New Yorkers struggle to keep Harlem roots amid gentrification

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HARLEM (PIX11) -- For generations, Harlem families have made Sundays at Canaan Baptist Church a way of life.

It is a place rich in history and tradition, so famous for it's gospel music, tourists from around the world wait in line on Sunday mornings to get in. But just outside this historic house of worship the neighborhood is rapidly changing.

According to Dr. Thomas Johnson, who has been the church's pastor for almost a decade, as high priced condominiums continue to be built, church members continue to move away, and the Harlem they once knew is quickly disappearing.

Sunday service is one way he's keeping Harlem alive.

"Regardless of what's going on outside, with the cranes and the 14 story buildings, if you come in here, you are coming into Harlem in a very real way," Johnson said.

Keeping people with Harlem roots in the neighborhood they love, however, is a much bigger challenge. Many non-profits and churches have "cashed out," according to Johnson, selling to developers offering big money for their real estate. "I don't think there is a church in Harlem who owns the property that their church sits on, that hasn't been approached at least once, most of us all of the time."

Canaan Baptist owns several pieces of prime real estate in addition to it's church on 116th street, including two apartment buildings with 400 units used as affordable housing for senior citizens and low-income families.

Developers have offered the church tens of millions of dollars to sell, but Dr. Johnson says, "Canaan Baptist Church is not for sale."

The temptation, Dr. Johnson says, is not that strong for Canaan, but other many other Harlem churches, with diminishing membership and coffers, have made deals with developers.

Some have kept their churches, allowing developers to build luxury apartments and condominiums above, but those kinds of deals will continue to drive the people with Harlem roots out of the neighborhood they love because, according to Johnson, "the average church member can't afford those apartments."

So as long as he is pastor, Dr. Johnson stands firm, "Canaan is not for sale", he said, "it's roots and history are too rich far more wealthy than any amount of money."