Who Speaks for Harlem?

Last night, Marcus Samuelsson and a group of transplants discussed the neighborhood's future—at a store in Tribeca. Here's what they had to say.

Photos: Liz Barclay; Shoots & Roots Bitters

Photos: Liz Barclay; marcussamuelsson.com; Shoots & Roots Bitters

What happened at the Shinola store in Tribeca last night felt doomed to miss the point before it even began. A panel discussion on “Food and the Changing Face of Harlem” was being held in the neighborhood the absolute farthest from Harlem, both in geography and in spirit.

In his opening remarks, celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, the event’s moderator, sought to forge a connection between the two seemingly disparate areas. He mentioned that when he first began thinking about opening a restaurant in Harlem, he looked to the Odeon and other early Tribeca restaurants as his guide. The template of an all-day, brasserie-style restaurant makes sense, but it’s a loaded comparison that’s harder to justify in terms of neighborhood politics. After all, when Keith McNally’s Odeon debuted in 1980, Tribeca was essentially an industrial wasteland, home to a few artists and a lot of empty warehouses. Harlem in 2010, when Samuelsson’s Red Rooster opened, was a neighborhood that had been a heavily populated center of African-American culture for almost 100 years.

Walking through cobble-stone streets en route to the Shinola store—a Detroit-based brand that is repurposing that bankrupt city’s image into one of tough urban hipsters, expensive bicycles, and Father Knows Best American values—it seemed impossible that this expanse of luxe condos, housewares shops, and neon-lit fusion restaurants could be anyone’s dream for Harlem. Then again, Tribeca has the third-highest median income in the city, over $200K, and Harlem’s unemployment rate is more than double the rest of the city’s, so who are we to judge?

People don’t look at what Harlem is right now, and you get this erasure happening because everyone keeps looking toward this ‘bright future’ they’ve been promised.

The evening’s panelists were Jessamyn Rodriguez of Hot Bread Kitchen, and Ashley Duval and Rachel Meyer of HBK Incubator project Shoots & Roots Bitters. The three women are all transplants to the neighborhood: Rodriguez set out to found a nonprofit organization to help immigrant women and needed cheap manufacturing space on the island of Manhattan; Duval and Meyer were grad students commuting between the Bronx and Midtown, and Harlem was the cheap-rent midpoint. As with so many conversations about Harlem, it appeared at first glance that we’d asked the wrong people.

But as they talked, it became clear they all hold a genuine love of and respect for the neighborhood they’ve chosen for themselves. Rodriguez’s offices are kitty-corner from the two buildings that collapsed in Harlem last week, and she shook visibly as she described her staff rushing out to help the minute they heard the explosions. They were on the scene before the Fire Department and stayed out all day to hand out face masks and provide information to the lost.

Samuelsson, famously, has been criticized for speaking on behalf of Harlem, drawing fire from people like Eddie Huang. He has apparently learned nothing from that fight, or at least listened to the haters and decided he didn’t care. Throughout the night, when describing the reasons he loved Harlem, he kept using the unfortunate adjective “magical.” He may have meant well, but there’s something inherently problematic about projecting a fantasy onto a neighborhood with serious socio-economic problems. Still, he spoke earnestly about old Harlem landmarks and loving his customers, and there was no doubt he felt he was doing right by the neighborhood by being so vocal about it in the public sphere.

During the question-and-answer period, the most interesting conversations began as members of the audience—many of them lifelong Harlemites—threw their thoughts into the ring. There was no confrontation; for the most part, they were happy to see small businesses like HBK and Red Rooster keep economic development in the neighborhood alive. But they brought different perspectives that the panelists, relentless optimists, just didn’t have.

The most incisive point of the night came from Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, who said, “People often talk about what Harlem was, and what it’s going to be. People don’t look at what it is right now, and you get this erasure happening because everyone keeps looking toward this ‘bright future’ they’ve been promised.”

Transplants, like religious converts, often make the most vocal cheerleaders. But are they the ones who should be speaking for everyone?

Below, check out some memorable quotes from the evening’s discussion.

Samuelsson on Old Harlem:
“There is an incredible bar that burned down called Seville, on 126th and 7th Avenue—it just burnt down, and I remember bringing Q-Tip and all these different cool people to the place. It’s one of those bars that had Christmas lights hanging year-round, all the drinks were blue, and you could pick up drinks, weed—all kinds of things the bartenders were selling. It’s about trust.”

Rodriguez on Hot Bread Kitchen’s mission, and why the organization chose Harlem:
“We’re kind of like Affirmative Action for the bakery industry. Right now in New York City there are 6,000 bakers, and only 500 are minority or immigrant women.”

Samuelsson on Harlem’s shortcomings:
“I always joke that my cousins and sisters and brothers in Ethiopia, in their beautiful huts, have high-speed Internet, and we don’t.”

Samuelsson on his restaurant’s philosophy:
“There’s a lot of things in Harlem, but very few things are in and of Harlem. When the big companies come in and dump stuff on Harlem, Harlem has the choice to either buy it or reject it. When you create something that’s in and of Harlem, there’s enough to create a dialogue with people.”

Meyer on why they stay in Harlem:
“People that stay in Harlem and work in Harlem are really there for the right reasons—there for the community and as part of the community, which is a hard thing to find in New York these days.”

Rodriguez on why manufacturing in Manhattan makes sense:
“During Sandy, most of the bakeries are in Long Island City or in New Jersey and you have to take a bridge or a tunnel to get there. We lost one day of production while the other bakeries lost four or five days, and we were getting calls from hotels in Midtown in the meantime.”

Rodriguez on why Kickstarter won’t replace traditional funding for food businesses:
“Let’s be frank: crowdfunding and Kickstarter are amazing, but they require a network and a whole lot of social capital. I see a lot of food businesses come in and think, ‘We’re going to raise a lot of money on Kickstarter!’ They may have the best recipes in the world, but you need that social capital. We need to think about what we can do to support them instead.’”

Rodriguez on local employment:
“I was speaking to a bakery owner out in Sunset Park, and she has the lockdown on FCI culinary graduates; kids who want to open their own bakeries go there and learn how to bake for six months to a year, and then they leave. That’s how she’s built that business. Well that’s great, and it’s still cheap labor, but what we have, and the people who are running our facilities, are people who are interesting in investing in those jobs long-term.”

Samuelsson on hospitality:
“I thought I had to go to France to learn about hospitality—Harlem taught me about hospitality. When I go to really cool places in Brooklyn or downtown, it’s a restaurant of ‘no.’ Restaurants should be about hospitality—I always say our restaurant should be a restaurant of ‘yes.’”

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