By Richard Daub
This is part two in a six part series.
In general, the only Harlem attraction most outsiders know about is the Apollo Theater. That’s what everyone has to see when they come to Harlem, whether just to get a glimpse of the marquee, take a guided tour, or see a show. That’s why it made sense to me that all these buses were going down 125th Street. But, before I knew about this “famous” doll factory on West 131st (pictured above), I was wondering why these tour buses started driving by our building. It was cool in a way that we lived in a neighborhood that tourists were paying good money to see ($44 a head for the “Uptown Loop”, which originates down near Times Square and takes them all the way up to 135th Street, through part of Harlem, and then back down Fifth Avenue). But, if it wasn’t for these buses, would our little enclave here on the Isle of Manhattan be considered a tourist destination? Probably not. I suppose 3333 Broadway could be a tourist attraction for urban planning students in the “what not to do” section of their courseload, and I suppose I could hang a sign out our apartment window pointing out that our building could be seen in the opening scene of American Gangster. We get a lot of locals who venture up to 12th Avenue to eat at Dinosaur Barbecue or the Hudson River Café, Covo Trattoria & Pizzeria and who do their shopping at Fairway. We get a lot of film crews who love shooting under the viaduct, which does look really cool from below. But I don’t think many tourists or even most New Yorkers for that matter know about this trendy part of Harlem, the so-called “Harlem Meatpacking District” or “Viaduct Valley”. This is unfortunate because it is a glimpse of what Harlem could be and an example of success where other business owners have not only failed to succeed, but have not even tried.
Imagine, if Dinosaur Barbecue was located right in the middle of 125th Street. People would come from all over the world to eat there. Instead, 125th Street has a new Applebee’s, a restaurant chain that is everywhere, and therefore irrelevant in terms of outside money coming into Harlem because only locals will eat there and the profits will go to their corporate headquarters in Lenexa, Kansas. The approach that local businesses have taken, which has prevented Harlem from reaching its economic potential, has again come to pass: offer a generic brand that the local residents recognize and make money from them. Sure, maybe a few jobs have been created this way, but these are not the kind of businesses that can spur significant growth, which can only happen here if outside money is brought in and spent here. Harlem, itself is a brand recognized around the world, yet when people come here, what is there to do beyond the Apollo? Go to Applebee’s? Jimmy Jazz? OTB? And, what are the locally owned restaurants speckled around Harlem in places not visible from 125th Street doing to attract this $28 billion?
Apparently, Madame Alexander’s Doll Factory is one of the few businesses unique to Harlem that recognizes the potential of boosting the local economy by attracting outside tourist dollars. It seems bizarre that a doll factory is what many tourists will associate with Harlem after their visit here, but that shows the economic power that a company such as Gray Line yields given the hundreds of thousands of tourists they physically bring to Harlem each year.
“We feel that Madame Alexander’s is a very historical place that the entire family can enjoy,” David said. “We’ve provided incentives where when someone hops off at Madame Alexander’s, they’ll receive a free gift. And we’re trying to work with the community to develop this stop a lot more. We recently had a trolley to Dreamgirls [at the Apollo, which premiered the new movie], and there will soon be a shuttle that goes up from Midtown in conjunction with NYC & Company. Hopefully it will bring more customers from Midtown to venture into Harlem.”
I asked David what the tourists do when they get off the bus in Harlem.
“They want to see the Apollo Theater,” he said. “People have asked about where to eat, but unfortunately we don’t have a restaurant or food venue in Harlem that ties to any of our tours. We’re certainly hoping to develop that. I throw that question out to you: if someone is visiting Harlem for the first time, where would you point them to?”
This was an interesting question. I can tell you that Madame Alexander’s Doll Factory would not be among them, although I would show them 12th Avenue right down the block. As for the Apollo Theater, they would see it anyway since you would have to take them down 125th Street, and if they really wanted to see the inside, they could take a tour. For my fifteen minute tour, I would show them Striver’s Row, take them over to Convent Avenue near City College, up through Sugar Hill, and back down Frederick Douglass Blvd. below 125th to show them the ridiculous amount of new construction there has been in the last few years. I would also take them across 116th Street and do a little tour of East Harlem, of course mentioning that this area is more famously known as “Spanish Harlem”. Then we would have lunch at Sylvia’s.
And here lies one of the issues. Sylvia’s is already a successful business and one of the strongest brand names in Harlem. They do well enough that they don’t really need outside help, so they probably don’t want busloads of tourists being dumped at their door and disrupting their regular business. If there were more unique restaurants and clubs in Harlem, then maybe Sylvia’s would be more accommodating to organized bus tours such as Gray Line and City Sights. David said they have tried to work with Sylvia’s in the past, but they were never able to reach an agreement. Part of the reason for this is that the tour companies would want Sylvia’s to give their customers a discount in exchange for bringing customers and advertising their business in their tour books and pamphlets. Sylvia’s, which is already reasonably priced, does not need to offer discounts in order to do steady business.
“In order to develop a certain venue for meals, it’s difficult to go to an establishment and say, ‘We’re looking to bring busloads of people who are hopping off to have lunch here’,” David said. “Some restaurants might not like that, but others will say, ‘The more the merrier.’ When you have a restaurant as iconic as Sylvia’s, it may present a challenge, and we’re trying to figure out how to do this at a price that’s available for our customers to buy a ticket to go uptown as well as shopping and spending their money in Harlem. We take that into consideration, so we want to keep the price of the meal affordable for everyone. But we haven’t been able to do that yet.”
But what about the other restaurants? Not many of them have enjoyed the success of Sylvia’s, and some are struggling to keep their doors open. I asked David if other Harlem businesses have been resistant in trying to form partnerships with Gray Line and City Sights.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘resistant’ because I think each business has its own way of going about their daily schedule,” he said. “Flexibility is the key here. Obviously, we like to work with everybody, and we’re reaching out to the operators of Harlem businesses.”
To be continued…