The fragile yet promising community of new businesses around Frederick Douglass Boulevard from 110th to 125th Street in Harlem is struggling to maintain the charm that has attracted new residents, shoppers and diners in the face of large-scale development nearby and a still-shaky economy.
Two recent closings — Nectar, a wine bar at 121st Street, and Society, a cafe at 115th Street, both recently shuttered — point up some of the challenges. Among them are the housing slump, which closed off the pipeline of new developments in the area; the arrival of nationwide chain businesses in the district, like a Red Lobster set to open on West 125th Street near the Apollo Theater; and the persistent debate over gentrification.
Louis Gagliano, who in 2007 took over Harlem Flo, a florist at 2292 Frederick Douglass at 123rd Street, and in late 2010 opened Harlem Flo Boutique, a gift shop a block south, said that to compensate for lower-than-expected foot traffic, he has created an active schedule of book signings, tea classes and fashion events. “You have to bring awareness and create other opportunities,” he said.
Nonetheless, independent restaurants and shops continue to sprout along and adjacent to Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Among the newcomers are Harlem Shambles, a butcher shop, and Harlem Tavern, a sports bar with a popular outdoor patio.
Other recent arrivals along the boulevard include Patisserie des Ambassades, a West African bakery that also serves sandwiches and salads; Levain, the cookie purveyor whose other store is on the Upper West Side; Lido, a bustling Italian restaurant; 5 and Diamond, a restaurant that has managed to survive turnover in the kitchen in the last two years; and Melba’s, the soul food restaurant created by a relative of Sylvia Woods, whose namesake restaurant is on Lenox Avenue and 127th Street. There is also a high-quality supermarket, a yoga studio and a CVS.
Marva Allen, who has run the Hue-Man Bookstore & Cafe at 2319 Frederick Douglass near 123rd Street for 10 years, said she was concerned about the development pressures confronting the area.
“Harlem was oversold and underdelivered,” she said, noting that an expected influx of new residents has been slow to build, in part because of the financial crisis that afflicted the condo market in 2008 and 2009, pushing back the pace of construction, although a number of projects have recently opened.
Starting in the early 2000s, condominium and apartment development in the area soared because of Bloomberg administration initiatives and rising housing values.
A 44-block area centered on Frederick Douglass from 110th to 124th Streets and Morningside Park to Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard was one of the first of the Department of City Planning’s rezoning efforts under the leadership of Amanda Burden, said Edwin Marshall, who led the rezoning for the department.
The city saw the area as “an untapped resource,” Mr. Marshall said, referring to great swaths of vacant city-owned land following the extensive seizure of properties across Harlem as landlords walked away from tax bills.
The rezoning led to more foot traffic and more retailers while reducing allowable building heights to 10 to 12 stories from 18 to 20 stories on the boulevards and preserving blocks of brownstones on the side streets.
Some 1,100 housing units have been created in the rezoned area, most along Frederick Douglass.
Kelley Lassman, an associate professor of education at Pace University, was one of the nonresidents who bought into the area as the market grew. Ms. Lassman bought her one-bedroom on West 117th Street in 2008, a year after moving to the city from Nashville. “Then everything crashed. It was really unnerving,” she said.
Her building, a seven-story rehabilitated school now called the Fitzgerald, was one of a few new projects available to buyers at the time. “A lot of the buildings weren’t ready,” she recalled. “Now, there are 15 buildings that are ready for sales. It was a neighborhood in transition.” Ms. Lassman was the first buyer to close, and now just seven of the 47 condos are unsold.
She describes the ethnic makeup of the building as mixed, adding that there are couples with and without children, as well as professionals and artists. “Age-wise, it’s leaning toward younger people,” she said.
Ms. Lassman said that although many people often have “preconceived ideas” about the area, “once they visit they really enjoy it. I like that there’s a lot of economic diversity in this neighborhood.”
One decidedly nonindependent business now operating along Frederick Douglass just south of 125th Street is the Aloft hotel, a 124-room Starwood franchise that opened in December 2010. The general manager, Daniel Fevre, said occupancy for 2012 is expected to be “well above 70 percent.” Planning for the project began six years ago, including ground-floor retail and 44 market-rate condos, most of which have been sold.
Mr. Fevre said his guests reflected the Aloft brand’s younger target market, with a mix of European and Asian customers and a spillover of visitors to nearby Columbia. More than half of the 28-person staff are local residents, he said. Echoing Ms. Lassman, he said that “a lot of my guests are still worried about Harlem. The big challenge is to get everybody to come.”
The late February closing of Nectar, the wine bar at 121st Street, was as much a reflection of the changes taking place along Frederick Douglass Boulevard as was the decision to open it as the economy crested in 2008. Four years earlier, with development beginning to stir, Jai-Jai Greenfield and a partner opened Harlem Vintage, a liquor store next to the Nectar site that has proved more durable.
The optimism behind the wine bar came face to face with the stark reality of still-slow foot traffic, limited hours of operation and its own limited menu and alcohol selection, on top of a struggling economy. Its closing as other businesses arrive reflects a developing streetscape that is only slowly catching up to the dreams of some of its biggest boosters.
Even that pace may feel too rapid and sweeping for some longtime business owners and residents, who will most feel the pinch of rising rents along with the more benign effects of gentrification.
The benefits of growth, including greater retail diversity, increased services, new residential units and safer, busier streets also can price out neighbors and shops of long standing.
Ms. Allen said some of the businesses that are arriving in the district, like the Red Lobster, represent a mainstreaming that suggest the area is “not even Harlem any more.” But she said that “business has grown every year” at Hue-Man Books. “It’s a niche market bookstore,” she said, “so it’s not as affected as other independents.”
And though she clearly has her concerns about where Harlem may be headed, she is also hopeful. “It would be great to retain its villagelike quality,” she said. “I hope it can be sustained.”