Gentrification has taken hold in every corner of the city over the past decade or two, but few places have felt it as acutely as Harlem. Demographics, tastes and prices are all shifting and skewing, for better and worse, often all at once. Last week at Harlem’s Studio Museum, a confab of the neighborhood’s business owners and power brokers came together to try and figure out what comes next for their community.
Hosted by the Harlem Park to Park Initiative, a self-styled community improvement association and business alliance, the conference brought together city officials, real estate developers and noted executives from the dining, hospitality and entertainment worlds. Among them were the CEO of the country’s largest African-American real estate development company, R. Donahue Peebles, and Tren’ness Woods Black, the third-generation owner of Sylvia’s Restaurant.
They had come together to imagine, and to strategize, a future for Harlem as the city’s new chic location. It’s a tantalizing identity, one that has often been talked about but never quite achieved, for the historic neighborhood.
The conference, by chance, was held in some of the same rooms currently housing the “Expanding the Walls” exhibition, a collection of new photographs by Harlem-area teenagers mixed with historic shots from the James VanDerZee archive like Dinner Party w/ Boxer Harry Willis. The photos were a startling reminder of the area’s cultural bonds both past and present—bonds that many of the speakers, for various reasons, hoped would endure.
“Harlem has a niche appeal. It’s the center of culture,” said Ilya Braz, vice president of GFI Capital Resources, the group behind the boutique Ace and Nomad hotels (both downtown). “If you just focus on music like jazz and blues, and art and all the things surrounding that. If you create that in a hotel, you create a certain vibe. That’s what attracts people to a neighborhood. They’ll hear from their friends, ‘Hey I was at this spot the other day, and it was really fun. The ambiance was there. It was happening.’ That’s what will drive the demand. Especially among the young people.”
Whenever the renaissance of a neighborhood is discussed, there seem to be unavoidable comparisons to the transformations of Williamsburg and the Lower East Side, transformations that changed those communities from tight-knit residential districts into vibrant nightlife destinations. Each has its own advantages, though balancing them can be a serious challenge. It’s a comparison that carries with it a certain amount of hope and envy, as well as warning.
Tren’ness Woods Black of Sylvia’s wondered if growing nightlife in the area was not in conflict, or at odds, with the resurgence of residential development in Harlem.
“It’s not a conflict, but it’s a challenge,” responded Robert Bookman, senior partner at the Pesetsky and Bookman law firm and a registered NYC lobbyist. “It’s a challenge that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. When done properly, hospitality will add vibrancy and will drastically increase value to an area, including real-estate value.” He then went on to reference Soho as an example of just this kind of resurgence, an area where the rise in real estate value has been undeniable, though, some would argue, so too has the accompanying decline in cultural and artistic identity over the last 30 years.
R. Donahue Peebles closed out the event with a well-versed keynote about the trials and tribulations of his many years in real estate markets like Miami, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C. It was a speech that also marked New York and Harlem as the next big opportunity in commercial development, noting, “My business is real estate, and I believe that Harlem is now poised to provide a platform for a new generation of black and female entrepreneurs. I’m convinced that there’s a great opportunity to build transformational projects here.”
The Observer asked Mr. Peebles about Harlem’s ability to avoid the pitfalls experienced by other transformed neighborhoods in the city as it moved into its own now-promised renaissance. “I think you have long-term property owners and long-term business owners here, and it’s got a cultural history,” he said. “You look at areas like Tribeca and Soho, they didn’t have the same kind of deep cultural story.” It’s a history that he hopes he and others can support and do justice, adding, “That’s one of the reasons why I was speaking here today. To try and encourage and excite entrepreneurs as to what can happen here. I think people coming to Harlem are definitely coming for a different vibe.”