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How Harlem Got Its Groove Back


Rehearsing Harlem Song  

If phase one of the Harlem revitalization was eliminating the impediment of the local politicians (who were stunningly inept, except for maintaining their own power) and phase two was that first burst of commercial and residential development, what shape should phase three take? "The real issue now is to get people to come up and spend money here," says Derek Johnson. "For too long we've been recycling the same dollars in this community."

The way to get people uptown, particularly when significant psychological barriers still exist for many, is to give them a compelling reason to go. "The crux of this whole Harlem economic revitalization has nothing to do with the Disney store or any of the other chains that are opening on 125th Street," says Michael Eberstadt, owner of Slice of Harlem, a pizzeria, and a creole restaurant named Bayou, both on 125th. "It's just more retail, and who cares? Nobody is coming uptown for the glory of shopping in overpriced sneaker stores on 125th Street."

Eberstadt, who is white, opened his first Harlem restaurant a little over four years ago after working in social services (he ran a soup kitchen) and completing a master's in public policy at Columbia. He believes his experience with Bayou illustrates the difference between Harlem's current economic reality and its potential.

Eberstadt has struggled with Bayou for two years and is just beginning to break even now, though the restaurant has gotten lots of good press (in part because he has regularly catered events for 125th Street's best-known resident, William Jefferson Clinton) and word of mouth.

"People might come up here the way they'd go to an interesting Indian place in Jackson Heights, or an Italian restaurant in Bensonhurst," Eberstadt says. "They'll go once for an unusual experience and to tell their friends they did it, but they won't come a second time, and repeat business is where the money is in restaurants."

But when there are shows at the Apollo, like recent appearances by Whoopi Goldberg and by Wynton Marsalis and his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Bayou is packed. "The real underlying economic asset of Harlem is that it's the capital of African-American culture, past and present," says Eberstadt. "And moving forward now, that's what everything else should be built around. This gives people a real reason to come uptown. That's why Harlem Song is so important. It will show what the potential up here really is."

While every producer will tell you it's a challenge getting an audience to come to anything, the people behind Harlem Song know that getting people to go above 96th Street is a special challenge. Everything flows from ticket sales, so the producers have identified half a dozen different audiences they are targeting: residents of upper Manhattan (meaning blacks and Latinos); domestic and international tourists; students and college groups; avid theatergoers; eventgoers (families who plan four or five outings a year in the city); and culture seekers (Manhattan opinion leaders and trendsetters).

Harlem Song producer John Schreiber, whose credits include Hard Rock Live on VH1 and, with George Wolfe, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, knew when he began this project that Harlem is the third-most-visited tourist destination in the city. "The problem is the tourists often don't get off the bus except maybe for church or Sylvia's." To change this, Schreiber and his partners have made a deal with Gray Line tours to be a featured attraction, which means the guides will talk up the show. They have also made a deal with a group of eleven nonprofit institutions -- including the Studio Museum and the Dance Theatre of Harlem -- known as the Harlem Strategic Cultural Collaborative. One dollar from every ticket sold will go to the group, which will cross-promote the show.

They've even tried to address the comfort level of potential showgoers who are perhaps a little nervous about going to Harlem. Free parking has been arranged at a garage one block from the theater, and there will be concierge service in the lobby of the Apollo available to arrange car service or dinner reservations.

The hope is that a successful run for Harlem Song will provide the kind of boost that will resuscitate the moribund landmark. Ever since the state took over the shuttered and bankrupt theater in 1992 and leased it back to the nonprofit Apollo Foundation, the woeful history has been one of underperformance, financial impropriety, and flat-out neglect.

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