How Three Harlem Entrepreneurs Are Fighting Gentrification

Harlem’s main drag, 125th Street, is dotted with signs of the neighborhood’s history as a mecca for black culture.

There is the Apollo Theater and the National Black Theater, with a banner that reads: “Keep Soul Alive. Your Culture Counts.” Vendors line the streets, scents of incense wafting from their tables.

These local staples, however, are under threat. A Banana Republic next to the Apollo features a window display that reads, “New Show in Town.” Around the corner, the famed Lenox Lounge has been demolished to make way for a Sephora. “R.I.P. Lenox Lounge,” graffiti on a neighboring building reads.

In 2005, the average commercial rent in Harlem was $65 per square foot. Today, the going rate is $124 per square foot, a 91 percent increase, according to an annual study by the Real Estate Board of New York. The rent increases have forced business owners to relocate or shut their doors for good.

Several local business owners, new and old, discussed how they were addressing the changes.

Preserving Black Culture
Walter Edwards, 79, real estate developer and chairman of the Harlem Business Alliance

In his 70 years living in Harlem, Mr. Edwards has seen drastic change. He remembers, years ago, a vibrant scene anchored by prominent black organizations.

“Harlem was the center of black energy,” he said. “There were a lot of changes going on. Between the black Muslims, the N.A.A.C.P. and the Urban League, everyone was active. And through that activism, a certain energy was created.”

But that vibe has since diminished.

In an effort to drive profits, Mr. Edwards said, real estate firms have rebranded sections of the neighborhood to make them more desirable for people who aren’t black.

But Mr. Edwards — who started his development firm, Full Spectrum, in Harlem in 1988 — is trying to protect the neighborhood’s black culture.

His most recent Harlem development, the Kalahari, has a 20,000-square-foot cultural center. The building’s zigzagging brick facade was inspired by the art of sub-Saharan tribes.

“There’s nothing to identify us as the master builders,” he said. “So we wanted to make certain that we established something that 100 years from now, black youth could come through the area, even if it has turned totally white, and they could see some semblance of black involvement.”

Respecting the Community
Jelena Pasic, 42, owner of the restaurant Harlem Shake

Ms. Pasic is not from Harlem, but she quickly fell in love with the neighborhood.

The love affair started during her regular workouts at the New York Sports Club on 125th Street.

“I would come three times a week and would always venture out a little bit,” she said. “I started realizing that Harlem has this amazing culture, amazing architecture and amazing work from the people.”

She eventually decided to invest in the community, and in 2013 she opened Harlem Shake, a fast-casual burger joint with a name inspired by the 1980s dance craze.

Jelena Pasic, right, the founder of Harlem Shake, speaks with members of Trinity Church in Harlem, where she regularly attends services. Tyler Blint-Welsh/NYT Institute

As a business owner, she said, she sees it as her responsibility to contribute to Harlem’s culture. Most of her staff and managers live in the community, and Ms. Pasic, a native of Rab, Croatia, lived around the corner from the restaurant before a rent hike forced her to move to New Jersey.

“I really try to live with the community that feeds me,” said Ms. Pasic, who co-owns the restaurant with her business partner, Dardra Coaxum. “I have that respect just because I think it’s the right thing to do.”

The front window features an image of Malcolm X with “Respect” written beneath it. Inside, the restaurant is decorated with vintage Jet Magazine covers, Luke Cage comic books and signed pictures of dozens of black celebrities who have eaten there.

When Ms. Pasic opened the restaurant, she launched the Miss Harlem Shake competition, a personality pageant only open to neighborhood residents. Customers vote on the winner, who is awarded $500 for personal use, $1,000 to donate to one of 10 Harlem-based nonprofits, and a featured spot on Harlem Shake’s African-American Day parade float.

“We as business owners have a big responsibility for cultural preservation,” Ms. Pasic said.

Schoolchildren cross the street in front of Harlem Shake at West 124th Street and Lenox Avenue. Tyler Blint-Welsh/NYT Institute

Building Black Ownership
Katrina Parris, owner of the NiLu gift shop

Ms. Parris says her vision for her corner of Harlem was ahead of its time. When she opened a flower shop 15 years ago on 120th Street and Lenox Avenue, the surrounding blocks were filled with liquor stores, bodegas and hair salons. What was missing were basic neighborhood necessities.

“People believed that because it wasn’t here, we didn’t want it,” she said.

Ms. Parris sold her flower shop in January 2015. But a few months later, in May, she opened NiLu in the same location. She calls it “Harlem’s gift store.”

She named the business after her preteen sons, Nigel and Luke. She said that she and her husband had tried to teach them the importance of entrepreneurialism.

“I feel that as a mother of two black sons, I love the fact that for as long as our boys have lived, they’ve seen us as entrepreneurs,” she said. “They get to understand that you can be the creator. You don’t have to go into something that’s already been created, but you can create your own ideas.”

Katrina Parris, left, looks on while a customer smells a candle at NiLu. Tyler Blint-Welsh/NYT Institute
A black-owned skincare line on display at NiLu. The store hosts regular pitch nights for local entrepreneurs. Tyler Blint-Welsh/NYT Institute

From left, Katrina Parris, left, looks on while a customer smells a candle at NiLu. A black-owned skincare line on display at NiLu. The store hosts regular pitch nights for local entrepreneurs.
Tyler Blint-Welsh/NYT Institute

The boys, who sell baked goods on the sidewalk outside the store, have attracted young investors. Ms. Parris is ensuring that the boys understand how to save money and analyze the cost of goods.

She has partnered with the director of a Harlem art gallery and the Harlem School of the Arts to teach art business in local schools. Students will learn how to display and sell their artwork and build their personal brands. At the end of June, the artists will hold their own gallery show, followed by a meet-the-artist event at NiLu.

“It’s about preserving what has always been here,” Ms. Parris said, “and recognizing that even if it hasn’t always been pretty, Harlem has still got the soul that it’s always had.”