The Local: The Apollo as Crystal Ball

Ronald McDonald walked onto the stage of the Apollo Theater on Wednesday night to introduce the first two performers during the venue’s weekly Amateur Night.

The handful of young children in the audience were delighted, but others seemed confused by the appearance of such an incongruous corporate mascot on the hallowed Harlem stage.

A man from Birmingham, Ala., visiting the city with a dozen or so of his college friends, burst into laughter at the sight of the costumed, powder-faced man. “Ya’ll, is that Michael Jackson?”

It could have been the perennially embattled King of Pop in the Apollo’s heyday, when the theater was a recruitment ground for record labels and Amateur Night was the make-or-break moment in an aspiring African-American musician’s career. Michael Jackson was discovered at the Apollo in 1964 when he was nine; Ella Fitzgerald won the $25 prize in 1934 when she was 17; and Stevie Wonder, Lauren Hill, and Luther Vandross are just a few of the other artists who kick-started their careers at Amateur Night.

The event was relaunched in 1984, when the Apollo opened after going dark for a decade. Advertisements for Amateur Night still claim the theater is “where stars are made," but if this is true today they are more likely to be of the American Idol/Star Search variety.

Nonetheless, the Apollo has morphed into a great tourist attraction. During the warm-up act, audience members are plucked from their seats to compete in an impromptu dance competition—on this occasion the winner was a septuagenarian, silver-haired man, dressed in LL Bean who thrashed and jumped with abandon and not a shred of vanity. Couples were brought up on-stage and awkwardly forced to profess their mutual love; a five-year-old boy was grilled, eliciting a chorus of coos from the audience.

These days the Apollo is a boisterous, yet tame family affair; a caricature of its former self, if even a shred of truth can be gleaned from the nostalgic lore.

Some would say the Apollo has sold out. Others might say it has adapted. Whatever its current incarnation, the landmarked building (one of only four in Harlem) has re-emerged as a popular, if not profitable, destination as neighboring businesses and fellow emblems of Harlem’s golden age fold at an ever increasing rate.

In 1991, the Economic Development Corporation bought the venue and established the Apollo Foundation to manage it. Since 2001, its annual budget has tripled to about $10 million; its yearly audience has grown from 115,000 to 400,000; and it has diversified its programming to include ballet, symphonies, and plays.

But it is no longer a venue geared to up-and-coming black artists that caters to the community. Shifting music trends are as responsible for this as the management. With only 1,520 seats and a union contract, the Apollo is not a lucrative venue for promoters, according to head tour guide, “ambassador," and former gopher to the stars, Billy Mitchell, who has worked at the Apollo in various capacities for the past 45 years.

Few new African-American performers are moved by nostalgia to take a pay-cut and perform there, he said.

“Most of the old ones who made it big here are not doing well financially, and there has to be a market for them to come back," Mr. Mitchell said. "Hip hop is making these other music forms look like they never happened, and when we have hip hop shows they sell out like that." He snapped his fingers. Jay Z recently headlined one such show.

“A lot of acts that would never have come before are coming because the Apollo looks good on your resume,” he said of the recent roster of concerts from the likes of Annie Lennox, Tom Jones, The Strokes, The Gorillaz, Korn, Morissey.

As it exists today, the Apollo stands as an emblem of Harlem’s glory days and a model of the neighborhood’s future development as envisioned by the city.

On Monday, the City Planning Commission approved the rezoning of 125th street, Harlem’s main commercial artery, bringing the Apollo model of development/gentrification one step closer to reality. Though the rezoning plan must still be approved by the City Council, it would pave the way for the worst fears of some Harlem residents and the most lofty aspirations of New York City developers to be realized: a construction boom that changes 125th Street from a strip of predominantly black-run stores into a towering, densely-packed quasi-mall that’s a prime residential and retail destination with much higher property values.

“The community said they wanted buildings to be limited to the 13-story height of the Hotel Theresa and asked for more affordable housing,” said Michael Henry Adams, a Harlem resident and historian, outside the Planning Department headquarters following Monday’s ruling.

“Instead, we got what Amanda Burden and the Mayor want: a rich, white community where they are going to give bonuses to black cultural institutions. So what does that mean? That black people will be able to entertain the rich, white people who live in Harlem; and Harlem will become a museum of what used to be, a museum of the black experience that no longer exists.”

After a public review process that included over 170 meetings between officials and residents, the Planning Commission modified the rezoning in response to the prevailing concerns within the community. The proposal restricted residential lobbies on 125th Street for buildings that are accessible on avenues or on 126th and 124th streets, to limit residential development.

Provisions for more affordable housing targeted to residents earning less than 40 percent of the median income were added, and the Arts Bonus giving tax breaks to cultural institutions on 125th was extended to low-grade performance and rehearsal space.

The CEO of the Apollo Foundation, Jonelle Procope, called the rezoning “one of the most important and impactful city planning efforts to affect New York City in recent memory.”

“Commissioner Burden and all of our elected officials and peer cultural institutions should be commended for making this process an inclusive discussion that represents the great diversity of our community," Ms. Procope said in a statement. "I am heartened to know that this planning is focused on the cultural enhancement of our community, as well as on economic redevelopment."

But even those who stand to benefit from the rezoning, such as the CEO of one of Harlem’s biggest African-American development firms, Giscombe Henderson Inc., Eugene Giscombe, said the rezoning falls short despite modifications.

Mr. Giscombe is in favor of commercial development on 125th Street, but believes residential building would hinder the growth of the retail sector.
“Whether the lobby is on 124th Street or 126th Street, it’s still residential development," he said. "It’s not that large of an area so I don’t see how the two can mix.

“We don’t want an 86th Street or a 125th Street. Everyone is always asking me ‘why can’t you have residential buildings with stores on the ground floor?’ Because the space won’t accommodate the type of large shopping complexes we want.”

Even without the rezoning, in a decade Harlem will surely look nothing like it does today, just as the neighborhood today looks remarkably different than it did a decade ago.

The Apollo is flanked by a lot that used to be occupied by a restaurant and penny arcade, explained Mr. Mitchell. The lot has been vacant for years, he said, but it will soon be home to an office building that the Apollo foundation plans to lease space in. Until then, its owners are earning $25,000 from billboard advertisements on the property.

On the Apollo’s other side is the defunct Victoria Theater, which was briefly reincarnated as a five-screen multiplex for two years in 1987; it was meant to be integrated into a planned performance art school in an Apollo expansion scheme the city aborted in 2002. It was finally auctioned off in 2005 to Danforth Developers for the construction of a condo-hotel complex with performance space.

Despite all the public and private sector projects conceived to revive the Victoria, the only discernable change since to the 1917 landmark is the message on the marquis that now reads “Welcome to Harlem USA.” Two stores down is a crowded branch of Off Track Betting, soon to be another casualty of the current administration.

For an even bleaker narrative of the demise of local businesses, one can look across the street to Frederick Douglass Boulevard between 125th and 126th. Half of the storefronts are boarded up and the remaining fish store, rotisserie, and MaMa’s soul food—part of a four-restaurant chain in Harlem—will follow when their leases expire.

Each closed store is a loss to the neighborhood, but Mr. Mitchell says “Bobby’s is the saddest of all."

Owned by the 91-year-old Harlem fixture Bobby Robinson, who blared music from outdoor speakers, Bobby’s Happy House was a community and industry fixture—James Brown reportedly visited before each one of his Apollo performances.

“The only thing I object to and dislike is that… it’s like the developers don’t seem to care that they’re displacing people who have lived and worked here for generations,” Mr. Mitchell said of the rezoning, but emphasized that he is not speaking on behalf of the Apollo Foundation.

“You wonder whether the soul that has made Harlem famous is going to be lost. Time will tell, but if you’re putting up condo skyscrapers where Bobby’s Happy House Records had been for 61 years, then it’s going to be lost.”

The weekend before Bobby’s closed on Jan. 23, the community protested outside the store, but it was too late.

Sikhulu Shange, the 65-year-old South African-born owner of another neighborhood mainstay the Record Shack, is also facing eviction on March 31, following a February court ruling in favor of his landlord and neighbor, the United House of Prayer for all People.

Mr. Shange says he “has been the target of removal before” over the course of his 35 years operating the Record Shack, but the community has come to his defense each time. In 1995, when Mr. Shange’s previous landlord tried to evict him, a riot broke out and the landlord’s store was burnt to the ground. He has already amassed more than 20,000 signatures to petition to remain in his store.

For Mr. Shange, the rezoning is an issue of social justice, but one with decidedly racial undertones.

Any improvement in Harlem must be driven by residents or the population will be decimated, he argued from the back of his store.

“This gentrification will dislocate so many elderly, crippled, and low-income people," Mr. Shange said. "It’s unfair that so many people will lose their homes under the name of development and improvement.

“When Harlem was in the dumps, we didn’t cut and run. We kept our culture alive and now Harlem is the focal point for all black culture…if you go back to any hamlet in Africa and tell people you haven’t seen Harlem, they will tell you to go back because you haven’t seen America.”

Even Mr. Giscombe, the developer, admits that there are no provisions in the plan to mitigate the displacement of local residents and businesses.

He is encouraging his smaller tenants to relocate to avenues intersecting 125th Street—a prospect Mr. Shange claims is too costly for most businesses whose “rents quadruple when they attempt to move.”

Property values on 125th Street have increased 50 percent over the past seven or eight years to an average of $1,600 per square foot, Mr. Giscombe estimates, and “no one is signing long-term leases with anyone other than major corporations in a market that is constantly changing.”

Though there is “talk about setting up a micro-loan program” to offset rising rents, Mr. Giscombe said, “It’s change and, unfortunately, some people suffer from this.”

Mr. Shange, a member of the Coalition to Save Harlem, said his group is trying to get inside City Hall to lobby for a moratorium on commercial rent increases in the neighborhood.

But, personally, he seems to advocate more radical approaches. He believes residents must band together and boycott the chain stores that have “mushroomed” on 125th Street in order to stop the rezoning in its tracks.

“The only way this can be changed is an outreach. Masses of people saying ‘If we cannot eat here, no one can eat here. If we cannot sleep here, no one can sleep here.’” The Local: The Apollo as Crystal Ball