Savona Bailey-McClain got the idea for the West Harlem Food and Beverage Association while working on Community Board 9′s economic development committee as the group sought to bring a ferry operator to West Harlem Piers Park on West 125th Street.
Potential operators kept asking the same question: “Where are the restaurants?” said Bailey-McClain, who is also the executive director of The West Harlem Art Fund, Inc.
“I started the association to show that we do have restaurants,” she said.
The association covers neighborhoods from Edgecombe to the Hudson River from West 110th to West 155th streets. It includes Morningside Heights, Manhattanville and Hamilton Heights.
There have always been bars and restaurants in the neighborhood but over the past couple of years West Harlem has developed even more establishments— and in unexpected places.
There’s the newly opened French bistro Maison Harlem on West 127th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue and Harlem Public, a bar that opened in September on Broadway and West 148th Street.
Nearby is the cafe The Chipped Cup. Add to the mix existing establishments such as Dinosaur Barbecue at 12th Avenue and West 125th Street and Massawa Ethiopian restaurant at Amsterdam Avenue and West 121st Street, and the neighborhood is bustling.
“West Harlem can get such a negative spin sometimes,” Bailey-McClain said. “We see the restaurants as a building block to bring real economic development.”
At Harlem Public, owners Lauren Lynch, 29, and Jay Janawsky, 30, say the area has tremendous potential.
“You have Columbia University to the north, Columbia University to the south, City College, a huge enclave of artists and young families,” Lynch said.
On a recent Thursday night, the bar was filling up before 7 p.m. Inside was a mix of people of different races and age groups.
“I wanted a neighborhood place where people could come together, an Irish Pub. As soon as I came here I just felt it,” Lynch said.
LaQuita Henry, community liaison for Heritage Health and Housing and the project manager for the group’s commercial revitalization initiative focusing on Sugar Hill and Hamilton Heights, said the neighborhood has many advantages.
“There is the internationality of the area and there is a legacy of jazz and culture here. It has a history and legacy that won’t die,” Henry said. “There are also a lot of vacancies. People see opportunity because there is space and we want to fill those spaces.”
The group has worked with landlords to attract businesses. Areas like Broadway already had a lot of business activity, but they are now changing from from ethnic-specific business to more general-interest bars and restaurants.
“The newer places are bringing a more avant-garde look and theme,” Henry said.
At Massawa, which is celebrating 25 years in business this year, Rahel Tekeste said the family-owned business joined the association because the owners were looking for opportunities they couldn’t generate on their own.
The restaurant is starting its own line of spices and honey wine. Through connections with the association, Creole Restaurant in East Harlem is considering purchasing some of the spices.
“The businesses are working together to provide more reach. We are helping one another to make money,” Tekeste said.
Dee Rajwani, one of the owners of the newly-opened Jin Ramen on Broadway near West 125th Street, said the partners saw an opportunity to diversify the area.
“We felt the area could use a local, trendy ramen joint to contribute to the cultural diversity of West Harlem,” Rajwani said.
Columbia University’s $6.3 billion campus expansion into West Harlem was also a factor in the decision to open the restaurant.
“Many of us recognize the contemporary culinary renaissance that is sweeping through Harlem. This emergence along with Columbia University’s Manhattanville expansion provides an immense potential for growth,” Rajwani said. “We are confident that the area will continue to thrive.”
Like the ferry situation, there are a myriad opportunities that area restaurants can access, Bailey-McClain said. Getting people who attend Columbia University’s Miller Theater or City College’s Aaron Davis Hall to attend area restaurants is also another goal.
“We have to show people we are here,” Bailey-McClain said.
In December, association members will offer discounts and provide food for the Dec. 12 tree lighting at West Harlem Piers Park.
“People realize that if they help their neighbors, they are helping themselves,” Bailey-McClain said.
Lynch and Janawsky said they both would love to see more businesses fill the empty storefronts in the area, including bringing a music scene to the neighborhood.
“I see more businesses opening, more places to socialize,” Janawsky said. “If your goal is to make something good that everyone likes, others will follow.”