The New Harlem: Meet the Small Businesses at the Heart of a Renaissance

A community formerly known for blight and decay is seeing a second revival, thanks to businesses from the iconic Sylvia's to the trendsetting Red Rooster.
Founder, mater mea
February 04, 2014

Harlem. The upper Manhattan neighborhood’s name—Dutch in origin, purely African-American in spirit—evokes a history that’s impossible to ignore. It’s the birthplace of jazz; the 1920s stomping grounds of such African-American luminaries as W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston; the home of the Apollo Theater, where talents like James Brown and the Jackson Five made their debuts before they hit the big time. The neighborhood is still considered one of the cultural epicenters of African-American life even as Harlem became American shorthand for “bad neighborhood” in New York City’s blighted and crime-filled years of the 1970s and 1980s.

Entrepreneur Jelena Pasic wanted to tap into that vibrant history when she opened her restaurant, Harlem Shake (no, not that Harlem Shake), in 2011.

 

Entrepreneur Jelena Pasic wanted to tap into that vibrant history when she opened her restaurant, Harlem Shake

 

“I had businesses in [neighboring community] Washington Heights,” Pasic says in a lilting Croatian accent. “And as I started going to Harlem two to three times a week, I started falling in love with the architecture, culture, people. I feel like it’s very neighborhood oriented, which is hard to find in New York City. You could see that it was a diamond in the rough.”

 

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Though still a little rough around the edges, Harlem is in the midst of what many consider to be its second renaissance, one based more on real estate and commercial developments than literature and culture. Millions of dollars in business developments and infrastructure improvements started trickling into the community from the city in the early 2000s after decades of economic neglect, and from individuals and businesses with deep pockets. The tide began to change for the community in 2000 when a huge Pathmark supermarket opened on 125th Street, Harlem’s main commercial thoroughfare. Then came Harlem USA that same year—the 275,000-square-foot shopping complex housed national retail chains that had long avoided the community, and gave Harlem its first multiscreen theater in years, the AMC Magic Johnson Theater Harlem 9.

While those developments didn’t start a fire hose of commercial development, it did signal to developers and entrepreneurs like Pasic that things were beginning to change in Harlem. “They pointed to a trend,” Pasic says. “It definitely gives you confidence. It just shows there is a critical mass of consumers, whether people who were here as original inhabitants or newcomers.”

“People were always drawn to Harlem, [but] people just weren’t too sure about how to break into the commerce space because there wasn’t a lot of commerce going on,” says Tren’ness Woods-Black, the vice president of communications at Sylvia’s, an iconic soul food restaurant in Harlem, and granddaughter of Sylvia Woods, the restaurant’s late owner. “It was mostly a destination. People went to go to Sylvia’s, the Apollo, visit churches. That was pretty much it.”

Now, more than a decade later, there are more big-name retailers erecting outposts in the neighborhood. Marshalls, Staples, Dunkin' Donuts and Verizon set up shop inside Harlem Center on the northwest corner of 125th and Lenox. It sits across the street from a plot of land that used to be a site for street vendors selling shea butter, body oils, jewelry, bootleg DVDs, cell phone covers and the like. Recently a construction crew broke ground on a glassy five-story building to house a 40,000-square-foot Whole Foods and a Burlington Coat Factory store almost double that size, The New York Times reported.

But while these big names are certainly impressive for the community, they’re not why people are flocking back to the neighborhood in droves or why journalists, developers and experts are invoking the “R” word. From Corner Social on 126th Street and Lenox Avenue to Lee Lee’s Baked Goods on 118th Street between St. Nicholas and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, independent businesses are the ones shepherding in the Harlem Renaissance of this millennium, with entrepreneurs taking over shuttered and abandoned spaces and turning them into must-see destinations in the community. This new brand of Harlem business bares little resemblance to the mom and pop shops, coin-operated laundromats or bodegas of the past; it’s targeting a well-heeled set, one that reflects the community’s growing diversity (or gentrification, depending on your perspective).

 

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“There’s an electricity in the air, and you can feel it,” Twitter and Square founder Jack Dorsey said in a recent interview in Harlem. “What we’re seeing is that there’s a trend back to a local and crafted and neighborhood experience. People want this experience more and more.”

It has been years in the making, but ask anyone in the community what launched this new wave of hyper-local businesses in Harlem and they’ll all point to the same source.

The Red Rooster Effect

After opening successful restaurants in Midtown Manhattan (Aquavit) and achingly hip downtown (Merkato 55 in the Meatpacking District), celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson decided to stay closer to home when he opened his third restaurant in 2011. Red Rooster, located on Lenox Avenue between 125th and 126th Streets, was met with rave reviews, as much for Samuelsson’s masterful meld of Scandinavian and soul food cuisine as for the type of crowd it drew to Harlem.

 

Portrait Of Chef Samuelsson At Red Rooster

 

“The glory of the Red Rooster is that everyone really is there, actually making the scene: black and white, Asian and Latino, straight and gay, young and old,” The New York Times review says. “This fact marks a real stride forward for Harlem, and for New York beyond it. Here at last are the faces of the city we live in, sitting together in a large restaurant serving top-quality food and wine. Have we really never seen this before?”

Red Rooster’s opening reflected a new Harlem that could attract a customer base who could get behind a $18 chopped salad, three-weeks long reservation lists and hours-long wait time for a table. And it wasn’t all newcomers and cultural tourists ascending up the 125th Street subway stop stairs to eat there; Harlemites were waiting right in line with them.

 

Red Rooster

 

“The Red Rooster has really done significant things in terms of getting visitors here in a way that I haven’t been able to see other restaurants do,” says Hope Knight, the chief operating officer of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone (UMEZ). The restaurant has become an anchor business in the community, drawing in customers who may decide to explore the neighborhood after their meal and stumble upon places like Lenox Coffee.

Tucked away on 129th Street off of Lenox Avenue, Aaron Baird’s small cafe is a lovely space (with a finished unfinished look of reclaimed wood, exposed brick walls and bare lightbulbs) that would have been unheard of in Harlem 20 years ago.

“There’s tons of mom and pop shops in other communities, but up here it’s slowly coming back,” Baird explains. “There’s becoming a demand for certain services that tend to be everywhere else.”

The former classical musician turned real estate broker opened the coffee shop with his friend Jeffrey Green “on a whim”; Lenox Coffee made its neighborhood debut in December 2010. “There was never a place in [Harlem] where you could sit down and see who was in your neighborhood,” Baird says. “You would just walk past them on the subway.” After a sluggish six months, the cafe “kind of blew up,” he says. “Everything was packed.” And much like Red Rooster, the people crowding Lenox Coffee on any given day come from all walks of life. Baird recently opened another Harlem-based coffee shop, Double Dutch Espresso on 118th and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, which has already gotten great reviews and support from Harlemites who think it will be a great addition to the community.

 

Lenox Coffee made its neighborhood debut in December 2010

 

Red Rooster, in a way, acted like a proof of concept for would-be small business owners who long had their eye on the neighborhood, like Pasic of Harlem Shake. After witnessing business development grind to a halt during 2007 and 2008, Red Rooster’s success a few years later made her feel more secure in investing in Harlem.

“It has to be at the hands of the consumer,” she says. “When you’re investing, you don’t want to put yourself in the graces of ‘maybe yes, maybe no.’ You want to know that the market is ready.”

Harlem’s History

Many of the signifiers that the community “is ready” for this new boom of independent business development is fraught with an at-times problematic history. Longtime Harlem residents would come into Lenox Coffee when it first opened and tell owner Aaron Baird, “129th Street was [once] the second worst block in New York City,” he recalls. “People would say, ‘Don’t you know what this block was?’”

Once an isolated country village, Harlem became a bedroom suburb of New York City in the late 19th century. Wave after wave of immigrants came into the community, from Germans on the west side of 125th Street to Irish and Italians in East Harlem and Jewish families in between. The Great Migration—the mass exodus from 1915 to the 1970s of African Americans leaving Jim Crow South for opportunity in the North—changed the demographic makeup of the community as black families moved in and white families moved out.

Even though Harlem was considered the “black capital,” opportunity for economic advancement was still cowed by racist practices. Many of the famous businesses in the neighborhood—the Cotton Club and even the Apollo Theater—were once white-only or white-owned. Over the years, racial tensions flared up, causing riots; drugs and gang activity became an insidious presence in the community, and economic development was nonexistent.

“It has to do with the decline and decay in housing stock that started in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s,” Knight of UMEZ explains. “It was the reverse of gentrification, a movement of people out of the community. There wasn’t a residential base here and the community was not being invested in.”

According to Smithsonian.com, by the 1980s, “most of central Harlem’s housing was owned by the city in foreclosure for nonpayment of taxes—and by most accounts the city was an indifferent landlord, contributing to the community’s housing problems.” Without residents, there wasn’t enough foot traffic for businesses to warrant making an investment in Harlem.

Then a number of factors compounded to turn the neighborhood around. President Bill Clinton (who would later become a Harlem resident himself) passed legislation in 1992 that brought $300 million in city, state and matching federal funds to the neighborhood. In 2008, the New York City Council approved rezoning the 125th Street Corridor between Broadway and 2nd Avenue, creating “approximately 1.8 million square feet of additional commercial office, hotel, and retail space and approximately 2,600 new housing units.” And a real estate boom brought in famous and everyday New Yorkers looking for relatively affordable brownstones with prewar details and businesses within the community. (A demographic study conducted by developer Grid Properties found that most Harlemites didn’t shop in their neighborhood, mostly due to a lack of options.)

The New Harlem of today seems to be a little lopsided, with many businesses being in the restaurant and service industry. “It’s great, because who doesn’t like to eat?” says Woods-Black of Sylvia’s. “[But] we know what it takes to revitalize an economy and it can’t be just one business. It has to be a collective. And in that business model it has to be different categories, because that was what Harlem was, a combination of Dapper Dan stores, jazz, retail, churches and bars.”

 

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You can’t throw a rock in Harlem without hitting one new development or another that could provide space for more diversity in Harlem’s retail renaissance. Most projects promise to provide space for small businesses as well as national chains and new cultural institutions. One development, Create @ Harlem Green, could bring manufacturing into the mostly residential community—the former home of Taystee Bakery, which closed in the ‘70s, may have Harlem Brewing Company as a tenant.

The New York Economic Development Council’s Park 125 will provide much needed sprucing up of East 125th Street in an attempt to draw more development interest to the area as well. “This neighborhood has a lot going for it,” says Adam Meagher, vice president at NYEDC. “One of the things we understand to be really important in attracting private investment and strengthening commercial [interest] is a strong sense of place. You can see in other parts of the city where public realm improvements have helped commercial revitalization.”

What’s Next for Harlem

However long brewing, the changes in Harlem seem to be moving faster, making certain pockets of the community unrecognizable to longtime residents in the course of months, not years. That tension between the past and present bubbles underneath Harlem’s surface, with residents and business owners worried of being eventually priced out of their own communities. (Though a recent study found that gentrification does more good than harm for long-term residents, it's a poor balm for those who have witnessed or sense displacement approaching.) The iconic Lenox Lounge, where jazz greats such as Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and John Coltrane once performed, closed December 31, 2012, because lounge owner Alvin Reed couldn't afford the rent doubling from $10,000 to $20,000 a month. Richard Notar, a restaurateur, took over the lease and plans on opening a lounge in the original location that stays true to Lenox Lounge’s speakeasy past; Reed will open a new Lenox Lounge a few blocks away.

Many of the small businesses that are attracting buzz are owned or co-owned by white business owners, causing some black business owners to say they feel as though their community’s wealth is being taken from them in favor of outside interests. But it doesn’t take much poking around to discover that Harlem is a neighborhood very committed to protecting its roots and history.

“This is a unique community and businesses have to make adjustments as required,” says Knight of UMEZ. “I’ve seen a couple of restaurateurs come in with specific formats—very elevated cuisine—and the community wasn’t so excited about it.” Those places eventually had to close.

Pasic took great pains to create a business that was true to the Harlem of yesteryear without alienating the residents who live there today. Harlem Shake’s awning, tin ceiling and mint and black color scheme is an exact replica of a 1940s diner that had the same location. Everything on the menu is under $10 without sacrificing quality, and the walls are lined with archival photos of African Americans that you would’ve seen in long-gone Harlem establishments like M&J Diner and Pam Pam’s. She’s also committed to making sure that 85 percent of her staff have Harlem zip codes.

Sylvia’s, the grand dame of Harlem businesses, hasn’t changed its model in half a century and has no intentions of changing now, says Woods-Black. “By the grace of God and the fact that we’re very dedicated to being authentic in our cooking style, to say that we’ve been here for 51.5 years and we’re making profit every year is quite the testament,” she says.

 

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The family, which owns eight huge properties on Lenox Avenue, has plans of opening another Sylvia’s in Harlem and staying true to the community with its assets. “We still want to feel the charm and the history that you’ve read about when you walk onto that avenue,” Woods-Black explains. “With everything that happened, we could’ve easily sold for millions and millions of dollars, but that’s not what we’re about. We [want] to make sure that charm of Harlem is preserved.

“It’s going to be very interesting to see what takes place over the next 10, 20, 30 years down the line,” she continues. “I believe that Harlemites always knew the value in their community. It’s just that now local and international tourists are piquing interest in Harlem.”

See our photo essay of an entrepreneur in his internationally known black barbershop in Harlem.

Photos: Getty Images, Courtesy Harlem Shake by Eric Levin, Lenox Coffee by Nephi Niven, Lenox Coffee by Aleksander Cosic, Sylvia's exterior by Clayton Cotterell, Sylvia's Tren'ness by Javi Mota.