A rebirth of trust in Harlem Entrepreneurship, pragmatism fuel an upscale transformation

November 24, 1997|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK -- The phone in Van Woods' office on Lenox Avenue is scratched from overuse, rung out by the new Harlem renaissance.

Line one is Woods' mother calling from downstairs, where she runs Sylvia's, the legendary soul food restaurant. Line two is Woods' banker at J. P. Morgan, who is bankrolling his effort to turn Sylvia's into a national chain. Line three is a local entrepreneur who needs start-up capital and knows that Van Woods is the prototypical man to see in 1990s Harlem: a businessman with close Republican ties.

"For decades, people here have looked to politicians and government money to keep Harlem alive," says Woods, 52. "But people are now realizing they need to be more pragmatic. Harlem is more and more about the bottom line."

This attitude, combined with record amounts of private investment, has fueled a decidedly upscale transformation of America's most storied black neighborhood. This fall, ground was broken on a $15 million project to build Harlem's first major supermarket. The Harlem USA mall, with a multiplex cinema, Disney Store and Gap, is on the way. Old Harlem institutions, from the Renaissance Ballroom to Minton's Playhouse, are being restored after years of neglect.

And inside thousands of the neighborhood's historic but long-abandoned brownstones, the sounds of falling plaster have been replaced with a new noise: hammers hitting nails. Over the past decade, private developers have rehabilitated nearly 10,000 homes, many of them abandoned, and have added nearly 6,000 housing units. For the first time in 20 years, the majority of Harlem's property is in private hands: New York City, which owned 60 percent of the housing stock in 1987, owns less than 30 percent today.

Ironically, Harlem is beginning to prosper at a time when the neighborhood's Democratic leadership, which includes such names as former Mayor David N. Dinkins, former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, and U.S. Rep. Charles B. Rangel, are out of power. This Old Guard has been replaced by movers-and-shakers who worked in Wall Street banks and law firms before moving to Harlem and taking jobs with churches, development companies or the federal empowerment zone.

The newcomers have lured American corporate giants, from Cineplex Odeon to Radio Shack. As Democrats such as Dinkins and Rangel look on from the sidelines, they have reached out to New York's ascendant Republican politicians, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Gov. George E. Pataki, who have responded with strong support for economic development in Harlem.

"Some people see us a little too educated, a little too credentialed, a little too trained," says Darren Walker, who left a job on Wall Street two years ago to work for a community development group. "But we brought an understanding: If this is to be a sustained renaissance, the overriding interest in rebuilding Harlem must be profit."

Such statements fill some longtime Harlem residents and business owners with fear of gentrification. They worry that the neighborhood could become a sort of theme park dedicated to the black experience.

"I understand the concern," says Woods, putting his phone down, and glancing at a photo of $100 bills on the wall. "My First Million," it reads. "But the fact is, we need to move Harlem in the direction of the mainstream economy. If we can't capitalize on the interest big business is showing in Harlem now, we never will. This is Harlem's last chance."

Buried treasures

Ever since he moved to New York as a teen-ager, Ishmael Jackson had wanted to own a brownstone. In 1979, he bought one that had been abandoned on 121st Street for $20,000, moved in, and fixed it up himself during the day while driving a subway train at night. That same house recently sold for more than $500,000, and Jackson is renovating another brownstone, on 123rd Street.

"Harlem is like this house, a buried, unnoticed treasure," says Jackson, 61, relaxing in his turn-of-the-century parlor, restored with furniture from antiques stores and the garbage dump. "I have all the benefits of gracious living."

Jackson sees himself as a descendant of the hard-working, well-heeled Harlem elite of the 1920s, but with one crucial difference. Few African-Americans have owned their Harlem homes, even during that renaissance. At the turn of the century, Harlem was a neighborhood of second- and third-generation German Jews and Italians, who built brownstones -- too many brownstones. Desperate to recoup their investments, many of them divided the brownstones into apartments, moved out and rented to blacks.

In the 1960s, manufacturing jobs left Manhattan, and gains in civil rights broke down racist housing barriers and permitted Harlem's middle class to move to the suburbs, leaving low-income residents behind. Thirty years later, the trend is reversing itself. Rising housing prices in midtown Manhattan and the suburbs, along with falling crime in Harlem, have persuaded many minority, middle-class professionals to look further uptown.

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