Harlems renaissance: how art, food and history are shaping its latest evolution

The Harlem EatUp! food festival starts on 14 May just one opportunity residents and enthusiastic newcomers have to celebrate and develop the culture of this historic New York district

It was after midnight on a Wednesday and Paris Blues, Harlems oldest surviving jazz bar, was standing-room only. The dive has remained, stubbornly, much the way it has since it opened in 1969. Theres neither a cover charge nor fancy cocktails and patrons can help themselves to barbecued chicken and other comfort food for free. In the corner, Samuel Hargress Jr, the 81-year-old owner who lives on the premises, was holding court in a fedora and tweed jacket.

Exterior
Paris Blues jazz bar. Photograph: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

Im old-old-school. Things are real different now to when I came along, he said. Since purchasing the bar for $35,000, Hargress has been a central figure in one of New Yorks most historic and rapidly changing neighbourhoods. Though his establishment maintains a local following, these days its famous enough to attract international visitors. Youve got people from all over. Everybody heres partying and dancing. They dont know each other but it dont matter.

Harlems history has long been marked by waves of new arrivals and change. Over the years, it has been home to everyone from George and Ira Gershwin to Duke Ellington. Before it became a haven for African-American intellectuals, poets and musicians during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 30s it was a stronghold of Jewish luminaries, many of whom were displaced by rapid development on the Lower East Side. After a period of decline in the 1970s and 80s, the neighbourhood is once again a hotbed of cultural activity.

Its an evolving community. Ive been here since 1980 and it didnt just change overnight, says John Reddick. A Harlem historian and preservationist, Reddick leads neighbourhood walking tours.

A lot of tourists have all this baggage and it takes a certain willingness to get beyond that. They think Im just showing them the nicer side of Harlem, even though these buildings have been here for more than 100 years. I get this all the time: Where in Harlem should you not go? Theres nowhere in Harlem I would not go.

Marcus
Marcus Garvey park. Photograph: Alamy

Reddick urges visitors and newcomers to make a more meaningful connection with the existing community, whether by visiting a local church or enjoying the free art and live performances at Marcus Garvey park, St Nicholas park and Jackie Robinson recreation centre. Above all, he hopes that everyone who comes gains an appreciation for the neighbourhoods near-mythic quality and what that has meant for different generations.

Look out of your window and its like this Fred Astaire-and-Ginger-Rogers view, he says. Theres this exhilaration of being in Harlem; this sense that youre part of this great metropolis. I feel it now, so you can imagine what it must have been like in the 1920s or 30s for somebody such as the poet Langston Hughes.

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The Apollo Theater on West 125th Street. Photograph: Alamy

While there is much that Hughes would still recognise, it is impossible to ignore some of the changes. As with almost any neighbourhood in Manhattan, particularly one marked by handsome, turn-of-the-century brownstones and broad boulevards, Harlems property values have skyrocketed, causing residents to question what the future holds. A recent attempt by developers to rebrand the desirable area between 110th Street and 125th Street as SoHa resulted in a backlash by activists. Yet despite the Whole Foods on 125th Street and the queasy spectacle of a townhouse going for more than $4m, Harlem and its cultural institutions have managed to hold on to a distinct identity.

Harlem, throughout all the waves of gentrification and forced migration, has maintained a sense of itself, says Nico Wheadon, director of public programmes and community engagement at the Studio Museum on 125th Street, which showcases work by African-American artists. Thats because in its essence, it is an artistic, creative place. There is a history of struggle and protest to maintain that. As with the National Black Theatre, another important Harlem institution, the Studio Museum turns 50 this year.

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Hot Bread Kitchen in La Marqueta, East Harlem. Photograph: Alamy

Some of the efforts to maintain a sense of community have been quieter endeavours such as The Laundromat Project, which provides support for local artists and hosts programmes in laundromats and other public spaces. Another small startup is Hot Bread Kitchen, a non-profit project based in La Marqueta in East Harlem that provides female immigrants facing economic insecurity with a living wage, job training, and support.

Meanwhile, the Studio Museum is in the process of redefining itself, moving beyond the walls and connecting with the broader public through art installations in parks and libraries, creative workshops talks, and even dance parties, such as its popular summer series, Uptown Fridays! Though the museum has shut its doors (there are plans to demolish the existing property and rebuild on the same site) it remains an active part of the community, including as its links with El Museo del Barrio, a Spanish Harlem art showcase.

Patrons
Vinatera, on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Photograph: Alamy

As with many Harlem residents, Wheadon finds the neighbourhood fulfils most of her social and entertainment needs. For an evening out, she heads to Vinatera, a stylish Mediterranean spot or 67 Orange Street for cocktails. Shes equally in love with the classics, from the amateur nights at the Apollo Theater to live music at Showmans Jazz Club (375 West 125th Street), which she says feels like the Harlem that I imagined before I moved here. Its a time warp.

Change has, in part, been driven by Harlems thriving culinary scene. At its forefront is Marcus Samuelsson, the celebrity chef behind the Red Rooster restaurant, its subterranean sister venue, Ginnys Supper Club and the Streetbird Rotisserie. Born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, Samuelsson spent eight years learning about the neighbourhood prior to opening Red Rooster, attending church events, eating at places such as Silvias a soul-food staple opened in 1962 and listening to residents.

When you think about the Studio Museum or the National Black Theatre, youre thinking about this incredible depth of art, of music. We want this to be a destination for food as well, Samuelsson says. For me it was about working where you live and creating jobs to restore your community.

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The Rakiem Walker Project perform at Ginnys Supper Club during Harlem EatUp!s third annual festival. Photograph: Rob Kim/Getty Images

Samuelssons talk of community is more than lip-service. He works closely with the Careers through Culinary Arts Program, a programme that helps disadvantaged teens enter the restaurant industry and is an integral part of Harlem EatUp!, an annual food festival that highlights both established chefs and small-time food entrepreneurs. Samuelsson respects the older establishments, though he does not view the broader range of options as inherently negative.

You have ramen restaurants now, you have mixologist bars, you have craft coffee and I think thats great. A community should be able to have both. You want it to be a place where people who live there dont have to leave to go to a great place, he says.

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Chef Marcus Samuelssons Red Rooster restaurant on Lenox Avenue. Photograph: Alamy

Likewise, Wheadon feels optimistic that the neighbourhood will continue to hold onto that in the future.

Someone asked me the other day: What is blackness to you? I said: Its celebration. I cant walk to or from work without being swept up in somebodys something, she says. Theres something beautiful about that and I think that Harlem will always have an element of that.

At Paris Blues the scene was certainly one of celebration. As the night wore on, musicians from nearby bars stopped by to jam with the band. Although Hargress is constantly approached with offers from developers, he has no intention of retiring or selling the joint.

I have fun with them. One guy offered me $6m, he said, adding with unrestrained glee, So I told him, you come up with $10m, then maybe you can call me back.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Marissa SafontHarlems renaissance: how art, food and history are shaping its latest evolution

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