Leah Abraham opened her cafe on Lenox Avenue in 2001 with a track record in business and a determination to chalk up another success. It never occurred to her to court the local elected officials and business and church leaders — the Harlem establishment — and get their blessing before she opened her door.
“I never felt that I had to ask for permission or that I had to wait my turn,” said Ms. Abraham, owner of Settepani, a cafe and restaurant on Lenox Avenue near West 120th Street. “I have done whatever I wanted to do despite anyone’s blessing.”
She soon realized, though, that her approach “is very different than the way the old guard looks at doing business in Harlem.”
And so nearly 10 years later, she said, business is good, but local leaders like Representative Charles B. Rangel, whose office is nearby, have yet to hold a meeting or an event in her restaurant.
“If he has an event, he’ll have it at Sylvia’s,” she said. “That’s the power that they have.”
Before million-dollar condominiums, fancy boutiques and coffee shops began to sprout along Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, Harlem was a struggling neighborhood of mom-and-pop shops, soul food restaurants and other small businesses that operated largely with a small-town exclusivity that is rarely replicated in other parts of the city.
Business deals were brokered over meals at places like Sylvia’s or in the pews of black churches, where local elected officials and other community leaders offered their blessings. It was there that new owners established relationships that often brought in business, as well as grants and financing.
Senior business owners said the meetings were as much about making intentions known as they were about showing respect — “kissing the rings,” many said.
“There were people in the community that you had to sell your ideas to: the politicians, the business organizations and churches, the nonprofit organizations,” said Londel Davis Sr., a former police officer who opened his first business, a deli, in 1983 and Londel’s, a bar and restaurant on Frederick Douglass Boulevard near 140th Street, in 1994. “They would support you with their business, and in return you supported them however you could.”
But with Harlem’s gentrification has come an unintended side effect: tensions between the neighborhood’s established business and political class and new business owners, some of whom view the old ways as patrimonial sentiment that is obsolete.
The schism seems to be as much about the old guard’s slowly losing its grip on power as it is about a perceived lack of respect shown by newcomers — a tension that many have said also exists in local politics.
Some say the rift is another indication of how much Harlem is changing.
Today, I think instead of Harlem being viewed as a community, as a village, it is viewed as just another (business venture)…But how will those that opened the door be protected and taken care of?”
“Today, I think instead of Harlem being viewed as a community, as a village, it is viewed as just another” business venture, said Walter J. Edwards, who opened his first business, a dry cleaner, in 1960, and later Full Spectrum, a real estate development company. “But how will those that opened the door be protected and taken care of?”
The old guard is still very active and, for the most part, still holds access to the purse strings to government loans and grants. At the top of the power heap is the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, which has had a presence in the neighborhood for 114 years.
The chamber, as well as other business associations, including the Harlem Business Alliance, where Mr. Edwards is the chairman, have long-established relationships with Harlem’s older political leaders.
Those groups have long been vehicles for “money coming in and power,” which were scarce in times when banks and other institutions did not widely lend to blacks, said Van DeWard Woods, president of Sylvia’s restaurant and the son of its matriarch, Sylvia Woods.
In contrast, many of the new business owners come in better financed and operate with a casual indifference for neighborhood rituals. They say they are more concerned with handling their business than coddling egos.
Nikoa Evans-Hendricks (above), an owner of N Boutique (now closed) on Lenox Avenue, which opened in 2005, said that she, like many of the “young and progressive” business owners, respected those who came before them, but that the climate was right for fresh blood and ideas.
The old guard doesn’t have as much influence on the new guard… There isn’t that same sense of indebtedness…
“The old guard doesn’t have as much influence on the new guard,” Ms. Evans-Hendricks said. “There isn’t that same sense of indebtedness.”
Longtime business owners argue that respect is due because it was their sacrifices that led to the gentrified Harlem the newcomers now enjoy.
“They have a lot of fear, fear of ‘we’ve put up these fights and you don’t know our fight,’ ” said Ms. Abraham, who is something of a bridge between the old and new generations, and who is both admired and resented as a pioneer of the new Harlem. “They have a sense of ownership, that this was their Harlem.”
Eugene Giscombe (left), who opened a real estate business in 1982, described the scene as very “clubby” in the 1970s and ’80s, but doors were opened for young people who “wanted to go places and get somewhere in life.”
He said the old relationships were a necessity. For instance, he said, new business owners often needed politicians or prominent businesspeople to vouch for loans and rental agreements and to secure permits and licenses.
“I guess because things were so tough on us years ago that we looked inward to ourselves for support and encouragement and the ability to get things done through each other,” Mr. Giscombe said. “Back then we needed all the help we could get, and we looked around and we knew our neighbors and we went to them for support.”
Mr. Davis, owner of Londel’s, said, “We survived on the strength of the relationships that we built over the years.”
Many of the newcomers said that their independence did not come without consequences: Harlem’s institutions continue to support the businesses that came up the traditional way.
Both new and old Harlemites list businesses that they say opened with fanfare, but without local involvement. Word was spread that they were not interested in longtime Harlem residents or their patronage, the stories go, and eventually the businesses were forced to shut their doors.
Councilwoman Inez E. Dickens, whose district includes Harlem and whose family has operated businesses there for over half a century, cites her own support for a restaurant on Fifth Avenue near 116th Street. She said she held a couple of meetings there and invited colleagues to do the same. But the owners failed to welcome them, she said, and business dried up. The restaurant has since closed.
“The reality is that if you don’t do it, they will let it be known that you didn’t come into the community the right way,” Ms. Evans-Hendricks, of N Boutique, said. “You will most certainly be shunned.”
Some of the new business owners say they have turned to Mr. Edwards’s Harlem Business Alliance for advice. Others said, though, that the large, historic business associations, particularly the chamber, were too bureaucratic and slow-moving for the rapidly changing landscape.
The older institutions also appear to be focused on the large-scale development going on in Harlem, like the addition of Target, Applebee’s and upscale hotels and cultural centers.
“Being a member of one of these organizations in and of itself doesn’t guarantee success,” said Karl Franz Williams, owner of 67 Orange Street, a bar, and Society Coffee, a coffee shop, both of which opened within the past three years. “In the past maybe it was that way, that you couldn’t be successful without being a member, but that obviously is not the case anymore.”
A group of mostly newer Harlem business owners including Ms. Abraham, Ms. Evans-Hendricks and Mr. Williams last year formed Harlem Park to Park, a business alliance in south Harlem. The organization, with a mix of more than 50 old and new businesses, formed to offer an alternative to the established networks.
Councilwoman Dickens said there were risks in abandoning the old conventions.
“The new people come in and try to do business the way they would in some other place,” she said, “without any understanding of the culture here, and so many of them fail because they don’t extend themselves in the community.”
“They come in with great ideas and beautiful places that they invested their money in to build,” she added, “beautiful commercial storefronts, bars, restaurants, but there’s not enough of the new people coming in yet today to keep them alive.”
“Unless they are able to survive for another 10 years,” she said, “they will have to introduce themselves to not just the new who are coming in, but to those of us that have been here all along.”
Editor-in-Chief’s note: No matter rich or poor, gay or straight, black or white, male or female, old or new, green or blue each one of us must find way to a middle ground, to reach across the aisle. The future of our businesses, the future of Harlem, the future of our kids and their kids in Harlem lay in our actions and decisions we make today and tomorrow. The question is, can we put what we disagree on, on a shelf and move forward on the things we agree on?