill!” rose from the adoring crowd of 2,000 well-wishers, some of whom wore buttons and waved fans decorated with Mr. Clinton’s face.

After a violin rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” Mr. Clinton and the crowd sang along to a vibrant saxophone version of the soul song “Stand by Me.” “You were always there for me,” the ebullient former president declared before descending into the crowd for handshakes and hugs. “And I will try to be there for you.”

But the relationship between Mr. Clinton and Harlem’s African-American community has gone through a distinctly rocky patch this year. Many black residents say they were hurt and angered by what they perceived as racially disrespectful comments made by Mr. Clinton during the Democratic presidential primary fight between Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator Barack Obama, son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya.

As the seventh anniversary of Mr. Clinton’s arrival in Harlem approaches on Wednesday, it is impossible to predict whether the wounds can be healed. And to be sure, Mr. Clinton still has his admirers among black Harlemites and among African-Americans nationwide. But in dozens of interviews with Harlem’s African-American residents, business people and community leaders, strong currents of disappointment and resentment toward the former president were evident.

“You sold us down the river, Bill; you took us for granted,” said Darlene Sims, co-owner of an Internet cafe in Harlem. “There’s a definite level of betrayal, of ‘You done us wrong by marginalizing us.’ ”

Cold Shoulders

Mr. Clinton, who agreed to be interviewed for this article on the condition that he not be asked questions about the presidential campaign or politics in general, said he did not expect the hard feelings to linger.

“I don’t think it’ll last,” he said, adding that he was touched that his wife had won 53 percent of the vote in Representative Charles Rangel’s Congressional district in the New York primary on Feb. 5.

“I was very moved by it,” Mr. Clinton said of his wife’s victory over Mr. Obama in that district, “because it was obvious to me that once the campaign was joined after Iowa that in every state from then on in, he was going to get a big majority of the African-American vote.”

But the results in Mr. Rangel’s district offer at best a limited measure of the Clintons’ standing among black Harlemites. The district’s population is only 31 percent black, according to United States Census Bureau figures, as the district includes not only Central and West Harlem but also Washington Heights and East Harlem, where Latino residents predominate, along with Inwood and parts of the Upper West Side.

By contrast, in Central Harlem, where blacks predominate, Mr. Obama trounced Mrs. Clinton by about 2 to 1, 67 percent to 33 percent, according to an analysis of election results by The New York Times.

A Strong First Impression

The warm embrace between Mr. Clinton and Harlem in 2001 was based not merely on shared affection but also on mutual need. Although crime in Harlem had declined and commercial development was on the rise, spurred in large part by 1993 legislation establishing federal empowerment zones that Mr. Clinton had signed into law, the neighborhood was still working to cast off its reputation for blight and crime. The former president’s decision to put the headquarters of his William J. Clinton Foundation on the top floor of a 14-story brick office building at 55 West 125th Street, near Malcolm X Boulevard, was seen as a signal that Harlem had turned an important corner.

Mr. Clinton, for his part, had been battered by critics over last-minute presidential pardons and over his initial plan to lease an expensive, taxpayer-funded office suite in Carnegie Hall Tower on West 57th Street. It was during that period, Mr. Rangel told The New York Times at the time, that he called Mr. Clinton’s office to suggest that he consider relocating to Harlem.

By many accounts, Mr. Clinton got off to a strong start in the neighborhood. In 2001 he hired Clyde Williams, a former deputy chief of staff to the United States secretary of agriculture, as his foundation’s domestic policy adviser. Mr. Williams, who is African-American, promptly moved to Harlem, where he established close relationships with local institutions, businesses and community groups.

“No one should question Bill Clinton’s commitment to this community, or Mrs. Clinton’s,” Mr. Williams said in a recent interview. “In my time there, they were both very engrossed in how what emanated from his office affected the community.”

Not long after Mr. Clinton opened his office, the owner of a Harlem card shop stood up at a community meeting that Mr. Williams had organized and complained to Mr. Clinton that small businesses in Harlem needed help.

To address the problem, Mr. Williams created a pilot small-business program in Harlem. Ten local businesses, including the card shop and a bakery, nine of them black-owned, were enrolled in the program in 2002. While two received only partial assistance, the other eight were each assigned a team of volunteer business experts. Over the following months, consultants for the program gave technical and managerial help to the businesses.

Walter Edwards, chairman of the Harlem Business Alliance, an advocacy group, said he thought the program had done great work educating local merchants. But he lamented that except for loans to a bowling alley and a flower shop by the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, “at the end of the day, there wasn’t any financing available that was designated for them.”

The small-business program continued with a second class of Bronx and Brooklyn businesses in 2004, then enrolled another Harlem class in 2006. At the same time, other efforts centered on Harlem moved forward.

The Clinton Foundation worked with a nonprofit group called Operation Hope to set up financial education programs in local schools. Mr. Clinton also appeared in public service announcements telling working families how to qualify for the earned income tax credit. And the Clinton Foundation and a media company produced two free CD-ROMs to teach underprivileged students how to take college admissions tests and apply to historically black and Latino colleges; more than 150,000 discs have been distributed in Harlem.

Nevertheless, tense disagreements developed within the foundation over how much attention to focus on Harlem, perhaps unsurprising in an avowedly global organization that has grown to more than 800 workers in 44 countries.

After Clyde Williams left the foundation in early 2005, he was succeeded by Trooper Sanders, an African-American who had been a policy adviser to Vice President Al Gore. Mr. Sanders’s approach to the job has relied less on the personal touch than on what he calls a project-driven method.

“The last thing people in Harlem need is a lot of make-nice froth and bubble,” Mr. Sanders said recently, sitting at a conference table in Mr. Clinton’s personal penthouse office, which offers a commanding view of the low-slung buildings of Harlem and Central Park and the skyscrapers of Midtown. “People want solutions that are real.”

Under Mr. Sanders, eight small businesses in Harlem and one in the Bronx have been matched with entrepreneur mentors provided by Inc. magazine. For the fall, the foundation plans a pilot program to bring management tools and business consultants to about 20 restaurants in Harlem and Washington Heights.

Although some Harlem community leaders have been happy with the foundation’s recent approach, others say that neighborhood outreach has withered.

“I have not seen a specific focus on the Harlem community from Bill Clinton’s office since Clyde left,” said Rob Carmona, founding executive director of Strive, an East Harlem employment organization that primarily serves black clients. “The things Bill Clinton has been involved with have taken on an international taste and tone, and the third world is down the block.”

Dr. Samuel Daniel, president and chief executive officer of North General Hospital, on upper Madison Avenue, five blocks from Mr. Clinton’s office, added that since early 2005, nobody from the foundation “has actually called the hospital and asked to come see how we’re doing.”

The Face of Gentrification

The day in 2001 when Bill Clinton arrived to open his office among the street vendors and African hair braiders of 125th Street, he told the crowd: “I want to make sure I’m a good neighbor in Harlem. I’m glad property values are going up, but I don’t want small-business people to be run out because I’m coming in.”

Today, whether accelerated by Mr. Clinton’s arrival or simply the result of powerful market forces, that displacement is well under way. Between 2002 and 2006, 52 black-owned businesses in Harlem closed or were pushed out, according to a survey by the Harlem Business Alliance, which estimates that the number has grown to 75. An additional 71 businesses may be displaced by the recently approved rezoning of the 125th Street corridor, according to a city study, although the city has created programs to try to blunt the impact.

Fairly or not, for some black Harlem residents, Mr. Clinton is the face of gentrification and displacement.

“I met him and shook his hand, and I felt here was a white man who would come and help revitalize the neighborhood,” said Beamon Highsmith, a retired black subway worker. “But hell, he didn’t change it for us. He changed it for other people.”

Regina Smith, executive director of the Harlem Business Alliance, added that with more involvement from Mr. Clinton, “we could have come up with a strategy to address this issue of small business displacement years ago.”

Mr. Clinton defended his efforts on behalf of locally owned businesses, saying that he had tried to “make it possible for them to make more money.”

“I’ve met with the Chamber of Commerce people, the local business people, on a couple of occasions,” he added, “and I’ve asked them what they’ve wanted me to do, and I’ve tried to help the businesses be more productive.” He also noted that his foundation had helped some of the Harlem businesses in its small-business program get long-term leases to protect them from rising rents.

A Sense of Betrayal

For all the debate over the focus of the Clinton Foundation, some African-American observers in Harlem said that Mr. Clinton’s popularity among blacks has always been based as much on an emotional connection as on specific policies.

“For those of us longing to be a part of the American family, Bill Clinton opened his arms and embraced us,” said Geoffrey Canada, president and chief executive officer of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a nonprofit group. “We wanted to be embraced, and we had never had that experience of a president saying to the African-American community: ‘You all are terrific. You all are my partners.’ ”

Perhaps as a result of this perceived bond, many black Harlemites responded to Mr. Clinton’s behavior during his wife’s presidential campaign almost as if they had been betrayed by a relative. As Mr. Edwards of the Harlem Business Alliance put it, “If you adopt a child, and you raise and you feed that child, and then that child does something to hurt you, something disrespectful to you, you’re going to be more hurt than if a child you never knew came and did the same thing.”

The first major blow to Mr. Clinton’s relationship with Harlem came in early January, while he was campaigning for his wife in New Hampshire. “Give me a break,” Mr. Clinton said in charging that Mr. Obama had misrepresented his own position on the Iraq war. “This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”

Mr. Clinton later asserted that his comment referred to Mr. Obama’s stance on the war, not his candidacy. But in Harlem, many blacks interpreted the term to mean that the notion of a black man becoming president was a fantasy.

“Bill is a hypocrite, and this primary brought the true character of Bill out,” said Frank Josh, the Nigerian-American owner of Harlem Beauty Supply, down the block from the foundation’s office. Over the rap music thumping from the gift shop next door, Mr. Josh added that although he had voted for Mr. Clinton twice, the “fairy tale” comment made him feel less welcome as an American.

At the Dollar Internet Cafe near 144th Street, where a YouTube video of Mr. Clinton’s comments was shown to customers by the proprietor, most responded with anger. But this reaction was not universal.

“I don’t know why blacks are upset with Clinton,” said Hakim Rashid, a 60-year-old African-American, as he waited for a bus near a boarded-up building on 125th Street and Fifth Avenue. “He put more blacks in positions of power than all the other presidents combined.” Mr. Rashid noted that Mr. Clinton had appointed more than 60 black federal judges, adding, “I say, look at what a person does and not what he says.”

On Jan. 26, the day of the South Carolina primary, Mr. Clinton compared Mr. Obama’s strength in that state’s primary, which Mr. Obama won, to Jesse Jackson’s two victories in the state’s nominating contests in the 1980s, a comment many blacks in Harlem and elsewhere found even more offensive.

“It’s demeaning: It suggests the only reason Obama got there was his skin color,” said Derrick Guest, a 35-year-old African-American video producer. The general response to Mr. Clinton, Mr. Guest added, was: “You’re part of the family. We bring you in, and then when we turn around, you kind of knifed us in the back.”

In an interview on CNN in March, Mr. Clinton called the suggestion that he had played racial politics in South Carolina a “myth and a mugging.” In a radio interview in April, he sharpened his defense of his South Carolina remarks, saying of the Obama campaign, “I think that they played the race card on me.” And he added, “You got to really go some to play the race card with me — my office is in Harlem.”

But the Clinton luster was already badly tarnished in Harlem, and by the time Mrs. Clinton told USA Today in May that Mr. Obama’s support was weakening among “hard-working Americans, white Americans,” the street stalls around the former president’s office had been wreathed with Obama T-shirts for months.

Several Harlem community leaders and business people said that the wounds could be healed if Mr. Clinton campaigned vigorously for Mr. Obama or offered an overture or apology to the neighborhood. “He needs to say: ‘I bumped my head here; pass the ribs,’ ” suggested Ms. Sims, the cafe owner.

Others said they thought no apology was necessary.

“The punishment fit the crime,” said Mr. Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a group at whose building Mr. Clinton has made three appearances. “To have African-Americans angry and question his loyalty to us and our cause, I know he has suffered through this.”

Mr. Clinton paid a price, Mr. Canada concluded, “and I think it’s time to move to the next level of healing.”

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