Coming Up Harlem

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

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The new Harlem pays homage to the old, as an owner of Sugar Hill Bistro suggested. The bistro is owned by three young black couples, all recently settled in the neighborhood, who never intended to become restaurateurs. “We just wanted to create a place where you get a high-quality cup of coffee, which was unavailable in the community,” says part-owner Dr. Dineo Khabele, a gynecologic oncologist. “Every landlord we went to said, ‘Why would you want to do that? Nobody up here will pay extra for gourmet coffee.’ ” Jumpstarted by a $300,000 loan from the Empowerment Zone, they bought a thenvacant town house and redid it top to bottom. The bistro has a first-floor bar leading to a rear garden, a second-floor dining room and a third-floor gallery and cultural space. “It reminds me of what I’ve heard about A’Lelia Walker’s upper-floor room where people could gather,” says Khabele, referring to the premier hostess of the first Harlem renaissance, a wealthy patroness of the arts who called her salon the Dark Tower,   after a poem by Countee Cullen.


The rebound has been a long time coming. After the first renaissance was cut down by the Depression, grim decades followed. For many Harlemites, upward mobility meant forsaking the concrete jungle for a house with a lawn in Brooklyn or Queens, or close-in suburbs such as Yonkers and White Plains, where formerly off-limits housing was opening up to black families. “Integration emptied out our middle class,” says Anthony Bowman, owner of the Harlem Gift Shop and Tourism Center. “Harlem had the best name recognition in the world, and all these people moved to St. Albans, Queens.”


After the urban riots of the 1960s, the major avenues were renamed: Lenox Avenue became Malcom X Boulevard, Seventh Avenue became Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard, and Eighth Avenue became Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Still, many Harlemites prefer the original designations. Some people with whom I spoke on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard used the old name, 125th Street. At the area’s nadir in the 1980s, most of central Harlem’s housing was owned by the city in foreclosure for nonpayment of taxes—and by most accounts the city was an indifferent landlord, contributing to the community’s housing problems. A breakdown in the social fabric also occurred, some local observers say. “Drugs, despair, abounding vice, idleness, no strong family life,” is how those days are remembered by the Rev. Calvin Butts, minister of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, a powerhouse in the community’s affairs (and a leading tourist attraction).


Some middle-class African-Americans have stayed in Harlem for the duration, of course. Dabney and Amelia Montgomery, leaders of the Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church on West 137th Street, the oldest black church in the state, bought their town house at 245 West 136st Street in the late 1970s, when a financial crisis made the city’s future look scary. Over brunch at Londel’s, an eight-year-old soul food restaurant on Eighth Avenue, they’re asked if buying back then was a pretty brave thing to do.


“Brave?” says Mrs. Montgomery.


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