The newly opened Renaissance New York Harlem Hotel (located on 125th St. between Frederick Douglass Blvd & Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd) hosted an event on Monday, November 13 which welcomed neighborhood residents and local culture trendsetters. This was an invitation for locals to come in and check out the new building. 

The evening featured a symposium with Harlem-based panelists who spoke about the depths of this community’s culture. Later there were breakout sessions which had audience members and some of the panelists joining in to explore how the new hotel might be able to insert itself within Harlem, and not simply extract a profit from its newly prized real estate location. 

Kamilah Forbes, the executive producer of The Apollo Theater, said she realized when she came to Harlem 20 years ago that 125th Street was “emblematic of the center of Black culture.”

Kamilah Forbes, the executive producer of The Apollo Theater, Thelma Golden, director of Studio Museum in Harlem, chef Alexander Smalls, journalist/talk show host Bianca Vivion were panelists at a Renaissance New York Harlem symposium. (Karen Juanita Carrillo photo)
The entrance to the newly opened Renaissance New York Harlem Hotel is built on top of the former landmark Victoria Theater. The new hotel has revamped the Victoria’s façade and lobby. (Ryan Kobane photo)

The Studio Museum in Harlem’s director Thelma Golden talked about understanding Harlem’s past and the potential of its future. Alexander Smalls, the chef and co-owner of The Cecil and Minton’s restaurants, said that he first moved to Harlem in 1998. “I’m indebted to this community,” Smalls said. “I believe that it gives me life, and I enjoy being a part of what I feel is a community that has given me meaning.” Meanwhile, journalist/talk show host Bianca Vivion said that after she moved to Harlem from Atlanta at the age of 18, it quickly became home for her and a safe space she could always return to. “I think as an artist and as a writer, Harlem functions in two ways: a lot of people think of it as an idea,” Vivion said. “You sort of walk down the street and think ‘This is where Langston Hughes was making his poetry.’ But then you’re also walking down the street and that’s where you’re going on your dates. And that’s where you’re having your heartbreaks and your failures.” 

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Harlem’s meaning as a basis of culture reflects the fact that it has remained one of the most prominent homes to an assortment of people from the African diaspora for over 100 years now. The cultural movement of the 1920s made Harlem famous, but it has remained an ever-evolving neighborhood that has welcomed Blacks of varied economic classes and allowed them to live close enough to get to know each other. 

Harlem’s cultural soup is what brings tourists to the area—and it brought the Marriott Bonvoy franchise to the neighborhood as well. Marriott Bonvoy opened its luxury-brand Aloft Harlem hotel on Frederick Douglass Blvd at 124th Street in December of 2010. Now, with the Renaissance New York Harlem, it is adding one of its premium trademark hotels to the area. Marriott’s Renaissance Hotels focus on giving hotel guests an entrée into a local experience. The hotel’s literature touts its Renaissance Hotels as places “where we invite our guests to take a journey through the neighborhoods that surround each of our hotels, with the help of our on-site navigators.”

Built on top of the former landmark Victoria Theater, the owners of the Renaissance New York Harlem want all the benefits that come with its new location: they’ve retained and spiffed up the Victoria’s historic façade and lobby. The hotel also features many African American-oriented retail products. 

Many attending the symposium and panels talked about the rapid gentrification that is taking place in Harlem and what that could mean to this historic Black community. The debate raged on, though, as to whether Harlem will be subsumed, or if the neighborhood can keep its residents and thrive—maintaining Black culture at the forefront. 

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