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Does a Food Festival in Harlem Help—or Hurt—the Neighborhood?

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On May 15th, the Harlem EatUp Festival returns for its third run. The festival is a bonanza of food tastings, cooking demos, celebrity chef meet-and-greets, and entertainment held in Harlem’s Morningside Park and several of the area’s restaurants. Managed by famed chef Marcus Samuelsson and event marketer Herb Karlitz, the festival’s main goal is to shine a light on the area’s burgeoning culinary scene.

A scene that, frankly, few people saw coming.

For years, options in the area ran the usual gamut: fast food spots, grimy Chinese take-out, and ubiquitous soul food palaces loved for their entrepreneurship, but lacking in innovation. Finding anything else took some investigating.

Memories of brunch...Bird, Gravy and Waffle, and the best band in the background. Photo by @chrisowyoung

A post shared by Red Rooster (@roosterharlem) on

“When I learned about all the great food here, it wasn’t a four-wall experience,” says Samuelsson, who opened Lenox Avenue’s Red Rooster in 2010 and 8th Avenue’s Streetbird in 2015. “It wasn’t even food trucks. It was the Jamaican guy doing jerk in the park; it was Mike the crab guy. Very often you have to look at our communities through a different prism—[the Harlem EatUp] isn’t South Beach Food and Wine or Aspen. This is an experience that’s really in and of Harlem.”

Though an African-American stronghold before World War I, Harlem only achieved brand name recognition after the 369th Army Infantry Regiment were sent into action. Hailed for their skills and bravery, the all-black regiment came to be known as the Harlem Hellfighters, and were awarded the highly prestigious Croix de Guerre Medal by the French government. When they returned to the States in 1919, they were exalted as proof of black people’s potential for greatness.

With this bright focus, Harlem became a destination spot: Black America’s shining city on the hill. The Great Migration was in its beginning stages and African-Americans from all parts of the country began to flock to the area. Almost all of them came to escape the intimate savagery brand of racism rampant in the Southern states. The North had its issues, no doubt, but in Harlem people could stretch their wings a bit and move the individual fingers of their humanity. Or as legendary actor and activist Ossie Davis once put it, “Harlem was home...was where we belonged. Where we knew and were known in return, where we felt most alive. Where, if need be, somebody had to take us in. Harlem defined us, claiming our consciousness and, I suspect, our unconsciousness.”

When people migrated to Harlem, they brought with them the Southern cuisine staples popular in antebellum kitchens—pigs' feet, fried chicken, hog maw, collard greens, black-eyed peas, sweet potato pie, cornbread, chitterlings, etc. People in Harlem sustained themselves for generations on these dishes.

During the latter decades of the 20th century, Harlem’s name retained its brand equity, but in many ways, the area had cratered. Besieged by urban decay, it became synonymous with the ills of modern society. This is the Boogie-Man Harlem popularized in pop culture and political conversations.

Photo by Flickr/Ioan Sameli

Though there always remained a core of stable families in Harlem, overall, the area succumbed to the issues ravaging many black neighborhoods across the nation. Beset by poverty, substandard schools, and high unemployment, the romanticized version of Harlem gave way to a grimmer image. Played out nationally in coded terms like “inner city violence” and “crack babies,” the area became a cautionary tale. This wasn’t just a media invention either. Things got so bad in the late 80's that only 40% percent of black men in Harlem were living long enough to reach age 65.

In recent years, an influx of money and a professional class looking to live in Manhattan have transformed the neighborhood. Refurbished brownstones, swanky apartment buildings, and an onslaught of new restaurants have signaled a return to prominence. “The restaurant scene twenty years ago in Harlem consisted of M&G’s, Sylvia’s, Wilson’s and Copeland’s,” says Harlem native Melba Wilson, who opened her eponymous restaurant on 114th Street and 8th Avenue in 2004, to rave reviews for its smart take on comfort food. “That was the extent. Harlem had great places, but I wanted a little more.”

The success of Melba’s—“I was told that nobody would come to Harlem because they were afraid of getting killed,” she scoffs—became a beacon for other fine-dining establishments like Blujeen, Vinateria, Minton’s, and Maison Harlem. Not to mention chefs like Lance Knowing, Joseph Johnson, and Jessica Spaulding, all of whom work in restaurants (or in Spaulding’s case, an absurdly delicious chocolate company) that have opened in Harlem after 2010. Almost all of these restaurants include some vestiges of southern staples on their menus. Their menus also offer items such as Branzino Carpaccio with Sea Urchin, Short Rib Toast, and Smoked Salmon with Chickpea Scallions. These chefs are skilled and their menus reflect their talent and ambition. The Harlem EatUp Festival is their Super Bowl, and the aforementioned dishes are but a smattering of what’s available.

So yes, the festival is opening up a new world in Harlem. Question is, for whom exactly?

Despite their role in Harlem’s food renaissance, Samuelsson and Karlitz are essentially outsiders—an inherent dilemma in a neighborhood knee-deep in gentrification concerns.

A food festival had been a talking point between Samuelsson and Karlitz for years, but only recently seemed viable. They brought Wilson into the fold, but knew they needed to include as many true Harlemites as possible. “We worked on it for a year and a half before it started," says Samuelsson. "I wanted to make it good enough for Harlem. Very often people want to lower expectations in our communities, and I don’t want to do that."

Noodles from Streetbird at the Harlem EatUp! Festival
Noodles from Streetbird at the Harlem EatUp! Festival Photo by Courtesy Harlem EatUp!

Gentrification obviously isn’t unique to Harlem, but it stings more due to the area’s famed past. According to a study by NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, between 2000 and 2014, the percentage of Central Harlem adults with a college education jumped from 14.8 to 34.3 percent. West Harlem, which encompasses the neighborhood of Hamilton Heights and Manhattanville, has also seen changes in recent years. According to data compiled by the NYC Comptroller’s Office, from 2000 to 2015, the number of white residents in the area jumped from 26,272 to 40,797.

This is on the heels of Columbia University’s expansive creep up Harlem’s far West side, an upcoming 26-story mixed-use hotel and apartment complex steps from the Apollo Theater, and of course, the opening this summer of a Whole Foods on 125th Street. This is a part of the city where the median income is still roughly $40,000, and if you’re a local, it’s easy to connect the dots. Sure, these new restaurants are nice, but can everyone afford to sit at the table?

The erasure concerns are absolutely legitimate, but gentrification is a dynamic that goes beyond an influx of white post-grads in Supreme hats: Plenty of these newcomers are black professionals who move to Harlem for the culture and relative affordability. These relationships, because they are couched in intraracial class issues that are less obvious, sneak under the radar. But make no mistake, black professionals are the ones ordering $28 entrees at these restaurants, having $40 brunches on Sunday mornings, and they’re the ones who will arrive en masse to the Harlem EatUp Festival.

The festival itself hasn’t yet caught any flak, but Karlitz, who grew up in Brooklyn and became a lover of Harlem via his father’s appreciation for the neighborhood, knew they couldn’t set up shop without bringing in people from Harlem’s old guard. So he and Samuelsson started by creating a steering committee that included Harlem nightlife fixture and Sirius XM radio host Bevy Smith; Charles Gabriel, the owner of neighborhood eatery Charles Pan Fried Chicken; and Jonelle Procope, president and CEO of the Apollo Theatre.

Photo by Courtesy Harlem EatUp! Festival

“There’s sensitivity in making sure everything is seen with respect,” explains Karlitz, a longtime marketing executive who once managed Frank Sinatra. “At events, we’d bring up the Woods’ family, the Melba’s, the people who made Harlem, and we’d say to Bobby Flay or Daniel Boulud—okay, they’re the stars and you’re helping them.”

The festival naturally draws a lot of the newcomer crowd, and so this year there's a concerted effort to try and be as inclusive as possible and clear away perceptions that the festival is aimed at a certain demographic only. There are several events where chefs will engage with people on topics such as cooking techniques, nutrition, and mentorship. This is a good thing because, in these discussions of gentrification, real estate developers aren’t trustworthy. There is a lot of rock-throwing and hand-hiding in their practices. Trying to change neighborhood names (SoHa? Really?) and bragging that “125th Street is going to look like 34th Street” renders anything they say as null and void. Politicians make too many promises and religious leaders are sometimes in the pocket of those same politicians.

Chefs and restaurant owners, however, can speak to some of the issues impacting the community—affordable rent, for one. They have as much reason as any resident to push back against rising commercial and residential real estate prices. Moreover, food industry professionals, even celebrities like Samuelsson, are easily accessible to local residents, because they work and spend time in the neighborhood. If food professionals and local residents work together, they might just be able to save Harlem from developers seeking to exploit its culture for purely capital gains.

Who Buys $81.50 Collard Greens from Neiman Marcus?
Who Buys $81.50 Collard Greens from Neiman Marcus?

“When I hear gentrification I think displacement,” explains Angela Knox, a sales manager at a beauty care multinational who left Chicago for Harlem in 2006. “I grew up in a very white neighborhood in Michigan. So I was excited about living in an African-American community. I came here because there’s something beautiful about Harlem.”

Knox admits to frequenting some of the new restaurants, but also sees the changes as a threat to the community at large.

“Could Harlem change? Yes, people are the fabric. There are new apartments on 148th Street named after James Baldwin and $935,000 is the entry point, and I’m like, here you have these condos named after this Black playwright who was raised in Harlem. [But] who do you think is going to be living in the building that bears his name? I just think it’s ironic.”

Both sides are right in their own way: It’s hard to argue with longtime residents pissed off about rent surges and new faces showing contempt towards the people raised in the area, or with professionals seeking to live in a bustling and affordable area with plentiful amenities. Restaurant owners are particularly vulnerable to both sides: They all acknowledge the importance of maintaining Harlem’s legitimacy, but at the same time, their profit margins depend on the spending power of those who frequent their spots.

Founded in 1939
Founded in 1939 Photo by Ryan Davis

“We should take great care to preserve the cultural identity of Harlem. Unfortunately, some things have already been wiped off the map,” explains Jelena Pasic, owner of popular eatery Harlem Shake. “For example, there’s an area on 116th called Little Senegal and a lot of the shops there have closed because of rent prices. Then you have places like the Lenox Lounge, that are being replaced with culturally less important establishments." (Sephora, rumor has it.) "Harlem is special and we have to protect it.”

Pasic, whose two spots are amongst the best fast-casual options in the area, is among a crop of business owners who see the festival as more than just a showcase for their businesses. They see it as an olive branch to the people of “old Harlem” and a way to unite against common foes.

Herb Boyd is one of those old Harlem people. A resident for over 30 years, he doesn’t fear the changes. In his estimation, what makes Harlem special can’t be altered anyway.

“Look, you can have all these people coming in, but there’s something essential here that’s immutable,” explains Boyd, who teaches history at City College and readily admits to looking forward to the new Whole Foods. “As long as places like the Schomburg Center, the National Black Theatre, and the Apollo are operating and carrying on tradition, this community will keep its vibrancy.”

In this conversation, there’s a place for mediation, and the Harlem EatUp! Festival should be at the center of it. The stakes are too high to let outsiders lead this movement. It has to come from those already entrenched. The people involved with this festival have to be the connecting tissue, since they have the star wattage, the resources, and the trust of both sides. Most importantly, right now, they seem to have the will.

“Gentrification is a serious word. We always listen, what can we do better? Part of the festival is free, we wanted to have something affordable so all the people can engage,” Samuelsson explains. “I have pop-up bookstores in Red Rooster and other things for local business owners. Chefs are pillars of the community and the festival has a role in that as well. It’s important that we’re at the community board meetings and in front of each other. I understand that I’m an easy target, but I humbly think about it every day.”

Tags: Culture, New York City, Black History