Harlem Arts: A Faux Renaissance?

Talk to people on the street, read the Sunday Times or New York Magazine and you’re liable to have seen buzz about a revival uptown. Walking east on 125th Street, you’ll spot a billboard proclaiming “The Harlem Renaissance Continues” over a vacant lot ripe with possibilities. Harlem, although it never left, is suddenly back, and not a moment too soon. With boom-boom scenes long ago bleeding over the bridges into Kings and even seemingly impenetrable Queens, real estate agents and development moguls were scratching their heads as to which dauphin could possibly be anointed the next big thing. Bombed-out buildings rewound to stately brownstones, fashionable Scandinavian clothing stores, and a bright and shiny Apollo announce that Harlem is truly the contender. But do real estate, designer knock-offs, and Art Deco restorations a “renaissance” make?

Bookseller on 125th Street in Harlem, June 1943. Photo by Roger Smith, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Catalog No. LC-USW3-031102-C.

Harlem has long been known as a community that embraces the arts, and five or so years ago longtime resident artists and newcomers alike gazed starry eyed into a future Harlem art scene to rival SoHo and Chelsea in their halcyon days. Uptown was to sizzle with artistic verve over the throbbing pulse of the heart of black America now filled with a new hope. Just a few years later, the neighborhood is a smattering of artists looking for a center. For some, like gallery director Carole Jones, this is the ripening of something truly new and truly special. For others, though, it is fruit that died on the vine leaving questions as to what, if anything, was missed.

Jones, a vivacious woman with intoxicating enthusiasm, opened her space Atelier in January of this year. Although “every month is close,” she is excited by the possibilities the neighborhood holds. Her street level space in the shadow of the 125th Street Metro North Railroad station gets foot traffic that initially took her completely by surprise. “People just kind’ve fell in here every day. They’re still falling in here,” she observes. Jones moved uptown from SoHo, where she had been since 1997 after coming east from Chicago, and when she found her current space, “It was just like dousing, when you’re looking for water and you can just feel the vibrations.”

Talking to Jones, one can truly believe that Harlem is for real. Unlike SoHo or Chelsea, there is energy from the existing residents and the commerce into which galleries are now weaving themselves. It is this combination that Jones sees allowing Harlem to grow commercially while not supplanting the creative. “There are a lot of strong people who’ve been through a lot of hard times. They will fight a lot harder than someone who’s been spoon fed,” she notes.

In Harlem, Jones sees the promise of more down to earth art that attempts to connect with the community in an everyday way. “Chelsea is still not servicing the real purpose of art. The real purpose of art is to enlighten, not to be elite […] Harlem is enlightening in the fact that there are less people on Prozac than anywhere in the world.” This burgeoning uptown vibe is what Jones calls a “mock head for a global community” due to its diversity and the strength of the artistic community.

On the other hand, there is the reality of development. For a Harlem with an artistic vision to succeed, the city and commercial interests would have to want it to succeed. Rent subsidies for the arts or compensation to landlords have been posited as possible ways to build momentum and/or keep it within the neighborhood. The complications of economic realities of real estate contribute to the skepticism of Jones’s colleagues in the Harlem art scene. Although the desire to believe is there, these critics have more trouble seeing an artistic renaissance brewing uptown. Glenda Johnson, editor-in-chief of Harlem Citizen, notes that there are many artists living in Harlem, many of whom operate out of their homes, but she questions the visibility of this community. Johnson cites a lack of active organizations that might bring cohesion to the myriad of individuals that make up the uptown art world. Paula Coleman, co-director of PCOG Gallery agrees, “There are enough organizations to make Harlem interesting if they’re all active and doing interesting things.” But despite all of the artists about, many of these organizations are relatively silent.

And all of these artists in the neighborhood are not really new, but “Old Harlem” doesn’t get much play in the press. There is much ado about “New Harlem,” but very little about the people who have been performing theater for years or, for example, the Harlem Arts Alliance. Even beyond the arts, Coleman remarks that the concept of the “new” creates a picture of “a Harlem that was once diseased and curing it.” By proclaiming Harlem a new art scene and gallery destination, there is an implication that just a short time ago this was not the case, that there was some kind of artistic void previously. And Coleman objects to how this rhetoric valorizes the movement into the neighborhood, as opposed to recognizing the efforts of long-time residents. She laments, “It’s just unfortunate that it couldn’t be cured by the people here, that is mostly people of color.”

But can artists, a generally transplanted group, be separated from other gentrifying forces in the neighborhood? As to whether artists today pose a threat to the community, Monique Taylor, Associate Professor of Sociology at Occidental College and author of Harlem: Between Heaven and Hell notes, “I would say you cannot separate the artists, their studio work spaces, and exhibition and performance spaces from recent market activity.” She continues, “Our understanding of artists as a class should not be divorced from broader political changes that no longer (in theory) restrict housing access on the basis of race. I think it would be easy, however, to fall into a trap that says because Harlem was the cultural capital of black America it should always remain so, thereby letting artists off the hook as agents of unwanted or unwelcome economic change in the neighborhood.” An active and engaged art scene inspires change and evolution, both positive and negative, and responds to political and economic forces, like any social group engaged with a larger, heterogeneous community.

Christine Louisy-Daniel, director of the recently closed gallery Fire Patrol N.5 Art also worries about what changes gentrification will bring not only in terms of the arts, but also in the very nature of the community. Moving to Harlem in 1998, later transforming her home into her exhibition space as well, Louisy-Daniel hoped that the budding art scene would blossom. In 1998, Harlem seemed promising for art and artists alike. Commercial and residential rents were still affordable (much like the eighties in the East Village). Gallery X, The Project, Gallery 135 opened, and of course the Studio Museum in Harlem went through a major face-lift both administratively and architecturally. Excitement was in the air and the street still pulsed to a very special urban southern tempo. By 2002, Gallery X had closed and moved to Turkey. In 2003, The Project moved from 126th street to 57th street, and Fire Patrol N.5 held its last exhibition in May. Louisy-Daniel mourns the loss of these spaces. She comments, “It seems that the cluster of art enterprises which had for a second flourished, brought downtown uptown, have vanished and have yet to be replaced. It seems the only thriving art is the art of getting money.”

A walk through the neighborhood would tend to bear out this assessment. 125th Street is awash in clothing stores, eateries, and record shops while the only art venue on this main drag is the Studio Museum. Even around the neighborhood, art spaces are few and far between. Geographically spread out, Paula Coleman notes that her gallery, Atelier, and Triple Candie form a triangle of spaces that she hopes will become more populated. “I’m hoping there will be more because I’m feeling kind of lonely.” Right now she is just praying something interesting moves into a space catty-corner to PCOG and presently vacant.

It is indeed difficult for the arts to flourish when the groundwork is so scant. As Glenda Johnson notes, “Artists are already being priced out of the neighborhood. Harlem has a long tradition of supporting its artists, but now I see a neighborhood in transition that can no longer sustain that support.” She wonders how artists will sustain themselves in this economic climate.

Of course, the “art scene” uptown might be just another dog and pony show attempt by neighborhood boosters and vested commercial interests to make Harlem a tourist-friendly destination. Not to say that the arts are not a part of the community fabric, but speaking to residents and walking through the neighborhood, one understands that a germinating art scene is an aside to the New Harlem’s commerce and tourism raison d’être. Folks like Carole Jones hope that the neighborhood’s history and strength will trump the march to turn it into another wing of the Mall of Manhattan, but others like Christine Louisy-Daniel feel Harlem is already through the looking glass. The historical cultural center of black America turned into a shopping destination and living museum is easy copy and good money for those in the right places. Harlem as a bohemian mecca and friendly shore for creativity of all kinds, although less gimmicky and potentially more enduring, is harder to bullet point in the Times Style section or to plunk into a spreadsheet on positive development.

This does not mean that a new kind of renaissance in Harlem cannot happen, or even that it is not happening already. There are many artists in the community, working in the neighborhood, and creating some amazing things. If there is to be a true “renaissance,” the focus and recognition needs to shift to them. In the press coverage of the New Harlem, Paula Coleman recognizes that “they concentrate on the gallery. I want to see more press for the artist, not for the gallery.” After all, artists, not galleries or museums, create art. A hundred chain stores will not stem the flow of artists if they feel the energy, like Carole Jones and others have. There is certainly a desire to see the community succeed on its own terms, a kind of success that doesn’t exist elsewhere. “I still love Harlem and pray that someone, something will wake the Harlemites up into defending this very special unique place,” Louisy-Daniel remarked. But that means that artists, newly residing or lifelong residents, need to be able to afford to live there.

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