A rebirth of trust in Harlem Entrepreneurship, pragmatism fuel an upscale transformation


NEW YORK -- The phone in Van Woods' office on Lenox Avenue is scratched from overuse, rung out by the new Harlem renaissance.

Line one is Woods' mother calling from downstairs, where she runs Sylvia's, the legendary soul food restaurant. Line two is Woods' banker at J. P. Morgan, who is bankrolling his effort to turn Sylvia's into a national chain. Line three is a local entrepreneur who needs start-up capital and knows that Van Woods is the prototypical man to see in 1990s Harlem: a businessman with close Republican ties.

"For decades, people here have looked to politicians and government money to keep Harlem alive," says Woods, 52. "But people are now realizing they need to be more pragmatic. Harlem is more and more about the bottom line."

This attitude, combined with record amounts of private investment, has fueled a decidedly upscale transformation of America's most storied black neighborhood. This fall, ground was broken on a $15 million project to build Harlem's first major supermarket. The Harlem USA mall, with a multiplex cinema, Disney Store and Gap, is on the way. Old Harlem institutions, from the Renaissance Ballroom to Minton's Playhouse, are being restored after years of neglect.

And inside thousands of the neighborhood's historic but long-abandoned brownstones, the sounds of falling plaster have been replaced with a new noise: hammers hitting nails. Over the past decade, private developers have rehabilitated nearly 10,000 homes, many of them abandoned, and have added nearly 6,000 housing units. For the first time in 20 years, the majority of Harlem's property is in private hands: New York City, which owned 60 percent of the housing stock in 1987, owns less than 30 percent today.

Ironically, Harlem is beginning to prosper at a time when the neighborhood's Democratic leadership, which includes such names as former Mayor David N. Dinkins, former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, and U.S. Rep. Charles B. Rangel, are out of power. This Old Guard has been replaced by movers-and-shakers who worked in Wall Street banks and law firms before moving to Harlem and taking jobs with churches, development companies or the federal empowerment zone.

The newcomers have lured American corporate giants, from Cineplex Odeon to Radio Shack. As Democrats such as Dinkins and Rangel look on from the sidelines, they have reached out to New York's ascendant Republican politicians, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Gov. George E. Pataki, who have responded with strong support for economic development in Harlem.

"Some people see us a little too educated, a little too credentialed, a little too trained," says Darren Walker, who left a job on Wall Street two years ago to work for a community development group. "But we brought an understanding: If this is to be a sustained renaissance, the overriding interest in rebuilding Harlem must be profit."

Such statements fill some longtime Harlem residents and business owners with fear of gentrification. They worry that the neighborhood could become a sort of theme park dedicated to the black experience.

"I understand the concern," says Woods, putting his phone down, and glancing at a photo of $100 bills on the wall. "My First Million," it reads. "But the fact is, we need to move Harlem in the direction of the mainstream economy. If we can't capitalize on the interest big business is showing in Harlem now, we never will. This is Harlem's last chance."

Buried treasures

Ever since he moved to New York as a teen-ager, Ishmael Jackson had wanted to own a brownstone. In 1979, he bought one that had been abandoned on 121st Street for $20,000, moved in, and fixed it up himself during the day while driving a subway train at night. That same house recently sold for more than $500,000, and Jackson is renovating another brownstone, on 123rd Street.

"Harlem is like this house, a buried, unnoticed treasure," says Jackson, 61, relaxing in his turn-of-the-century parlor, restored with furniture from antiques stores and the garbage dump. "I have all the benefits of gracious living."

Jackson sees himself as a descendant of the hard-working, well-heeled Harlem elite of the 1920s, but with one crucial difference. Few African-Americans have owned their Harlem homes, even during that renaissance. At the turn of the century, Harlem was a neighborhood of second- and third-generation German Jews and Italians, who built brownstones -- too many brownstones. Desperate to recoup their investments, many of them divided the brownstones into apartments, moved out and rented to blacks.

In the 1960s, manufacturing jobs left Manhattan, and gains in civil rights broke down racist housing barriers and permitted Harlem's middle class to move to the suburbs, leaving low-income residents behind. Thirty years later, the trend is reversing itself. Rising housing prices in midtown Manhattan and the suburbs, along with falling crime in Harlem, have persuaded many minority, middle-class professionals to look further uptown.

The cheapest Harlem houses go for $150,000, and $600,000 price tags are not unusual. Many brownstone rehabilitations are subsidized by city tax and mortgage incentives, but a rising number are entirely private, according to the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

"I wanted to do without public subsidy, because city money is on the decline anyway," says Phillip Morrow, a developer who rehabilitated four vacant brownstones on Manhattan Avenue this year. "Harlem is being privatized, primarily by African-Americans."

"These old houses were very well built," says Jackson. "They are plenty strong enough to support the new Harlem everyone's talking about."

'More open' Harlem

Darren Walker's mother, back home in Texas, still has not forgiven him for taking a 75 percent pay cut two years ago to leave Wall Street for a job with Abyssinian Development Corp., an arm of the Abyssinian Baptist Church. "She has made it clear that she did not raise me by herself, and send me off to college, to live and work in Harlem," he says.

But at Abyssinian, Walker, 38, has had a hand in some of Harlem's biggest commercial projects. And he has watched Abyssinian's popular black pastor, the Rev. Calvin O. Butts, forge a close relationship with the governor.

With Butts' support, Pataki dismantled the Harlem Urban Development Corp., a patronage trough for the area's political leaders that spent $100 million in public money over 20 years with little to show for it, according to news reports.

"HUDC was a gatekeeper. Decisions were often made on the basis of political connections," says Carol Parry, a Chase Manhattan Bank vice president who has worked in Harlem. "Now, Harlem is more open, and projects are judged on financial merits."

Retailers such as Blockbuster Video have moved in. Abyssinian is restoring the Renaissance Ballroom, where Duke Ellington played, and the actor Robert De Niro and a partner are renovating Minton's, the famous jazz house on 118th Street.

The $300 million federal empowerment zone in Harlem has given these and other projects a boost of tax dollars (including more than $300,000 for De Niro's restoration of Minton's). But entrepreneurs who want the balance of their project funded are often told to look for private investors.

"We're willing to provide a small piece, but not the pie," says the zone's chief investment officer, Roy Swan. "If you can't prove that your project will make money and sustain itself, we won't fund it."

Swan says the outlook is bright for commercial projects. European and Japanese visitors fill the Apollo Theater and Sylvia's on weekends. Huge crowds of black New Yorkers come to Harlem during the summer for jazz performances near Grant's Tomb.

"We buppies -- black yuppies -- need to move back, shop and share our skills in finance and law with people in Harlem," says Walker, "no matter what our mothers say."

'We're being stampeded'

Sikhulu Shange, owner of the Record Shack on 125th Street for 30 years, has reopened for business. All the signs of the fire are gone. But his anger still burns.

In late 1995, Fred Harari, the Jewish clothing store owner next door to the Record Shack, refused to renew Shange's sublease. Residents picketed Harari's store, and the dispute turned into a heated racial conflict. One picket set Harari's place on fire. Seven people died, and several nearby store owners, wary of the future, closed.

But two years later, Shange's block is full of optimistic entrepreneurs, with a new Duane Read pharmacy and the first Krispy Kreme doughnut franchise in Harlem. Still, Shange fears the influx of outside merchants. And Harlem USA, he has learned, will have an HMV Records.

"We're being stampeded in the name of big retail and jobs," says Shange, 56. "And what if the megastores eat up the African-American small businesses like mine, but then can't make it in the long term? Harlem could become a ghost town again."

But there is little evidence to back Shange's worries. New retailers are ecstatic. The Body Shop on 125th Street reports brisk business. Harlem's new Foot Locker is one of the chain's national sales leaders.

Even on a Sunday, Van Woods' phone keeps ringing.

"That's the knock on Harlem these days," he says, smiling. "Too many opportunities out there. So much business."

Pub Date: 11/24/97

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