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How Harlem Got Its Groove Back


In truth, however, with all of the change and development that have taken place, Harlem is light-years away from being gentrified. It is, in every sense, still what politicians and developers euphemistically refer to as an emerging neighborhood. In other words, it remains predominantly a neighborhood of poor people. Much of the investment, particularly the high-profile kind, has taken place on the major commercial strips, including 116th, 125th, and 145th Streets. In between these thoroughfares, there are islands of rehabbed and renovated and newly built residential properties floating in a sea of run-down and abandoned buildings.

Many in the community, like the Reverend Calvin Butts, believe that arts and culture are critical to Harlem's continued revival, but that affordable middle-class housing is as well. And that means housing for two-income couples making between $60,000 and $100,000 a year, to build a desperately needed middle class in the community. "Phase three," says New York secretary of state Randy Daniels, "must be home-ownership. Right now it's only about 6 percent in Harlem. But if we could get it up around the citywide average of 30 percent, that would do more for long-term empowerment of the residents than just about anything else. It gives you a stake, and we've got to preach it from the pulpits. It's an absolutely essential step."

And with all of the change in how things are done uptown, there are still anachronistic pockets of the old obstructionist political infighting. The empowerment zone, for example, continues to be a kind of rat's nest of animosity between the governor, Rangel, and the mayor (though perhaps not as bad as when Rudy Giuliani was in office). In seven years, the zone has given out only slightly more than a third of its $300 million. And only three weeks ago, Terry Lane, head of the empowerment zone, announced his resignation.

Insiders say that city and state officials have long been unhappy with Lane. They claim, however, that Rangel protected him. But all that changed when Johnnie Cochran was named to head the zone's board. He surprised everyone who assumed he'd be just a figurehead by actually attending board meetings and, as one official put it, "looking under the skirts" to find out why the place was such a mess. Cochran challenged Lane's management, the two men clashed, and Lane's hand was finally forced. Lane emphatically denies this version of events. He says leaving was his decision and he and Cochran continue to have a good relationship.

Even at the Apollo, some things are more intractable than others. Almost inexplicably, after the financial mess was uncovered by the attorney general's office in 1998, Sutton's company was allowed to renew its contract for It's Showtime at the Apollo.

That agreement has now expired again, and the Apollo is now seeking bids. One of those who want the contract is Frank Mercado-Valdes, founder and CEO of the Heritage Network, a $60 million television-sales-and-syndication company. Mercado-Valdes's company, now located in the financial district, is set to move to Harlem Center next year. The building, on 125th and Lenox, is on the same corner where Mercado-Valdes once sold T-shirts.

His welcome in Harlem, however, may be a little muted. Mercado-Valdes, a voluble, ambitious salesman, tried to secure the rights to the Apollo show back in 1998 when Sutton was under investigation. Sutton retained the contract, but because of Mercado-Valdes's bid ended up paying 30 times what he had been paying: The fees for the rights went from $50,000 to $1.6 million.

Mercado-Valdes's bidding war with Sutton attracted the attention and wrath of his friend Charlie Rangel: "I was turned into a pariah. In fact, I'm still a pariah. I still can't give my credit card to half the people in Harlem without them looking at the name and saying, 'Oh, you're that guy who went after Mr. Sutton.' When I decided to move my company uptown, I put in a grant application with the empowerment zone. But when I found out Rangel still has a problem with me and the application wouldn't be approved, I withdrew it." (Rangel says he wouldn't know Mercado-Valdes if he bumped into him. However, he says he does remember Mercado-Valdes bidding in 1998.)

Mercado-Valdes started his company ten years ago with a simple idea. He'd read that Ted Turner had purchased the rights to all the old MGM movies to run them on his cable channel. Mercado-Valdes decided to do the same thing with black movies: secure the rights to run them on TV in syndication.

Now his company, which was once called the African Heritage Network, also produces original programming, including a syndicated show called The Source: All-Access, done in conjunction with the hip-hop magazine, and a new fall show being done with Dick Clark called Livin' Large, which is a kind of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous meets Cribs.

"My feeling about the Apollo deal is that it should be kept in Harlem," he says. "Let Sutton and his company continue to produce the show, and my company will handle syndication and sales. Why let a syndicator like King World do it? They're part of Viacom, which just moved BET out of Harlem. But I know Sutton will never go for it. I can't beat that guy."

For George C. Wolfe, the idea of creating an original piece about Harlem, a piece that would be a running attraction at the Apollo and a kind of symbol of the community's continuing vitality, was irresistible.

"I've had, for lack of a better word, a very fortunate career downtown. So the idea that I could use my skills and my profile to bring energy to the Harlem community appealed to me on a very fundamental level," Wolfe says.

A particular challenge within this context would seem to be the past 30 years, those decades when the community was declining and suffering and yielding few if any reasons to celebrate.

"I don't look at it that way," Wolfe says. "I think one of the unwritten stories of the history of Harlem, which is the story of every single thriving black community in America, is the consequences of integration." Wolfe recounts a trip he made with his father ten years ago back to his hometown in Kentucky. "I was riding around with his sister and she was going, 'Oh, and the ballroom was over there. And that's where Dr. So-and-so's office was. And the coffee shop was on that street.' And she was describing all these black-owned businesses in this little town of Providence, Kentucky, which was completely segregated, so black people had to have all their own things," he says, narrowing his eyes and leaning forward.

"So a real phenomenon is that from Harlem's inception as a thriving black community and well into the fifties, it was the only game in town for black people living in wonderful, fabulous places and not being victimized. So what ends up happening is not how the community died, because it didn't, but how the community was dissipated by the phenomenon of integration and who and what kept the community together. The story throughout Harlem Song is what is the driving collective energy of the day."

Of course, he also hopes that Harlem Song will contribute to the current collective energy. "I would love this piece to be a source of pride for the community and for it to serve as an economic catalyst," he says, standing in the doorway now.

"And I'd really love it if Harlem Song could contribute to shattering the idea that Harlem is a separate nation on the island of Manhattan."


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