A Renewed Harlem. but a Renaissance?

Article excerpt

In a fiery speech at the A.M.E Zion Church in Harlem, Frederick Douglass grapples with the country's transition from slavery and with his own transition from illiterate servant to intellectual trailblazer.

Dressed in a black tailored suit, the actor portraying Douglass grips the edge of a pew, looks out at the audience, and says, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress."

Outside the church's walls, change is also in the air. With the help of the arts, Harlem is changing.

"Harlem is the new Greenwich Village," says Richard Haase, the play's writer and director. "People are rediscovering it. It is what I remember the Village being in the '70s - a little edgy with an element of danger, but exciting, full of life and soul. I wouldn't have produced this play anywhere else."

It is being dubbed a second Harlem Renaissance - a return to the Harlem of the 1920s and '30s, when jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington turned the neighborhood into one of the most exciting, creative centers in the world.

The Great Depression plunged the district into a decline that lasted until the early 1990s, when nearly two-thirds of Harlem's elegant brownstones stood empty.

In the past few years, fueled by a real-estate boom and the $300 million budget of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone (UMEZ), a community-development organization, the arts as well as the neighborhood have been revived. Some 6,000 new jobs, half of which are slated to be in the arts and entertainment industry, are expected by 2005, according to a UMEZ-commissioned study.

Though critics say the optimistic tidings are premature, one thing is for sure: The art world has once again turned its attention to Harlem.

In addition to new businesses lining 125th street, the "main street" of Harlem, there are signs of new life in the neighborhood's traditional venues.

The jazz mecca, Lenox Lounge, now serves soul food to patrons while they soak in old-world tunes. And a rapidly expanding Studio Museum recently lured directors from New York's Whitney and Metropolitan museums.

Ali Evans, the museum's public relations manager, says that at a time when other museums around the US are struggling to stay afloat, the Studio Museum is thriving as never before.

"Major papers and magazines are focusing on the museum," she says, adding that attendance has jumped 40 percent in two years, and fund-raising events have enjoyed record-breaking attendance. "The life of the museum has really grown," she says. "The appreciation level has increased so much."

A freshly renovated Apollo Theater recently hosted a sold-out Royal Shakespeare Company production of "Midnight's Children," and musical giants Annie Lennox and Erykah Badu have chosen the venue for concerts.

"There is something in the air that people are grabbing at," says New York City Councilman Bill Perkins, who represents Harlem. "People are exploring their art and fulfilling that need, that indescribable need, uptown," he says.

Audiences are responding. The Classical Theatre of Harlem's recent production of Jean Genet's play, "The Blacks: A Clown Show," sold out and extended its run.

"Sixty percent of the audience was not from the neighborhood," says Brett Singer, who publicized the production. "There was a Park Avenue couple in their 70s who attended the show. Not only had they never seen a show in Harlem, they'd never been to Harlem before."

For some businesses, however, the development and media attention seem overpowering and ill-founded.

Christian Haye, who has owned The Project art gallery in Harlem for five years, is moving his gallery downtown.

He says many new galleries are flocking to the neighborhood because it is considered hip, only to close soon thereafter.

Though Mr. Haye asserts that serious collectors will go anywhere to find the pieces they want, he says many new galleries do not have great work, and they don't benefit from the foot traffic they would get in neighborhoods such as Chelsea and Soho. …