The (Very) Earthly Pursuits of Rev. Calvin O. Butts III

8730109_87The Harlem Renaissance Ballroom and Casino, an art deco behemoth on the corner of 138th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, opened in 1923. With terrazzo tile, gleaming casement windows, and neon signs advertising “FUN” and “DANCING,” it was the city’s showcase for African-American celebrations and cultural events for decades, and the home court for the barnstorming Harlem Rens all-black pro basketball team in the 1920s and ’30s.

The ballroom was closed in 1979. It was boarded up and lay fallow until the Abyssinian Development Corporation took over the property in 1991. Founded by the politically powerful Reverend Calvin O. Butts III, the longtime lead pastor of the 205-year-old Abyssinian Baptist Church on West 138th Street, ADC is Abyssinian’s nonprofit community-redevelopment arm. In the early days after ADC took over the Renaissance’s mortgage, Butts talked about restoring the ballroom and bringing back a gleaming entertainment venue to the very heart of Harlem. Continue reading


Harlem Powerbrokers Brainstorm Ways to Stem Small Business Closures

HARLEM — A group of local leaders met at Sylvia’s Restaurant this week to come up with ways to stem a recent spate of small business closures.

Harlem powerbrokers met at Sylvia's recently to discuss the rise in small business closures.

Harlem powerbrokers met at Sylvia’s recently to discuss the rise in small business closures.

Rep. Charles Rangel, City Councilwoman Inez Dickens, Lloyd Williams of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce and Regina Smith of the Harlem Business Alliance gathered at the famous restaurant in response to a rash of mostly black-owned businesses being shuttered in the last few months.

“We have to realize we are going through an economic change,” Rangel said after the meeting.

As Harlem grows in popularity and new restaurants and bars open on Lenox Avenue, several established black-owned businesses have begun to close. Among the businesses that have shuttered recently are Hue-Man Bookstore, the bowling alley Harlem Lanes and Mobay Uptown, a Caribbean soul food restaurant along 125th Street.

Along the hot Frederick Douglass Boulevard corridor, Nectar Wine Bar and Society Coffee have also shut down. Sherman’s Barbecue, a 60-year-old rib joint that served the Beatles, also closed recently.

Other businesses facing problems are Lenox Lounge.

“It’s a myriad of problems. High rent is one problem, we don’t have access to capital and some people don’t know how to run a back office,” Dickens said. “I’m just putting out fires, so I haven’t had a chance to think about this collectively.”

Dickens added she often gets calls from small businesses in need of help hours before a court date or just before the marshal is showing up to perform an eviction.

“What concerns me most is those who held it together are being pushed out. If you hold it together you should be respected and given an opportunity to continue,” said Walter Edwards, CEO of Full Spectrum NY, which is about to open My Image Studios LLC on 116th Street between Lenox and Fifth avenues.

Kenneth Woods, president of Sylvia Woods Inc., which owns Sylvia’s Restaurant, said his business has avoided some of the financial difficulties of other establishments because it controls its own real estate.

“That’s a major part of our success,” he said.

Harlem Lanes and Hue-Man are among the stores that have cited rising rents as a partial cause of their demise.

Woods recalled how his brother, Van, told entrepreneurs as far back as the 1980s, when Harlem wasn’t as popular, to buy as much property as they could.

“He was blowing the horn,” Kenneth Woods said. “It’s amazing how much commercial property that Harlem black businesses have lost.”

He also said many small business owners lack access to capital.

“With a business, you have to grow, and to do that you have to have access to capital,” Woods said. “Unfortunately, commercial banks these days are not friendly lenders.”

Still, Woods’ popular business has suffered difficulties, too. The six-figure real estate taxes on the property has doubled in the past three to five years.

New businesses must do a better job of forecasting future costs and factor Harlem’s rising real estate costs into their business plans, Woods added.

Marva Allen, Hue-Man’s CEO and co-owner, said it might be too late to help many small businesses because of the gentrification of Harlem.

“Helping small business would have had to happen 20 years ago,” said Allen, who is continuing to sell books online. “The horse has left the gate.

“When politicians put programs in place for regentrification and not revitalization, they did not do a panoramic view of how that would hurt small businesses,” she added. “And nothing was put in place to protect them.”

Access to capital is still the major obstacle many small businesses face, Allen said.

“When small businesses in Harlem get to the point of struggle they don’t have the credit. Unless they are going to find a way for small businesses to access a capital for growth they will be spinning their wheels doing the same thing without hope for growth,” he said.

Sakita Holley, a small business owner who is a a publicist and editorial director of the Eat in Harlem blog, said residents are clamoring for politicians and non-profits to “be much more visible during these tough economic times,” especially after this recent wave of small business closures.

“More resources need to be made available to business owners and more needs to be done to make the community feel like they’re a partner to the businesses that are asking for their support,” Holley said.
Regina Smith, executive director of the Harlem Business Alliance, recently joined with 125th Street Business Improvement District, Harlem Park to Park and the Aloft Harlem Hotel to form the Harlem Promotional Alliance to help Harlem small businesses market themselves and take advantage of the neighborhood’s popularity as a tourist destination.
Similar efforts are needed, she said.

“We are looking to come up with solutions better tailored to the needs of our entrepreneurs. We have to go deeper,” Smith said.

For example, to help with the issue of rising rents, small businesses may need help with lease negotiations, experts said. Business owners can also be paired with community organizations that may have available commercial space at reduced prices.

Allen of Hue-Man said she is being creative. Next month, Hue-Man will partner with My Image Studios to host a book-signing by Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade. The event will allow Hue-Man to keep a presence in Harlem while a brick-and-mortar location.

The fact that many of the businesses that have closed are minority-owned makes the effort even more important to Smith.

“We have to make it work. We have no choice,” she said.

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Non-Profit Bakery Opens “Hot Bread Almacen” In Spanish Harlem’s La Marqueta

Hot Bread Kitchen, a non-profit wholesale bakery, opened its first retail location, Hot Bread Almacen on East 115th Street in the historic La Marqueta. HBK’s mission is to provide culinary training opportunities for low-income and foreign-born men and women, and its new storefront will give the Harlem community a local place to purchase the yield of the trainees’ labors.

With considerable funding from the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone— an operation that uses public funds and tax incentives to encourage private investment in needy Manhattan communities— and continued support from the New York City Economic Development Corporation, founder and CEO Jessamyn W. Rodriguez’s workforce development dough program has been a growing success since its kickoff in 2007. The new store will feature the full line of Hot Bread Kitchen Breads’ expanding product line, such as its corn tortillas, lavash crackers, and other traditional breads.

Additionally, it will also carry goods from businesses supported by HBK’s start-up business development program, HBK Incubates. Store hours will be Monday-Saturday from 8 a.m. until 5 pm., so stop by early to grab a Bialy al Barrio, an egg, cheese and hot sauce sandwich on HBK’s signature bialy, and other exclusive items.

City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, who joined the opening ceremony this morning, said in a statement, “Our efforts to boost New York City’s food manufacturing industry began with affordable kitchen incubator workspace for culinary entrepreneurs at Hot Bread Kitchen. Today we are adding new retail venues to help further support the bakery and the community. Local Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito and I are thrilled to see La Marqueta back on the map as a hub of economic activity and a bona fide New York City culinary destination.”

Hot Bread Almacen at La Marqueta, 1590 Park Avenue at East 115th Street // 212-369-3331

Contact the author of this article or email with further questions, comments or tips.
By Carrie Dennis in on July 23, 2012 1:41 PM11

Harlem’s Savoy Park complex sells

(Bloomberg) – A real estate fund created by Citigroup Inc. and L&M Development Partners bought Harlem’s Savoy Park apartment complex, resolving the troubled mortgage on the 1,800-unit property.

The complex sold for more than $210 million, the outstanding balance on the delinquent senior mortgage, satisfying the loan, according to a person with knowledge of the deal who asked not to be named because the terms weren’t public. The sellers are AREA Property Partners and Vantage Properties, which bought the property in 2006, near the peak of the commercial real estate market.

The rent-regulated complex of seven apartment buildings between West 139th and West 142nd streets will remain as affordable housing, according to a statement today by the buyers. The deal was done under a venture formed by Citigroup and L&M in 2010 known as the New York Affordable Housing Preservation Fund.

“We are committed to preserving affordability and upholding the unique culture and vibrancy of the Savoy Park community,” David Dishy, president of the fund, said in the statement.

Jonathan Gasthalter, a spokesman for Vantage, confirmed the sale.

Vantage and AREA paid $175 million for Savoy Park in 2006 and borrowed against the property the following year, adding $367.5 million of debt, including a $210 million senior mortgage that was packaged into bonds and sold to investors.

The joint venture was unable to raise lease rates at the rent-regulated property high enough to cover the debt service, prompting a transfer in 2010 of the senior loan to a so-called special servicer, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Special servicers negotiate with distressed-property owners on behalf of commercial-mortgage bondholders.

The complex, which was valued at $420 million in 2007, was appraised at $153.3 million in 2011, Bloomberg data show.

“We are pleased the property is transitioning to excellent new owners that will continue to maintain Savoy Park as a model community for families in Central Harlem,” said Neil Rubler, president and CEO of Vantage.

An affiliate of L&M will take over management of Savoy Park from Vantage Properties, according to the statement. L&M has built more than $2 billion of apartment housing in the New York metro region, totaling more than 10,000 units.

Vantage owns and operates 5,000 apartment units in New York City, as well as 2,200 in central New Jersey that it acquired from American International Group Inc. in 2011. AREA has invested about $13 billion of equity in more than 500 transactions, according to the statement.

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Harlem Merchants Band together to put Frederick Douglass Blvd. on Business Guide Map

Frederick Douglass Blvd., has become a prime culinary destination and … winner of the Best Neighborhood Award … in 2011.
Harlem’s trendy Frederick Douglass Blvd. is now on the map. Literally.

Merchants and community leaders from uptown’s new “it” neighborhood have created a colorful guide to market services and stores from W. 110th St., to W. 124th St., hoping to lure shoppers and tourists to “The Gateway to Harlem.”

Lia SanFilippo (left) and Selene Martinez (right), are the owners of 5 & Diamond restaurant, located at 2072 Frederick Douglass Blvd. in Harlem

“There are so many reasons to come to the neighborhood now,” said Lia San Filippo, co-owner of the hip new “5 and Diamond” restaurant and co-president of the recently formed Frederick Douglass Boulevard Alliance (FDBA).

“And that’s why the map is so important,” she said. “It helps people know that we are here and helps them find us easily.

The other night, we had customers who came from 110th St. and one woman said, ‘Oh my God, I have been living here 20 years and never walked in this direction.’ ”

The FDBA represents 45 of the businesses on the street, including Harlem Vintage, the first upscale wine store, hip new butcher shop Harlem Shambles and the first supermarket, Best Yet. There’s also Land Yoga, Harlem Children’s Zone, two beer gardens and the classic old gas stations and beauty salons that line the boulevard.

“The most important thing about the map is that there is something to put on it,” said Hans Futterman, who designed the upscale condo 2280 FDB and three more condos on nearby Harlem streets.

“For decades,” he said, “you could drive up and down FDB and there was little to attract your attention of any positive nature – just a lot of vacant, burned out blocks, drug dealers – things that made people feel they wanted to hurry through the neighborhood.”

The dramatic transformation was spurred by a 2004 rezoning of the boulevard which the paved the way for more high-rise residential construction and ground-level retail space at a time when 40% of the street’s 226 storefronts were vacant.

Today, Frederick Douglass Blvd. has become a prime culinary destination and was the winner of the Best Neighborhood Award given by the Curbed NY blog in 2011.

The Alliance plans to mail the map to 1,200 households and have it posted on Columbia University’s student and faculty websites.

Merchants say they are there to stay, and have been able to rejuvenate the historic boulevard with the joint help of the Columbia-Harlem Small Business Development Center, the Harlem Community Development Corp., Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Office.

Marcelo Orve, owner of MB Dry Cleaners, was one of the first new businesses to open on the street 11 years ago, when crime and empty lots were the norm.

“When we first came in 2001 we had the doors locked all the time,” said Orve, relaxing behind the counter of his store last Tuesday night. “Little by little, more developers came. Now, everyone wants to be here.”

Harlem artist, neighborhood work to preserve murals

Franco "The Great" Gaskin poses with a tourist on Jun. 19, by one of his painted murals on West 125th Street. Photo: Edric Robinson

Surrounded by tourists on an early Sunday morning, Harlem artist Franco “The Great” Gaskin signs autographs and poses for pictures in front of his painted mural storefront gates, as his wife, Kimmi, encourages others to sign his petition. 
Since 1978, Gaskin, 83, has changed the scenery on West 125th Street by painting 200 murals on storefront security gates free of charge to business owners.

Kimmi Gaskin joins him on Sunday mornings before businesses are open and while gates are still down to greet tourists and sell memorabilia across from the famous Apollo Theater. They are collecting signatures to help relocate and exhibit the gates in East Harlem because of a new city law that changes the appearance of the gates.

A group of 15 French tourists were concerned about the possible loss of the artwork and signed the petition. French tourist Ismael Gace, 24, said, “We like his designs; it’s beautiful. Seems good for the town and better than the regular look.”

Ulrich Chatelain, an independent company tour guide who has for many years brought tourists to see the mural gates on West 125th Street said, “It’s impossible to lose the gates. These paintings should be here forever.”

Many Harlem residents consider these gates a part of the neighborhood’s history.

“Over the years the artwork gave us hope. We saw beauty through the urban jungle,” said Shanny Herrera, 35, who has lived in Central Harlem all her life.

On July 1, new business owners throughout New York City are no longer permitted to secure their stores using solid security metal gates due to a 2009 law passed by the City Council. New stores must now use metal gates that allow at least 70 percent of the area covered by the gate to be visible. Stores secured with the solid metal gates, like the ones Gaskin has painted murals on, must replace them by July 1, 2026 to avoid fees.

According to the Council, the new gates will deter vandalism and improve quality of life on the streets.

“This bill not only helps first responders when they are called to protect our businesses, but it carries the additional benefit of beautifying our city’s landscape,” said Councilman Peter F. Vallone Jr., chair of the Public Safety Committee, in a 2009 press release.

Vallone, who led the charge for the gate changes, was not available to comment. With only 25 of his 200 painted gates remaining, Gaskin has accepted the change but would like to see the remaining gates preserved.

“I don’t want to stand in the way of progress, but my idea was to find a new home for the gates; a place they can still be appreciated,” said Gaskin.

To date, more than 1,000 signatures have been collected. Gaskin is also working with the Harlem Community Development Corporation to find a new home for the gates. The proposed new location for the gates is on East 125th Street between First and Second avenues. The relocation, which is estimated to cost about $250,000, is supported by Community Boards 10 and 11 in Manhattan.

“We’re willing to do all we can to help advance his efforts to preserve his last gates,” said Jessica Bellamy, a CB 10 member on the Arts and Culture Committee.

Gaskin continues to raise awareness of this initiative through his petition. If you would like to join Gaskin’s efforts to preserve the gates, you can now sign the new online petition here.