News | West Harlem

125th in flux as citywide interest in Harlem grows

As local tourism and citywide interest in Harlem expands, some longtime residents and business owners fear that the increased attention on the neighborhood could break up current ties in the area.

A 125th Street rezoning plan, approved in 2008, was designed to promote mixed-use development on Harlem’s main thoroughfare, and the Department of City Planning has been working with the NYC Economic Development Corporation to strengthen the corridor’s retail and culture.

Though the recession has halted some of the temporary initial plans, two years after the plan’s approval, residents and experts say that the area is becoming increasingly attractive to those outside of Harlem.

“125th Street has become an international symbol as the sort of African-American ‘Main Street,’” Barnard urban studies professor David Smiley said, adding that Harlem could be a victim of its own success.

“Harlem now exists in a global economy,” he said.

Increased interest in Harlem will undoubtedly cause prices to go up and create new demands, Smiley said.

La Linguere Fashions, located on 8th Avenue between 126th and 127th streets, got its start in Harlem selling T-shirts and accessories, employee Aita Carmichael said. But now, she said, the store’s been turned into a boutique, raising its prices and selling designer inventory to accommodate new trends and clientele.

“If you want to stay, you have to find a way to compete,” Carmichael said.

Philip Bulgar, assistant manager at Manna’s Soul Food and Salad Bar, said he fears that changes in Harlem through new development may soon put an end to the neighborhood he knows.
“We know a lot of our customers by face and name. ... It’s the everyday people who support us,” he said. “The construction workers, the people who work in the projects, the tourist who come here for the day.”

A 110-year-old building on the corner of 125th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, the former home of the Kelly Brothers Saloon, will be demolished by Kimco Realty Corporation to make room for a new retail complex.

Manna’s was also impacted by Kimco’s expansion plans, when it had to move from its longtime location on 125th Street and 8th Avenue six months ago.

Some say the changing landscape of the neighborhood has contributed to an influx of tourism.

“If you destroy the mom-and-pop stores, you lose a part of the community,” Bulgar said. “It may look nicer, but it’s not going to benefit the people that live here.”

Kimco did not respond to requests for comment.

Community Board 9 Chair Larry English said he does not see the dramatic changes that some businesspeople described. He said he views 125th as an exception to the general trends of the area.

“We have not seen a lot of chain stores being opened in CB9 because of the nature of the neighborhood,” he said. “West Harlem is 90 percent residential, and there are just not a lot of places for large commercial development.”

Smiley said that though Harlem has now become a tourist destination, this hasn’t necessarily helped the neighborhood.

“The tour buses would drive in, people would get out and walk around, and then they would leave,” Smiley said. Tourism, he said, did not have the revitalizing effect that many had hoped for.

“There is no doubt that development is always a concern living in any neighborhood in Manhattan,” English said. “The position of CB9 is not that we are anti-development, but we support development that respects the historical integrity of the neighborhood.”

Smiley said that, ultimately, Harlem has faced similar challenges and has been able to weather them in the past.

“Harlem’s identity has grown out of its resolution to carry on,” he said. “It’s always found strength given the odds.”

And some neighborhood merchants are not opposed to the growing outside interest in Harlem and 125th Street.

“When people come to Harlem, they look for different things, places to eat, places to shop,” said Michael Jones, who runs a perfume table on 125th Street. “It might even help me.”


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