A historic black district is on the verge of recovery
A historic black district is on the verge of recovery
From the outside, Sylvia’s Restaurant in the heart of Harlem isn’t much to look at. The sidewalk in front on Lenox Avenue is cracked, and an ugly fire escape obscures the face of the building. Inside, though, Sylvia’s is a Harlem institution, a down-home refuge from the city, serving up fried catfish, salmon croquettes and candied yams. These days, it is also the
headquarters of an expanding business empire. After 35 years of catering to the appetites of black and white New Yorkers for traditional southern soul food, Sylvia’s is expanding. Its owner and matriarch, Sylvia Woods, opened a branch in Atlanta earlier this year and has plans for three more—in Brooklyn, Baltimore and St. Louis. A line of 17 food products with a label picturing Sylvia as “the Queen of Soul Food” is appearing on the shelves of supermarket chains. Sylvia’s is going national.
That is also a sign of something bigger: a resurgence of business in Harlem, long the symbolic capital of black America. It had its glory days in the 1930s and ’40s, when blacks and whites alike flocked to places like the Cotton Club and the Savoy, and black writers like Langston Hughes led a literary movement called the Harlem Renaissance. But for two generations, Harlem has symbolized something else: poverty, racism and hopelessness. Sylvia’s is a 15-minute ride on an express subway train from midtown Manhattan, but Harlem has never shared its prosperity. Now, though, business is courting Harlem, and the area finally seems ready to respond. Disney, The Gap and other national retailers are planning outlets. Investors working through the J. R Morgan Community Development Corp. are helping Sylvia’s be come more than a successful local business. Van DeWard Woods, Sylvia Woods’ eldest son and president of the food products line, puts it this way: “The race is on. We’ve got to wake up and participate in this development or be left behind.”
Of course, Harlem has been declared on the verge of recovery before, but it has always been disappointed. All levels of government have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the area in vain attempts to fight its social problems. Local politicians and power brokers squabbled over how to spend it. Anti-poverty funds were often distributed like patronage, say critics of the old system, resulting in jobs for supporters of key politicians but little of lasting value for the community. Now, New York’s economic upsurge and the citywide drop in crime have set the stage for another try. Government agencies are still heavily involved, mainly through a so-called Empowerment Zone that will inject more than $400 million in federal, state and city funds into Harlem and the rest of upper Manhattan over the next decade. But even its leaders say that success this time depends on whether private enterprise goes beyond talking—and puts serious money into an area desperate for it.
The talk and the plans, at least, are impressive. A private consortium has received a $15-million Empowerment Zone loan to start work on an ambitious retail and entertainment complex to be called Harlem USA. Disney and Odeon theatres have i signed on to the project, expected to open in about 0 18 months on bustling 125th Street, Harlem’s main 1 drag and home to landmarks like the old Apollo I Theater. Magic Johnson Theaters is considering s building on another site on the street. A third de£ veloper has plans for a retail complex called the
Harlem Center, to be anchored by a Sears store. Actor Robert De Niro and two partners are renovating Minton’s Playhouse, the historic old club where Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie pioneered bebop, as a restaurant and jazz venue. Blockbuster Video and the Body Shop have opened smart new shops among the down-at-heel older stores. For them it is just smart business: Harlem has 520,000 people and a chronic lack of places for residents to spend their money. European and Japanese tourists flock to the area for its jazz heritage and famed gospel choirs—and also find little to buy.
Still, Harlem’s problems run deep. So do suspicions about outsiders (meaning whites) coming in to take advantage of local (read: black) residents. The area is a murky cauldron of racial politics, and those running the Empowerment Zone must navigate it carefully. It is one of six such zones set up in 1994 by the Clinton administration in Washington, and offers mostly tax incentives to businesses willing to invest in the area rather than large grants for socially oriented projects. Black nationalist leaders like the Rev. Al Sharpton, who operates out of offices in Harlem, are dismissive. “It’s empowering the big retail chains to come in and make profits off the locals,” he says.
Other Harlem leaders are equally suspicious. At the very least, they resent the notion that outside businesspeople are about to rescue an area that they have worked for years to bring back from social disaster. Canon Frederick Williams, chairman of a consortium of 60 churches and mosques called the Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement, says Harlem hit bottom during the crack cocaine epidemic of the late ’80s and has been on the way up ever since. His group works in one of the most devastated neighborhoods, called Bradhurst, still blighted by boardedup houses and garbage-strewn streets. “Five years ago, I wouldn’t park my car there during the day, let alone at night,” he says. “It was difficult, dangerous and depressing.”
But Williams and others persevered. They restored more than 1,400 housing units, established social programs and built a handsome headquarters on what had been a burned-out block. Even modest improvements count for a lot in an area that only a few years ago had next to nothing. A barber shop, dentist, florist and travel agent have opened nearby, bringing new life to streets that were deserted. Now, says Williams, “a lot of people downtown have suddenly discovered that there is money to be made here. They can smell it. You have an attempt by forces outside the community to get control of the economic levers of power. We want to see the people who live and work in Harlem control what happens here.”
In the past, decisions about economic development have been highly political. Grandiose projects—like a proposed 22-storey hotel and commercial complex to be called the Harlem International Trade Center— were announced with great fanfare, but never built. An earlier attempt at directing government money into the area, the Harlem Urban Development Corp., received some $140 million in state funds but was closed down in 1995 amid accusations of rampant patronage. Van Woods, sitting in his messy office on the second floor of the building that houses Sylvia’s Restaurant, has little patience with the old ways. He sees Koreans, Dominicans and others opening corner stores in areas where most of their customers are black: “I say righton to them—but what’s up with us? We’ve made progress socially and politically, but not economically. We don’t employ our own people.”
Woods has undergone a political conversion as well. In the 1960s, he hung around on the fringes of the Black Panthers, and later went along with most African-Americans in supporting the Democrats. But in 1993, he joined the Republican party—a rarity for any black voter, and almost unheard of in Harlem—because of its emphasis on economic growth. ‘We have to wake up,” he says, glancing out his window onto Lenox Avenue, where listless men hang out all day. “I see people killing themselves, boozing and drugging themselves. Harlem is going to change one way or another. You’re either going to come to the table as a black person prepared to do business, or someone else is going to do it.” The outcome of that debate will go a long way towards deciding whether Harlem can revive along with the rest of New York. □
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