The Local: Big Little West Africa

There are few places left in Manhattan where one encounters a genuine language barrier, and fewer still where the ability to speak the Senegalese dialect, Wolof, is an advantage and, in some cases, a necessity.

The block of West 116th Street between Frederick Douglass and Malcom X boulevards, dubbed “little West Africa” by some, is one.

“You speak Wolof or French?,” asked the owner of the Darou Market Salam, when I tried to talk to him. He greeted an incoming customer (who also spoke only Wolof) with “As-Salaamu alaikum,” the Muslim greeting meaning “peace be with you.” A few shops down the street at the Dibiterie Sheikh restaurant, a Senegalese woman and resident of Harlem grated carrots in the kitchen as she supervised two new young, male employees who arrived from Burkina Faso nine months ago.

She struggled to explain that the neighborhood’s character and the restaurant’s clientele remained relatively unchanged since she arrived three years ago, namely West African immigrants, though people outside the community have recently started to catch on.

Straddling two neighborhoods and multiple West African cultures, the wide block—which marks the official border between Morningside Heights and Harlem—emerged in the 1980’s as the commercial center for immigrants from the Ivory Coast, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, and other Francophone and Muslim countries in Africa.


On Wednesday and Thursday mornings this week, most of the shops on 116th Street remained shuttered until noon. Outside the Masjdid al-Aqsa (Holiest Mosque) on Frederick Douglass, a Nigerian vendor selling clothing and prayer rugs embroidered with images of Mecca read the Koran. The Posh Pet shop is across the street from the mosque; and two blocks up on 118th Street, the 15-story SoHa (the quasi-hip name for Southern Harlem coined by, among others, lux-condo developers) building towers above its neighbors.

While evidence of Harlem’s gentrification radiates down the surrounding blocks, 116th Street between Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X is lined with at least five West African restaurants and multiple hair salons and markets pre-fixed with the word Touba, the city in central Senegal that is birthplace to the country’s founder. The block is still predominately African-owned, said Oumar Diallo, the manager of the Soukhna restaurant.

Ms. Diallo immigrated to New York from Mauritania in 1997, and has run Soukhna since it opened in 2001.

“Before, Harlem was a neighborhood with a lot of crime; this whole block was filled with drug dealers,” he recalled as he prepared the restaurant for the flood of spectators he was expecting for the 12 p.m. African Cup match. “Thank God Giuliani cleaned things up down here. Since 116th got safe, business has gotten better and better. 2006 and most of 2007 were the best, but things have slowed down for the past few months, like everywhere else.”

The downside is that property and products have gotten more expensive in the past few years, Mr. Diallo admitted, though he does not think the terms of the restaurant’s lease will change much when it comes up for renewal at the end of this year.

Figures released by brokerages over the past few years would suggest otherwise. The average price per square foot for central and East Harlem condominiums rose 39.5 percent between 2005 and 2006, the biggest increase for a neighborhood in Manhattan, according to Radar Logic’s 2006 market report.

Meanwhile, about 4,300 market rate housing units have been built since 2000—out of 4,550 total since 1990—and approximately 1,600 units have been proposed for construction in 2007, according to an August article in The New York Sun. The new residential developments, for the most part, have a quota of affordable or middle-income housing units—SoHa-118 will sell 39 apartments in the $200,000 range.

Another recent entrant, the $120 million, 12-story, “green” development, “Kalahari condos,” made the misguided attempt to appeal to the ethnic composition of the neighborhood, with African art in the lobby, bamboo-floored apartments, and a building façade adorned with a Ndebele, a tribal design. Since the Ndebele reside in southern Africa, the design scheme probably appeals to West African residents of Harlem about as much as the Caucasian, middle-aged couple pictured on the Kalahari condo’s Web site.

Abdou Deme, a 37-year-old taxi driver from Senegal, said he can still afford to live in Harlem with a roommate and send money home to his family, but many other West Africans have been moving to the Bronx because it is impossible to save enough in Manhattan.

Mr. Deme comes to the Soukhna restaurant everyday before his shift starts in the evening, but he arrived early on Thursday to watch the match between Guinea and Ghana. Tunisia had played Senegal a day earlier.

Since he arrived in New York in 1996 on a tourist visa to try out for American soccer teams, he has not been home to see his family. The “close-knit” community of immigrants—more than half of whom are illegal, estimates Mr. Deme—from Francophone Africa on 116th Street offers some succor, but “11 years is too long not to see your family.”

Mr. Deme’s green card application was rejected once, and he has stopped trying since an agent at the immigration hotline told him over the phone that the only way for his status to be legalized was to marry a U.S. citizen.

“I’m not complaining, I just miss my family so much right now; I talk to them on Skype sometimes and I can see their faces, but it’s just not enough,” he said, mid-way through recounting the tortuous story of his life in America. It involves a three-year stint working at the Gap in Ohio with a fake green card and Mr. Deme testifying in New York City court against the man who sold him the forged documents.

“I don’t even know why I’m telling you this. It’s just that the way politicians talk about immigrants now, like we’re not human beings,” he trailed off as two friends approached, greeting him with a fist pound and “As-Salaamu alaikum.”

“As immigrants we don’t ask for much,” Mr. Deme said. “We don’t drink, we don’t steal. All we want to do is work so we can send money home to our families, because there are no jobs with companies in Africa. If you’re family is not in the government, there is no work. Do you think it’s right for someone who has lived here for 11 years and has tried to make money and live the American dream to be rejected for citizenship?”

The Local: Big Little West Africa