A renewed Harlem. But a Renaissance?

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In a fiery speech at the A.M.E Zion Church in Harlem, Frederick Douglass grapples with the country's transition from slavery and with his own transition from illiterate servant to intellectual trailblazer.

Dressed in a black tailored suit, the actor portraying Douglass grips the edge of a pew, looks out at the audience, and says, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress."

Outside the church's walls, change is also in the air. With the help of the arts, Harlem is changing.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

"Harlem is the new Greenwich Village," says Richard Haase, the play's writer and director. "People are rediscovering it. It is what I remember the Village being in the '70s - a little edgy with an element of danger, but exciting, full of life and soul. I wouldn't have produced this play anywhere else."

It is being dubbed a second Harlem Renaissance - a return to the Harlem of the 1920s and '30s, when jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington turned the neighborhood into one of the most exciting, creative centers in the world.

The Great Depression plunged the district into a decline that lasted until the early 1990s, when nearly two-thirds of Harlem's elegant brownstones stood empty.

In the past few years, fueled by a real-estate boom and the $300 million budget of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone (UMEZ), a community-development organization, the arts as well as the neighborhood have been revived. Some 6,000 new jobs, half of which are slated to be in the arts and entertainment industry, are expected by 2005, according to a UMEZ-commissioned study.

Though critics say the optimistic tidings are premature, one thing is for sure: The art world has once again turned its attention to Harlem.

In addition to new businesses lining 125th street, the "main street" of Harlem, there are signs of new life in the neighborhood's traditional venues.

The jazz mecca, Lenox Lounge, now serves soul food to patrons while they soak in old-world tunes. And a rapidly expanding Studio Museum recently lured directors from New York's Whitney and Metropolitan museums.

Ali Evans, the museum's public relations manager, says that at a time when other museums around the US are struggling to stay afloat, the Studio Museum is thriving as never before.

"Major papers and magazines are focusing on the museum," she says, adding that attendance has jumped 40 percent in two years, and fund-raising events have enjoyed record-breaking attendance. "The life of the museum has really grown," she says. "The appreciation level has increased so much."

A freshly renovated Apollo Theater recently hosted a sold-out Royal Shakespeare Company production of "Midnight's Children," and musical giants Annie Lennox and Erykah Badu have chosen the venue for concerts.

"There is something in the air that people are grabbing at," says New York City Councilman Bill Perkins, who represents Harlem. "People are exploring their art and fulfilling that need, that indescribable need, uptown," he says.

Audiences are responding. The Classical Theatre of Harlem's recent production of Jean Genet's play, "The Blacks: A Clown Show," sold out and extended its run.

"Sixty percent of the audience was not from the neighborhood," says Brett Singer, who publicized the production. "There was a Park Avenue couple in their 70s who attended the show. Not only had they never seen a show in Harlem, they'd never been to Harlem before."

For some businesses, however, the development and media attention seem overpowering and ill-founded.

Christian Haye, who has owned The Project art gallery in Harlem for five years, is moving his gallery downtown.

He says many new galleries are flocking to the neighborhood because it is considered hip, only to close soon thereafter.

Though Mr. Haye asserts that serious collectors will go anywhere to find the pieces they want, he says many new galleries do not have great work, and they don't benefit from the foot traffic they would get in neighborhoods such as Chelsea and Soho.

"People say there is a Renaissance, therefore there is a Renaissance," says Haye. "The art world focuses a lot on the new."

Haye says that real estate speculation in the 1990s raised Harlem's rents unrealistically, stacking the deck against up-and-coming galleries and other independent businesses. "I will actually be paying less in Midtown," he says.

Rent complaints are not limited to businesses. Backlash from groups protesting gentrification has intensified in recent years, as more longtime residents are priced out of their homes.

The average household income in Harlem is still roughly half that of Manhattan - $27,365 vs. $47,030 - and its unemployment rate remains about 10 percent higher, according to the 2000 census.

The new hype in the neighborhood also may not translate into ticket sales.

After closing for the first phase of a $50 million renovation, the legendary Apollo Theater staged the much-publicized musical, "Harlem Song," directed by Broadway heavyweight George Wolfe in 2002.

Despite rave reviews, the production lost money and had to resort to raising $300,000 to sustain the show's planned six-month run. Yet local business owners claimed that enthusiastic audiences tripled patronage in nearby restaurants and shops.

Recent Apollo events have fared better - though their runs have been markedly less ambitious.

Still, some see the changes as positive. Tod Roulette, curator of Gallery M, which has been in Harlem since 1992, says that the neighborhood's metamorphosis has enabled him to take the gallery in a more international and contemporary direction.

"More affluent people, black and white, are moving into Harlem," he says. "There are more people looking to buy art."

Mr. Roulette says there is a rich mixture of old and new residents.

"I'm getting great response from local kids and single mothers bringing their boys in to see the art," he says. "The art world is still pretty much white, and it's important for people to see a black face on the other side of this desk and to see the work of black artists on the walls."

Roulette has hosted grade-school classes and has encouraged longtime locals to come into the gallery to discuss the art.

"For our last opening, the former director of the San Francisco MoMA came in on his way to a big dinner with collectors, and the next minute, a group of second- and third-grade kids came in. That, to me, says, 'Mission accomplished.' "

Howard Dodson, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture says that the arts are key to revitalizing Harlem and the neighborhood is a perfect place for new galleries and companies.

"There is a larger vision for this plethora of activity, and it is that Harlem will become more self-sustaining economically," he says. Mr. Dodson, who also was a former chair of the cultural portion of UMEZ, says he speaks with people every week about moving their businesses, galleries, and dance studios to Harlem.

"It is an attractive place for artists and entrepreneurs," he says.

The PCOG Gallery opened in Harlem two years ago, and it hosts a free arts program for local youths. Owner Paula Coleman says she has seen several galleries move in since PCOG opened, and all of them are involved in the community.

"People come here with the idea of including something for Harlem in their program. The ones that don't, leave."

Though Ms. Coleman admits the new businesses do represent gentrification, she says most business owners want to preserve traditions of the historic district. "We're losing some of what was really Harlem, so it's important that we embrace the old Harlem," she says. "We want to keep the legacy of the Renaissance alive."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...