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BET bares real world of 'Harlem Heights'

Cyril Josh Barker | 4/12/2011, 4:37 p.m.

While Harlem is best known as the mecca for Black America, a new BET series aims to give viewers a look into the lives of young trailblazers who are now calling the neighborhood home. "Harlem Heights" documents the lives of eight young professional Black friends as they balance their careers and social lives during their post-college phase.

The reality show was filmed entirely in Harlem, which accounts for 95 percent of the footage, according to producers. "Harlem Heights" also features familiar uptown hot spots and landmarks like nightclubs, restaurants, cafes and shops that serve as a backdrop for many of the scenes.

Executive producers and creators for the show Randolph Sturrup and Kurt Williamson came up with the idea for "Harlem Heights" after the two worked together on the MTV reality show "Laguna Beach." "What makes this show different is that we are in Harem, which celebrates Black culture," said Williamson. "Harlem is one of the characters. A lot of reality shows are scripted, but everything on the show is true to life of what is going on in the cast's lives. It's a different view of young adult Black culture."

BET filmed the show in Harlem from October 2008 until January of this year, producing 10 half-hour episodes. The cast members on the show are friends and the footage on the show is entirely real, according to Williamson.

"We wanted to really have an organic group. Kids between 25 and 30 all know each other in some way. We started with people that we knew and it all kind of came together. That was really important to us. It helped that everyone was connected somehow," Sturrup said.

Cast member Ashlie Gray is an aspiring actress living in Harlem. While by day she makes her way around the city going to casting calls, hoping for her big break, she spends her nights working as a bartender. "We all live in Harlem and share common interests," Gray said. "We like to party together and hang out. We just like to venture out in Harlem and experience what Harlem has to offer." Spelman College graduate Bridget Bland tries to juggle law school, teaching and being a writer while living uptown. She also finds time to mentor young girls at the Harlem Educational Activities Fund. Bland says that "Harlem Heights" gives young Blacks positive images on television.

"It's an incredible opportunity in terms of being able to showcase a different lifestyle, one that I don't think is present on television right now or has ever been present on a reality television format," she said. "Doing the show had a lot to with being able to show people that there are people like myself who work three jobs and go to school while being able to mentor young girls."

Trenton, N.J., native Pierre Downing now calls Harlem home and works for Local Initiative Support Corporation. With a background that includes growing up in one of Trenton's worst projects and dealing with a drug-addicted father, the former college basketball star works to preserve affordable housing.

"The reason I did the show was because this is a demographic within our community that's never showcased in mainstream media," he said. "To be in the term of our first African-American president, people are going to want to identify with what it means to be young, Black and smart."

Other cast members on the show include Brook Crittenden, former girlfriend of rap superstar Kanye West; magazine editor Christian Grant-Fields; aspiring politician Landon Dais; fashion designer Briana Bigham; and single father Jason Allen.

"The cast is a very diverse group of people, but they all have a common thread," Williamson said. "One of the reasons the cast is that way is because when you come to New York, you don't meet the same kind of people. There are always differences in your crew. New York brings out the brightest and the best, and they are well-rounded people."

"Harlem Heights" will premier on Monday, March 2 on BET at 10 p.m. An event will be held at the Apollo Theater celebrating the premiere of the show.