NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Something's afoot in Harlem.
A once-vacant lot will soon give way to a luxury housing complex and starting prices for brownstones are soaring. Fully renovated brownstones uptown are fetching upwards of $1.5 million.
"Five years ago, Harlemites who owned their property were selling them for a pittance," said Amanda Jhones, a broker with Douglas Elliman Real Estate. "Now they are smarter. Much smarter."
Renters and house hunters looking for a piece of the action have come to realize that Harlem is no longer the new frontier. More affluent tenants and buyers have discovered upper Manhattan. There's even a Starbucks on West 125th Street waiting to quench their thirst.
Manhattan real estate as a whole benefited from dramatically lower crime and a thriving economy in the late 1990s. Prices softened following the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, but soon re-heated.
Now, pricing pressure in other parts of the island have sent many wannabe Manhattan dwellers uptown.
"What's going on is downtown prices are so high," said Wayne Murray, a real estate agent with Douglas Elliman. "People are tired of just paying money and getting nothing back."
According to Murray, brownstones sell for an average of $2 million in Harlem versus $6 million in other parts of Manhattan.
Harlem's commercial real estate sector is burgeoning, too. Harlem USA, a 275,000 square-foot retail center featuring a nine-screen Magic Johnson Cineplex, brought an estimated 500 permanent jobs to the area when it opened in 2000. Smaller businesses received assistance from the William Jefferson Clinton Foundation, which launched the Harlem pilot program for its Small Business Initiative in 2002.
Harlem's neo-renaissance is hardly a completed masterpiece. Median household income there is only $19,920, according to the latest Census data, and many long-time residents are concerned about the area's high unemployment rate. Still, the revival of the real estate market is a sure sign of economic improvement.
Sunnier on the South Side
Harlem is not the nation's only urban center on the upswing.
Brent Ryan, an assistant professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says parts of the city's struggling South Side have started to gentrify within the past five years.
"Chicago has been a little slower [than New York] in part because there were more low-cost places for people to live," Ryan said. "I would say now in the last five, housing prices in Chicago have really shot through the roof."
Bronzeville -- a section of the South Side immortalized in Gwendolyn Brooks' "A Street in Bronzeville" published in 1945 -- is now among Chicago's hottest up-and-coming neighborhoods.
Coldwell Banker broker Fred Levy says housing prices have doubled, even tripled, in the past five years, placing entry-level price points in the $300,000 range for a single-family home in need of some TLC.
In a couple of years, Levy says, starting prices in Bronzeville will probably top the $500,000 mark.
Atlanta's Sweet Auburn district has also undergone several changes in recent years as area residents started fixing up the East End section near the King Center.
Sweet Auburn's West End, which had traditionally been more of a commercial section, is just now starting to attract investor attention.
The Integral Group is currently constructing what COO Carl Powell says is the first major housing complex in the West End in approximately 30 years. The building, Sweet Auburn Village, is a 180-unit condominium building that combines residential living with retail space.
Condo prices will likely range from $120,000 to $275,000, Powell says, in order to keep prices affordable for long-time residents.
In Boston, Roxbury was once one of the city's roughest residential neighborhoods. A few years ago, an influx of young professionals started moving into the area. Handyman specials cost $300,00 in lower Roxbury, but homes in the Fort Hill section now start at $500,000.
On the West Coast, San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury is looking less like the center of the 1960s counter-culture movement and more like a moneyed metropolis. A two-bedroom condo could easily set you back $900,000 now.
For the most part, long-time residents in each of these areas have greeted the changes with optimism. And racial tensions have abated between the communities' primarily black majorities and white newcomers.
"I think that there is less fear on the part of whites, and I think that there is less hostility on the part of the people who live there," explained Alexander von Hoffman, a senior fellow at Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies and the author of "House by House, Block by Block: The Rebirth of America's Urban Neighborhoods."
"When white people move into black neighborhoods," von Hoffman says bluntly, "it's usually the final sign that a neighborhood has reached gentrification."