Coming Up Harlem

A revival of the fabled New York community inspires pride and controversy

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One of Clinton’s education programs, Operation Hope, teaches economic literacy in several Harlem public schools. Another program works with VH1, the cable TV music channel, to donate musical instruments and provide music instruction to public elementary and middle schools in Harlem. “By 2004, no kid in any Harlem school will have to do without a musical instrument,” he said. As the motorcade rushed by numerous storefront churches, he added: “If you look at the history of Harlem, it’s the history of its churches and its music.”


Perhaps the most visible evidence of a revitalized Harlem is the new commerce on Clinton’s street. In 2000, an enormous Pathmark supermarket opened on 125th Street. Last year, with a boost from Empowerment Zone funds, Harlem USA, a 275,000-squarefoot shopping center between 124th and 125th Streets put a sleek face on the street, housing Old Navy, a Disney store, HMV music, Modell’s Sports, and a Magic multiscreen theater, one of several Harlem investments by basketball great “Magic” Johnson.


Those brand-name stores could be in any suburban mall—and that’s the point. For too long, national retailers stayed out of Harlem. Especially galling to Harlemites has been the absence of a chain bookstore. So the most eagerly awaited opening at Harlem USA was that in August of Hue-Man Bookstore, which bills itself as the nation’s largest black-oriented book emporium. Proprietor Clara Villarosa, former owner of a Denver bookstore, got a $425,000 Empowerment Zone loan.


Other parts of Harlem, though less crowded than bustling 125th Street, are also in the midst of a business boom. The same chain drugstores that overpopulate downtown are now in Harlem after years of conspicuous absence. Boutiques are popping up too. On Fifth Avenue just above 125th Street, a former private residence now called the Brownstone houses several stylish shops on three floors, including a jewelry store owned by a former buyer for Tiffany & Co., and a tearoom, where late-afternoon patrons may indulge in cucumber, watercress and curried-chicken sandwiches while drinking traditional and herbal teas.


Half a dozen new eateries have taken hold, from the upscale and raffish Jimmy’s Uptown, at 2207 Seventh Avenue, to the sedate Sugar Hill Bistro, situated in a 19th-century town house on West 145 Street. Sugar Hill is a nickname for a part of northwest Harlem in which wealthy blacks began to settle in the 1920s, who in the parlance had lots of “sugar,” or cash. On Mother’s Day, the bistro’s ground-floor lounge was filled with people as a singer belted out the words to “This Little Light of Mine.” The microphone was passed from table to table so diners could deliver the refrain: “Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.” The easygoing warmth evident here, Harlemites will tell you, is a community trait. Indeed, it’s as easy to strike up a conversation with a stranger in Harlem as it is difficult in midtown.


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