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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Cold Shoulders

James Estrin/The New York Times

Opening day near the Clinton office on 125th Street in July 2001.

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.’ ”

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.

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