Friday, March 7, 2008

Harlem faces a new executioner

Sydney Morning Herald

Harlem faces a new executioner
Ian Munro
March 8, 2008

There is cold comfort for the unpopular and the just-not-good-enough at the Apollo Theatre's amateur night in Harlem: they are dispatched with some flair.

The one they call The Executioner, whose job it is to clear the stage when the booing reaches its peak, tap dances onstage and drives off the unfinished acts.

One of his predecessors did his work with a broom, sweeping the stage clean. Now, wearing a loud, checked suit, a police uniform or a white laboratory coat with an outsized syringe to put down a dud comedian, today's incarnation does it with style.

The Apollo, a Harlem landmark, central to the place that 125th Street has in black American culture, fostered the careers of Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Wonder - but it has always been a tough room.

That much has not changed. Yet now the audience is as likely to be from Europe or Asia as from Morningside Heights.

While tourism may prove to be the Apollo's saviour, the future of the community that fostered the theatre is much less certain now that New York's planning department has proposed sweeping zoning changes for 125th Street.

The city's plan would allow the mostly low-rise street to accommodate office towers up to 29 storeys, and introduce 2000 private apartments and art galleries and hotels.

A New York City councillor, Inez Dickens, says African-Americans helped make Harlem "a black homeland, an international cultural destination … I have never lived anywhere else but Harlem and never wanted to."

Everyone seems to agree that investment and new employment opportunities are necessary, but doubters worry that the intended high-rise development will destroy the character of the street's historic architecture, and its living culture as well.

They would be little comforted by the planner-speak in the city's outline, which says the proposal intends "to spur a mix of new retail, office, hotel and residential development within the framework of urban design guidelines that recognise the special character of this internationally celebrated street".

Much of the street is now struggling, yet the city planners openly admit their proposal could sink 71 businesses.

Worrying enough for cultural loyalists is that as the area gentrifies, commercial pressure for higher rents is already leaving its mark. This year two landmark record stores, Bobby's Happy House, which opened in 1946, and the Harlem Record Shack, dating back to the '70s, have either gone or are marked for closure.

Ms Dickens took exception to the planners' airy dismissal of the doomed businesses, which they considered as not making a significant economic contribution to the city.

"These are the indigenous businesses in my community and indeed many of these hard-working small businesses are part of the fabric, character, the very essence of the meaning of Harlem," she told the planners.

"In a recession, communities of colour sustain the hardest economic hit. We are the last hired and the first fired. Our small businesses give Harlem's young people their first jobs and Harlem's seniors opportunities close to home to earn supplemental income."

She urged the commission to set aside a percentage of new development for existing small businesses.

In an area where home prices have already soared, the city's plan - despite the inclusion of some low-income housing - is seen as signalling the possible long-term dislocation of the area's traditional population. Later this month the city will revisit the proposal.

As one businessman told local media: "There was a time when everybody was running away from Harlem, but we stayed. We kept the culture alive. Tourists are not coming here to see McDonald's and Burger King. They are coming here to see black culture."

And hoping The Executioner limits his work to the stage.

Sydney Morning Herald

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