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How Harlem Got Its Groove Back


Finally, in 1998, the state attorney general stepped in and the mess -- which essentially centered on Percy Sutton and the contract held by his company Inner City Broadcasting to produce the syndicated television program It's Showtime at the Apollo -- began to get cleaned up. In the process, Sutton, a close friend of Congressman Charles Rangel's, was forced to make a million dollars in back payments, and there was a shakeup of the board that oversees the theater, including Rangel's resignation.

Now Derek Johnson has put together a new team that includes David Rodriguez, an experienced theater manager, and Nicole Bernard, a sharp lawyer and businesswoman who will handle marketing, new business, and promotion of the Apollo as a brand. The first task was fixing up the tattered Harlem icon, which had, essentially, become a dump. Seats were broken and torn, the carpeting was ripped and worn out, the paint was peeling.

The renovation is in its first phase, a $14 million sprucing-up that includes new carpeting, fixing the broken seats (and eventually replacing them), splashing around some fresh paint, bringing the sound and lighting up to current standards, repairing the famed yellow-and-red blade sign, and computerizing the marquee. The $39 million second phase will include restoring neglected architectural details; constructing a new lobby, gift shop, and bathrooms; and redoing the dressing rooms.

But returning the Apollo to anything resembling its glory days will require more than new seats and fresh paint. "We realize that credibility is a huge issue," says Johnson. "We're trying to distance ourselves from the theater's recent history, and the best way for us to accomplish that is to do what we say we're going to do."

There are also long-range plans for the Apollo, which involve using the theater as the focal point for a huge performing-arts center that would require taking over several retail spaces immediately to the east as well as the Victoria theater, a movie house that's been closed for years.

This would include building a larger theater -- one of the Apollo's primary problems is that it doesn't have enough seats to be economically competitive in today's entertainment market -- more rehearsal space, and perhaps a hotel and jazz museum. Johnson refers to these plans as "aspirational," but quiet fund-raising has actually been going on for some time.

Throughout the difficulties, the Apollo, or at least the idea of the Apollo, has maintained its luster. "Performers know there is something special about this place," says Rodriguez. "A couple of times recently, James Brown has pulled up unannounced out front and asked to come in and just play the piano for five minutes. People really want to experience the ghosts here."

Not everyone agrees that one of the keys to the community's economic future is a thriving Apollo Theatre. Carl Redding, owner of Amy Ruth's, the popular soul-food restaurant on 116th Street, is skeptical about trying to attract visitors by turning Harlem into a kind of living museum dedicated to the arts and culture. "The people who come to Amy Ruth's are primarily people from the community," says Redding, a lifelong Harlem resident who spent eight years as Al Sharpton's driver before opening his restaurant three years ago. Partly because of his time with Sharpton, the restaurant attracts celebrities in politics, sports, and entertainment.

"I put no faith and no trust in tourists. And 9/11 proved it. When the tourists stopped coming, places like Sylvia's suffered," says Redding. "My business went up during that period, because people in the community were looking for a place to get together and talk and to mourn."

Redding is an interesting case, because he represents both the old and the new Harlem. He is at once a testament to the opportunities that now exist uptown for the savvy, determined small-business man as well as an example of all those residents who are angry about what they believe is the gentrification of Harlem.

While he dismisses the tourist business ("I used to get angry when I'd see the buses riding through filled with people looking at us like we were monkeys in the zoo") and ambitious attempts to attract outsiders on the one hand, he applauds the arrival of what he calls triple-A businesses like Starbucks, Pathmark, Disney, and Magic Johnson's movie theaters on the other. And when he praises these changes, he points out that he knows there will be lots of people who won't be happy about his comments.

Redding started Amy Ruth's by getting some of the people he'd met through Sharpton to invest in his idea (Percy Sutton and Johnnie Cochran, to name just two). He didn't go to the empowerment zone for help. "I had no credit and no financial history, which is usually the problem with black businesses."

But there was another reason as well. "I'd heard all the bad stuff about them," he says. "They had a really bad reputation. Everyone said the empowerment zone was only here to re-gentrify Harlem. That they were only giving loans to big businesses coming in from outside the community like Starbucks and Disney and they didn't care about the small, black businessman."

Redding is not alone in his ambivalence about the changes uptown. Harlem's state assemblyman, Keith Wright, who lives with his family in the very same Harlem apartment he grew up in, has similarly conflicting emotions. "Every community wants to see progress and development," says Wright, "but you have to balance it by making sure the indigenous folks don't get left out. And right now there are a lot of folks up here who are feeling left out. People are worried about rising housing costs, and I have to say it's reaching crisis proportions. I've been here all my life, and I can't afford one of these brownstones now which are selling for $700,000 and up."

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