Black-owned Harlem suffers another blow

HERB BOYD Special to the AmNews | 8/10/2012, 11:05 p.m.
Black-owned Harlem suffers another blow

A new Harlem arrives practically every day, while a piece of old Harlem packs it in, jobs it out or pulls up stakes for parts unknown.

For some time now, Starbucks, Pathmark, Duane Reade, Rite Aid and a host of other chains that bind have staked a claim in the heart of Harlem. Recently, Applebee's set up shop and Red Lobster is on its way. Can a Cheesecake Factory be far behind?

Mushrooming retail giants are popping up with an increasingly troubling frequency, charge those on the ramparts against the menace of gentrification. The Black-owned mom-and-pop stores have gone the way of the buffalo, and now even some seemingly profitable entities--Harlem Lanes, Hue-Man Bookstore, Nectar Wine Bar et al.--have bit the dust.

"Even though I was experiencing increased sales percentages, it wasn't enough to match the rise in rent," said Marva Allen, who owned Hue-Man Bookstore on Frederick Douglass Boulevard for a decade. The space, she concluded, was inadequate; the rent, to quote Jimmy McMillan, was "too damn high!" July 31 was her last day.

And what happened to all of the books and other items of value? "A jobber will come and cart it away," Allen said. That carting will include the hundreds of books she gathered from the defunct Liberation Bookstore.

Hue-Man's next incarnation will probably be somewhere on the Internet, if Allen retains any part of her far-seeing vision for a market space somewhere between a thriving business and community service.

Bowling online may not be in the cards for Sharon Joseph, the owner of Harlem Lanes, where rent also played havoc with her dreams of establishing what was fast becoming "an epicenter of Harlem."

But the center did not hold and Joseph has closed down the lanes, which were relatively bustling since they opened six years ago in the old Alhambra building on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard.

"I have to have the place empty by Sunday," Joseph told a reporter last week.

Both Harlem Lanes and Hue-Man Bookstore were within the expensive area of Harlem, putatively known as the "platinum zone" because of the high rents.

Several years ago, when Mart 125 was shut down and the Record Shack and other record stores surrendered to the Internet, the rent was reportedly going for something like $80 per square foot.

"It's about double that now," said a community activist who chose not to give her name. "Only the major outlets can afford that kind of rent."

There are rumors afloat that MoBay restaurant is on the ropes, and there is concern about Sylvia's now that its founder and doyenne of soul food has joined the ancestors.

Harlem is beginning to look more and more like it did over a century ago, with a strong mix of ethnic diversity, but with people of color on the periphery of the best commercial and residential property.

To paraphrase the late, great poet laureate of Harlem, Langston Hughes, "They've taken my Harlem and gone!"