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Kai Ryssdal: For the first time in 40 years, one of New York City’s most famous neighborhoods has a major new hotel to boast about. Harlem hasn’t had a brand-name place to stay since the 1960s. Starwood Hotels has broken that dry spell with a new boutique chain: the Aloft hotel in Harlem opened just after New Year’s. But the controversy over what the new development is doing to the area has been brewing for a while.
Marketplace’s Janet Babin reports.
Janet Babin: I’m waiting for a tour of the Aloft Hotel in what I assume is the lobby. But the hip, tech-savvy travelers the hotel is trying to attract, equate lobbies with waiting — bad.
Here’s Aloft’s sales director Aleks Truglio.
Aleks Truglio: So instead of a lobby, we have the Remix area, and that is comprised of the Aloha Desk, our check-in area…
Aloha is the standard staff greeting.
Truglio: Aloha, Adrian.
Truglio shows me a typical room, spacious by Manhattan standards. Nine-foot ceilings and a clear view of Harlem’s iconic Apollo Theater.
Announcer at the Apollo Theatre: Show time at the Apollo!
The last hotel in Harlem, the Theresa, catered to Apollo performers who were shut out of other Manhattan hotels. The Theresa closed in 1967. Over the next two decades, drugs and crime moved into the neighborhood and blacks who could afford to moved out.
Columbia University professor Lance Freeman says it took Harlem another decade to begin its recovery.
Lance Freeman: Probably starting in the late 1990s you really start to see gentrification happening, people buying and refurbishing brownstones, opening up restaurants or boutiques.
Now, fueled in part by rising rents in the rest of Manhattan, the latest Harlem renaissance is underway. Starwood Hotels VP Brian McGuinness says Harlem can attract tourists who’d normally stay in Midtown.
Brian McGuinness: Harlem is a dynamic neighborhood, and certainly it’s up-and-coming. It made sense to go into an emerging neighborhood, you know, introducing the new Harlem and being part of rewriting the next chapter of history for that area.
But some Harlem residents say they’re the ones who should rewrite that chapter. Not long before The Aloft opened, a group called the Harlem Tenants Council led a small protest against gentrification — that is, the displacement of locals by wealthy buyers who want to snatch up Harlem property.
Organizer Nellie Hester Bailey says the Aloft Hotel is an example of predatory development.
Nellie Hester Bailey: Landlords and developers have targeted Harlem to develop luxury housing far beyond the means of Harlem residents.
Rooms at the Aloft average about $240 a night. The building’s condos sell for $340,000 to more than $1 million.
A few blocks over from the Aloft, celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson recently opened a new restaurant, the Red Rooster.
Marcus Samuelsson: You have the mushrooms there?
On a busy Monday night, Samuelsson prepped his staff for VIPs.
Marcus Samuelsson: So like, Charlie Rose is coming in today. So it’s not just “Hi, welcome,” it’s like “Welcome back Mr. Rose,” right?
Samuelsson, who is of Ethiopian and Swedish descent, says gentrification doesn’t have to be about exclusion. He hopes old and new Harlem mingle at the Red Rooster.
Samuelsson: You can sit in the bar, have a beer and have cornbread, and we’re going to treat you just as good as the person that is super VIP and pays $300.
And at a time when African Americans face higher jobless rates than the national average, the Aloft Hotel and the Red Rooster have hired locals. More than half of the restaurant’s employees live in Harlem.
Gentrification’s effect on a neighborhood is hard to measure. And plenty of Harlem residents welcome the new businesses. Clemmie Rice has been here for eight years. He passes the Red Rooster on his way home from work.
Clemmie Rice: You know, you’re going to have some negative people that are going to feel that they disagree with it, but then you’re going to have a lot of people that’s in the area, that think that it’s a great thing, and I’m one of them that feel it’s a great thing.
Dinner guests have begun to gather at the restaurant. But tonight, the crowd is thicker at a tiny storefront just a few doors down, a reminder of a less-glamorous Harlem. The store’s red neon sign blares “Checks Cashed.”
In New York, I’m Janet Babin for Marketplace.
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