News | West Harlem

On 125th Street, a changing facade

  • SHOPPING SPREE | The surroundings of the Apollo Theater, a cultural staple of 125th Street in Harlem, have evolved over the years to include new businesses and shopping centers.

This article is the second in a two-part series exploring the past, present, and future of 125th Street, Harlem's main street. Read part one here.

Along 125th Street, a bustling horde of locals and tourists swarms by, weaving between newly constructed scaffolding and gleaming glass shopping complexes. Just a decade ago, this now-busy commercial street with brightly lit signs and retail stores lining the sidewalk would have been unrecognizable, and business developers say that these changes are for the better, ushering in the second century of the historic Harlem street.

Since the establishment of Harlem USA in 2000, one of the largest shopping centers along 125th Street, retail development has flourished.

Similar shopping sites continue to spring up along the street, including two complexes under construction at Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Lenox Avenue, as well as Grid Properties’ One-2-Five LIVE project, a smaller retail site next to the Apollo Theater.

“I think Harlem USA was really the catalyst of the Harlem Renaissance of retail development of 125th Street,” Scott Auster, managing director of Grid Properties, said. “When we built the site, no national retailers were in the area. We realized early on that it was a very underserved environment.”

Auster and Kenneth Knuckles, president and chief executive officer of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, which collaborated with Grid Properties previously, both believe that the neighborhood has benefited from the recent development.

“We did a demographic analysis, and we realized that a lot of the locals were not doing shopping in the neighborhood,” Auster said. “It made a lot of sense to open stores closer to where these people lived.”

Barbara Askins, president of the 125th Street Business Improvement District, said that she is working to maintain the balance between preserving Harlem’s heritage and helping businesses grow.

“We know what we want it to look like, but how do we make it happen?” she said. “We have to bring property developers together and get them to buy into the vision.”

The developers also stressed their efforts to accommodate the needs of local community members and help them adjust to the development changes. “In all of our projects, we provide local retailers space for a low market rent,” Auster said, citing the 4,000-square-foot local African-American bookstore that they supported in their Harlem USA project.

Development often leads to increased housing prices or possible displacement. Knuckles said he doesn’t think that’s been a big problem.

“There is probably some displacement, but it’s a unique situation, since it’s not the kind of displacement where a site that was several years ago for lower income residents suddenly has people of affluence moving in,” he said.

Knuckles said that often, new buildings are constructed on vacant avenues, and that there is still ample public and residential housing from rehabilitated older buildings that are tailored to lower-income residents. City subsidies have also forced many developers to provide affordable units to buyers with a median income or less.

Carolyn Thomas, who has lived in Harlem for most of her life, said that she witnesses people being evicted from their apartments every day due to the rising cost of living in the neighborhood.

“We’re not 34th Street. We’re not downtown. We’re not next to Bloomingdale’s,” she said. “I came to New York at the age of nine and loved it then—I don’t like it now. They’re moving out a lot of businesses that can’t afford the rent. They’re changing Harlem from river to river, but they’re not being conducive to people who live here.”

“I can imagine what it is going to be like in the future. The people that are here now are not going to be here anymore because of housing prices, and this place will be like 34th Street.”

But Brother Cee, a minister and vendor in Harlem, said that he didn’t mind the development.

“There should be a mixture of people in the neighborhood,” he said.

This article is the second in a two-part series exploring the past, present, and future of 125th Street, Harlem's main street. Read part one here.

emma.cheng@columbiaspectator.com | @ColumbiaSpec

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