Published: October 7, 2012
Magazine review ♦
Name: RT Book Reviews
Date of Birth: 1981
In a little brick building in Brooklyn, the offices of RT Book Reviews (formerly known as Romantic Times) are divided between two suites. In one, paperbacks and curios line shelves set in converted fireplaces and against a wall painted with pink bows. A cozy room with plump sofas leads to a sunny back garden with a trellis and wrought-iron furniture. On the other side, a handful of editorial and design staffers sit at luminous outsize Mac screens. Cover proofs are tacked to a steel filing cabinet, from atop which a poster of Fabio sets off a cutout of Botticelli’s Venus. A neighbor’s black tabby wanders between the cubicles.
Like its home, the magazine successfully mixes its down-to-business edge with the somewhat chintzy feminine world that nurtured it. RT has undergone many changes in format and content over its 29 years. But, at heart, the magazine remains a source for romance fiction reviews, connecting readers of the genre with the books and authors they love.
Romantic Times was founded in 1981 by Kathryn Falk, a romance novel enthusiast from Michigan who moved to New York as a young woman, eventually succeeding as a dollhouse hobbyist and shop owner. Falk recognized a need for order in the chaos of purple publishing and wrote Love’s Leading Ladies, a book that grew into the Romantic Times. Falk appears to be a cross between a heroine of one of the novels that she loves and the stereotype of the lonely woman who loves to read them. Now “sixty-something,” she has been romantically linked to a Swiss film actor, an Indian maharajah and a Brooklyn plastics manufacturer, finally getting married last year. She owns homes around the world and an English title; her kitschy MySpace page introduces her as Lady of Barrow and lists her interest in “Psychic/Mediumship.”
Her Romantic Times was the first publication to take pulp or “genre” fiction seriously. What began as a 24-page spot color newsprint publication is now a monthly 130-plus page glossy, with a circulation of 70,000, about 50 percent of which is subscription. Publisher Carol Stacy, who has been at RT since 1984, said, “There’s a tremendous pass-along with our magazines. There are bookstores that order one subscription for all their customers to look at, reader groups and writer groups. Not to mention friends and mother-daughters.”
RT reviews more than 270 books every issue and now covers not just romance but also mystery, paranormal, erotica, inspirational, urban fantasy, science fiction and other genres. Falk’s editor’s letter is chatty and usually includes references to recipes and social events. While the feature sections are cheerful and a little chaotic — with dancing typefaces and multiple color palates — the chunky review sections in the middle of the magazine are standardized monochrome and organized by genre. The reviews are contributed by a satellite army of 50 freelancers.
A female editorial staff writes the features: trend stories, author interviews, polls and discussions about writing techniques and breaking into the industry. The exuberant tone of most articles implies that RT is written for and by insiders. “I hire people who love books. That’s part of the prerequisite,” said Stacy.
Besides producing the magazine, RT stages an annual convention, a glittering affair that takes place anywhere from Orlando, Fla., to Cleveland, Ohio. Any budding author or eager reader can attend, providing they can pony up $485 for registration, plus the cost of travel and board. A thousand people do so, and some, Stacy said, “save all year and take their one and only vacation” to attend workshops and mixers, “fairy balls” and male cover-model pageants. The magazine also organizes author appearances in bookstores.
In addition to knitting together its readers with such events, RT has also embraced a changing market. For the first decade or so, the magazine focused exclusively on romance novels. During the ’90s, covers were often simply reproductions of the book of the month — kitschy paintings of swooning women and swashbuckling men. As detectives and corporate criminals, as well as angels and vampires, began to creep into romance readers’ diet of books, Romantic Times incorporated these other genres and becameRT Book Reviews.
The magazine has become a reference for the publishing industry as well as a cataloger of it. “We can track trends from a unique perspective because we’re in contact with all authors and publishers,” said Stacy. According to her, publishers “go shopping” for authors in RT.
The symbiotic relationship between publishers and the magazine is well evidenced by large blocks of book ads in RT. This dependence on book advertisers inevitably raises questions about the integrity of RT’s reviews. They do seem to err on the side of the positive, tending to be milder and generally more sympathetic than the droves of snarky reviews that now can be found online. Stacy said RT does this purposefully. “We’re trusted. You don’t know who the [online] reviewers are. A lot of them just want to be mean. We’re more interested in being a guide for the reader.”
While it might benefit from being a bit more stringent with the stars it awards in its reviews, RT is clearly a comfortable home and resource for its readers.
Published: April 7, 2010
Meet Sidi Ibrahima, a pulp fiction author in Harlem ♦
Harlem’s 125th Street is a bazaar of cottage industry products: incense and earrings, knit hats and demo CDs. But the goods on one table near Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard are more colorful than the rest. Bright books with racy covers are spread over the stand. People, mostly women, stop to flip through “Homo Thug II”, “The Lesbian’s Wife,” “Mandingo,” or Sister Souljah’s latest title.
On any given morning, you can find Sidi Ibrahima at his bookstand, stacking paperbacks and recommending good reads to passing ladies. He hands “A Streetgirl Named Desire” to Deborah McKenzie, a self-described “bookhead” who goes through five titles a month. “If you don’t like I’ll take it back.” Besides this stall, Ibrahima distributes books on five other stands across New York, including the Bronx, Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan. Besides being Harlem’s main distributor and street fiction enthusiast, Ibrahima, who is from Ivory Coast, is a self-published author who made his foray into the industry with a book about a West African girl, Fatou.
Variously called hip-hop, street or urban lit, the pulp genre has been growing in popularity since the 1990s, when activist and author Sister Souljah first published her autobiography, “No Disrespect,” and then her debut novel, “The Coldest Winter Ever.” These books are widely credited with resuscitating the tradition of 1970s authors Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim, streetwise counterparts to Ralph Ellison.
Ibrahima owns one of Harlem’s few bookstores, the Harlem Book Center, a small outlet that also sells movies and cohabits with a lively hair-braiding salon. Harlem Book Center consists of two walls of shelves, a counter, a computer and another wall of shelves for movies. Ibrahima, tall and dark-skinned with a piercing gaze, spends his afternoons behind the counter at his crammed bookstore. Dressed casually in running pants and a jacket today, he sports a newsboy cap and round glasses that give him an earnest look. In between checking his email and conversing with the women who come in to get their hair braided, he describes the long road he’s travelled to get here.
Ibrahima, born in the capital Abidjan, read a lot when he was young, but was especially impressed with the works of African “Negritude” writers like Amadou Ba. Ibrahima immigrated to Germany in the ’90s to start an import/export business based in Nuremberg. In 2000, he moved to New York to pursue more opportunities.
“In Africa, on TV, they’re always talking about America. We think America is a paradise,” he says. “When you come here, you see the reality. You have to work. But for that you need a work permit. You have to start from scratch.”
It was this reality that Ibrahima, then driving a cab, decided to write about. He had just discovered urban lit, which he describes as targeted mostly to African-Americans and African-Caribbeans. Ibrahima learned the genre by reading books like Sister Souljah’s “Coldest Winter” and Terri Woods’ “True to the Game.”
His first book, “Fatou: An African Girl in Harlem,” might not be a “World’s #1 Bestseller” as it’s cover proclaims, but the author says he has sold 85,000 to 95,000 copies since publication in 2004. Accurate sales figures are hard to come by, since most of these books sell on the street. “Fatou” begins with a man raping his young daughter in an African hut before sending her off to Harlem to marry a much older man in exchange for a big dowry. She escapes into prostitution, drug dealing and gangs. Despite its incredibly graphic sexual and violent content, Ibrahima says his book is based on the true story of an immigrant he met on his first trip to the U.S. in 1994. When the woman who inspired “Fatou” told her story, he says, “I was in tears. I said, ‘I’ve got to let people know what happened to this brave and smart – not only book smart, but street-smart – girl.’”
Ibrahima approached several publishers, but says he lacked the connections to get his book printed. A few mainstream publishers have urban lit imprints, Random House’s One World and Simon and Schuster’s Atria/Strebor Books, for example. Most major urban lit publishers, however, started with one author on a shoestring self-publishing budget and grew. So Ibrahima decided to try and go the way of Terri Woods Publishing, Urban Books and Triple Crown Publications and published 500 copies of “Fatou” on his own.
He had saved money from his stall and from cab driving to publish “Fatou.” “It passed my expectation,” he says, recounting how the first run sold out in a week. He published another 1,000 copies, and says he was inundated by calls from Barnes & Nobles, Borders and distributors wanting more. Mary Davis, a spokesperson for Borders, said that although the stores do have dedicated African American and urban lit sections, they do not currently carry Ibrahima’s titles.
Despite the fact that “Fatou” appears nowhere on any of the national book review sites for urban lit like streetfiction.org and theurbanbooksource.com, local success is part of the genre’s vitality. The book’s popularity, particularly among New York’s African and Caribbean readers, led Ibrahima to his next project. While shopping at a 116th Street West African grocery, Ibrahima ran into a fan. She told him her own story, which eventually became “The Lesbian’s Wife.” “Fatou was a girl coming from Africa to America and ‘The Lesbian’s Wife’ had a woman going back to Africa,” he says, pointing at the cover of the latter book, which features a buxom woman in a power suit against a backdrop of palm trees. Ibrahima says the book has sold about 15,000 copies. Under the moniker “Sidi,” Ibrahima has also written a sequel to “Fatou”; “Tamika”, about a Jamaican girl; and two books about a male prostitute, “Mandingo.”
Readers and writers of urban lit can’t seem to quite agree on why it’s so popular. McKenzie, the “bookhead” says that she likes stories with “drugs, killing and sex,” and reads them to escape from her life for a bit. Ibrahima, though, insists that his books reflect reality. “Most of it is about our day to day struggle,” he says. He extends his arm to reveal a bullet scar on his hand and describes how he was shot at while driving a “young thug” passenger who was dealing drugs.
Ibrahima insists that urban readers have already been exposed to sex and violence; to pretend these don’t exist would spell irrelevance for his books. “You know America – anything with sex sells. People really like violence,” he says. “Violence in our books, it doesn’t really mean that we’re trying to teach the violence. At the end of the story, there’s always a lesson to learn from the story. Because if you raised by the gun, you’re going to fail by the gun, and that’s what we’re trying to say.”
Marva Allen, who co-owns the more highbrow Hue-man Bookstore across the street, disagrees. When it comes to urban lit, “I’ve heard all the arguments for it, but I believe that what we’ll see is what we’ll be,” she says. “It’s an unfortunate life for people to emulate.” She’s read Ibrahima’s books and objects to more than their violent content. “I read it with a red pen,” she says. “You might as well put the book on Twitter.”
Ibrahima believes that getting African-Americans to read – anything – is a worthwhile endeavor, however. “If you want to hide something from black men, put it in a book,” he quips. He points out that he sells non-fiction as well, like Barack Obama’s memoirs and various biographies. He believes that urban fiction can open the door for readers who then get hooked on more serious literature.
But Allen believes that urban lit’s popularity will wane. “It’s like what happened to hip-hop,” she says. “It started as a solidarity movement and it’s become an urban commodity with nothing to do with liberation. Hip-hop lit is kind of passé right now. It’s like eating too much sweet and then feeling sick. I’m hoping that’s the trend.”
Ibrahima’s outlook on the genre remains positive though. He’s started publishing other authors, like Ashante Kahari (aka Aaron Fraser), who has spent time in jail for check fraud, run for City Council from Brooklyn and penned the “Homo Thug” series. Ibrahima dreams of fostering more authors and becoming a global distributor of urban fiction.
Eventually, Ibrahima would like to return to Cote d’Ivoire. Speaking over a piped CD of African drums he says, “I’m not rich, but I have a lot of experience and ideas and, God willing, I will go back soon. We cannot leave the responsibility of building our continent in the hands of Europeans or Americans,” he adds. Meanwhile, he’s working on an autobiography. “Self-made Millionaire,” he calls it.
Published: January 11, 2010
Wrestling takes hold in Harlem ♦
In Harlem, basketball and football are the most popular sports. But at Kappa IV, a public middle school at St. Nicholas and 135th Street, wrestling is gaining traction. The afterschool classes started a month ago, when an organization called Beat the Streets teamed up with Jets of Harlem, the youth football league. Sonal Shah reports from Kappa IV. (Click play below to hear more.)
Originally published in The Uptowner, November 24, 2009.
Published: November 24, 2009
Ethel Bates wants a cooking school in the historic Corn Exchange. The city just tore part of it down ♦
Until she starts talking, Ethel Bates looks like anyone’s grandmother with her maroon windbreaker, a dun scarf wrapped turbanlike around her head. Short, forceful and sharp as a whip, this energetic 77-year-old community activist has spent much of the last decade in court – mostly pitted against various city departments. “She’s a little dynamo,” says Garry Johnson, Community Board 11’s treasurer and Economic Development Committee chair.
Johnson’s architecture consultancy on 125th Street looks right over the Corn Exchange, a landmark building that is the locus of Ethel Bates’ legal struggles. From the street, the 126-year-old red brick building decorated with ornate white masonry looks to be in good shape, though cosseted with scaffolding. From Johnson’s window, though, the building’s dilapidated innards present quite a contrast to the ordered lines of the adjacent Metro North station.
The city is in the midst of carrying out an “emergency demolition” of the five-story building’s top three floors. Since 2003, Bates has officially been in charge of renovating this building, one of 125th Street’s scattered 19th-century landmarks. Bates, who harbors an above-average suspicion of government, claims that the disrepair is due not so much to neglect on her part as to obfuscation by the city and to the Department of Buildings’s “secret agenda.”
The Corn Exchange was built, in the Queen Anne and Romanesque-style, as the Mount Morris Bank by architects Lamb & Lamb. With well-appointed apartments on its upper levels (it earlier had seven stories, with gables at the top), the building later became the Corn Exchange, a bank that eventually merged with JP Morgan. Used briefly as a church, the building was abandoned in the 1970s and lay empty for almost 30 years. A fire destroyed the decaying upper levels before Bates decided to adopt the Corn Exchange as the site for a pioneer culinary school in upper Manhattan.
The Economic Development Corp. had doubts when Bates first approached the city with her proposal in 1999. “I wasn’t anybody as far as they were concerned,” Bates said. Bates said she got a boost from developer Lew Rudin, who put in a cameo appearance for her at an EDC meeting – “you would have thought a saint had walked in, or God himself.” Bates eventually landed an appointment with then-deputy mayor Rudy Washington.
Washington had “heard on the one hand that here was this elderly woman that had a good heart but who didn’t know squat and it would be a disaster to let her have this building,” Bates recalled. “On the other hand she was a person who had these certain merits.” Impressed by Bates’s personality and business acumen (she had studied business at New York University and City College), Washington told Bates that he was on her side.
So she was surprised to find that the building had suddenly been auctioned off to Elie Hirschfeld (son of Abraham), who she said just wanted to sell it back to her for three times the cost. Bates sued the city. It took a year for the decision, but she won her case as well as control over the Corn Exchange. In 2003, Bates held the property deed with a promise to develop the building in three years.
It wasn’t the first time Bates had sued New York. In the 1980s, she was involved in the restoration of Marcus Garvey Park. She sued the parks department after she was handcuffed by some of their officers.
Bates’ dream of opening a culinary school stemmed from a long history with foreign travel, food and art. Bates was born in Birmingham, Ala., but moved to New York with her father, a railway employee, her mother and her six siblings when she was a child. After college, Bates traveled to Europe and lived in France, England and Italy for several years. She worked as a contract negotiator for performers and traveled to Israel, Palestine and North Africa. When she returned to New York, she did everything from being an accountant to running a bakery.
Bates wanted to open a culinary institute because she felt that “in this community you have so many people who are able to do some cooking but they can’t compete. They can’t afford the Culinary Institute of America, they can’t afford the French Culinary… you can’t go and compete with somebody who’s got a reputation behind them and all you’ve done is work in a greasy spoon place.”
She was set on this building, “a place that gives you a certain amount of cachet… That’s my idea: save the building and do a culinary institute.” Bates had already signed on Ark Restaurants and several other potential tenants for the New Corn Exchange project.
Finding a developer proved more difficult. While candidates came to her in droves, Bates felt that each was after her valuable property and had no interest in creating a community culinary institute. Her unwillingness to cede equity control kept stalling the project.
Johnson felt Bates bears some responsibility. “I believe she’s had opportunities,” he said. “The real estate boom has come and gone now.” He said he knew of a big-name developer who had offered Bates a 49 percent stake in the building and that she had refused. He also said that the Community Board approached Bates with a proposal financed by its members. If Bates could not find a developer, he said, she should have tried to open the school elsewhere first, so that it could build a track record.
Bates’ account of her dealings with developers over the years is a laundry list of shady proposals and corrupt maneuvers. About once a year, a newspaper would report that restoration was about to begin. But Bates repeatedly wound up in court, fighting with would-be developers who she claimed wanted to wrest control of the building from her. The city held off on taking any action until 2007, when it moved to rescind Bates’ ownership.
Bates said she has spent $300,000 of her own money fighting cases and paying various fines the city imposed. She also arranged for the protective scaffolding that surrounds the Corn Exchange. Eventually, Bates filed for bankruptcy in order to restrategize. “We fought it nip-and-tuck,” she said.
Bates lost her plea for bankruptcy and the matter reverted to Supreme Court, where a judge ruled in January that the city could take over the building in a non-final disposition. The city claimed that the building was a danger to pedestrians and the 125th Street station and moved to tear down its top floors. Demolition began in early September, but Bates still hasn’t given up. She says her legal status is “sensitive,” but that she hasn’t given up on regaining control.
There is a discrepancy between the Court’s ruling that the deed revert to the city and an April 20 letter asking Bates’ group to take immediate action on repair and demolition. The letter stated that if Bates failed to take action, the city would move to demolish and “recover its expenses from you.” This summer, Assemblyman Adam C. Powell wrote to the Economic Development Corporation strongly backing Bates. The advocacy group Historic Districts Council wrote to Deputy Mayor Edward Skylar in August, stating that council members had visited the building and found the proposed emergency demolition unfounded. The members asked the mayor to intercede until “a more experienced developer can be found.”
The demolition of the Corn Exchange’s top stories may have been drastic. Calling for an emergency demolition allowed the Building Department to bypass authorization from the Landmarks Preservation Commission in the name of public safety. In an April field report, investigators cited loose bricks in various places, but maintained that the protective scaffolding around the building was sound. Johnson, for one, believes that demolishing three floors was overkill and that the fifth floor is the only one that really had to go. “As an architect, I believe those are load-bearing walls,” he said.
Bates suspects that the city will wait, then propose another demolition and eventually hand the building over to a prominent developer. Developer Vornado owns the lot across the street and the Corn Exchange is prime property, with empty lots and the train station just next door.
If the building is restored by the city or someone else rather than commercially developed, it may never be profitable. Real estate agent Eugene Giscombe, whose office overlooks the Corn Exchange, thinks the building is “economically obsolete.” He estimated that even if the Corn Exchange were raised to 10 stories, the cost of building (about $13.5 million) would be far beyond the recoverable yearly rent ($1.35 million). Giscombe believes the only commercial solution would be to combine that lot with others around it. If the building remains a low-rise, he said, the landlord might be able to get tax incentives to rent to a non-profit.
In all this controversy, the building’s historical significance has been largely overshadowed. Johnson thinks the city should have better preserved the building’s shell. He pointed to the example of a mental asylum on Roosevelt Island that has been kept intact pending future development.
“Had it been in the Upper West Side or Upper East Side there would have been meltdown,” he said. “People would have been screaming bloody murder. This wouldn’t have happened. It just shows a complete disregard for the community.”
Published: November 17, 2009
Behind the scenes at Marjorie Eliot’s Parlor Entertainment jazz sessions, an uptown institution. ♦
Over the years, Count Basie, Paul Robeson and other prominent Harlem musicians and artists have lived behind the embellished iron gates of 555 Edgecombe Avenue, just beyond Sugar Hill. In apartment 3F, jazz still lingers in the air every Sunday afternoon.
Marjorie Eliot’s Parlor Entertainment jazz sessions have become an institution. For 15 years, with the help of her son Rudel Drears, Eliot has been throwing open her parlor to everyone from travelers toting cameras and guidebooks to neighborhood regulars who help pass around punch and cookies during intermission. “This is the real thing,” says German tourist Dom Schick, a recent visitor. “This is the Harlem jazz scene you hear about.”
In Eliot’s apartment, photos of Martin Luther King and John Coltrane share wall space with Michael Jackson and Barack Obama. Folding chairs are crammed into rows in the small living room, kitchen and hallway. Eliot welcomes everybody with the same enthusiastic smile. She’s “somewhere over 50” and frail but wiry, elegant in her flowing Sunday best with a halo of gray hair. Her voice is measured and she speaks with effort, but projects well – a holdover, perhaps, from her days on the stage and in the choir. Eliot opens each session at the piano, softly ushering in the evening with a hymn or spiritual.
Drears, whose father is percussionist Al Drears (who has played with Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and others), sings and alternates with Eliot on the ivories. An energetic musician in a crisp white shirt and black fedora, with blocks of cubic zirconia twinkling in his earlobes, he is prone to fits of post-performance chuckling.
About 50 people show up at 4pm every week. Though well-known musicians like bassist Bob Cunningham have been regular performers, the audience doesn’t come to meet the stars. “People come in for one reason, and that’s to listen to the music,” Drears says. “Some people find this to be a religious experience. Some people come here right after church, for communion – but it’s about the music.”
What Eliot calls “Studio 3F” has all the inclusivity of a house of worship, but with the secret air of a speakeasy. Saxophonist Gerald Hayes, who has played here regularly, calls Parlor Entertainment one-of-a-kind. “I like it because it’s cozy,” he says. “It’s personal. And it’s different. I’m just playing with two pieces, maybe three pieces, but it’s not a full band. I’m raw.”
Eliot grew up in a house with two pianos and began singing in church. Her family moved to New York in 1962, where she raised her five sons on music. “Her mother was her first teacher, just like she was my first teacher,” says Drears. Always active in the arts, Eliot appeared in the original production of Charles Gordone’s “No Place to Be Somebody”, the first African-American play to win a Pulitzer Prize. She acted in Sydney Lumet’s “Serpico” (playing a rape victim) and in a Broadway production of “The Member of the Wedding”. She wrote her own play, “Branches from the Same Tree,” in 1980, and won an AUDELCO award in 2003. She’s also taught theatre and music to children.
She started the parlor sessions as a way to cope with the loss of her son Phillip, an actor who died 17 years ago, at 32, of a kidney infection. The first intermittent performances took place at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, but soon musicians from Eliot’s circle of friends began playing regularly on Edgecombe Street. Drears remembers that “in the early days, it used to be maybe five people. Some days we would go the laundry room and say ‘Come upstairs, we’re doing a show.’”
As the word spread, mother and son had to set out more folding chairs each week. “We haven’t missed a single Sunday in all these years. We’re here rain, snow, blizzards…” Drears says.
Eliot pays the musicians out of pocket and with help from friends and a donation drum. “I don’t want to be funded, so nobody can tell me how to do it,” she says, adding that she has “lots of loans.”
“It’s kind of on a shoestring budget,” Drears says.
Three years ago, Eliot’s son Michael, a rock and R&B musician, died in his late 40s after an illness of several years. “It’s hard,” Drears says, “but God keeps us going. One of the things that makes this so great is the people that come through. They’re here to hear the music and they may be transformed.”
Regular visitor Bessie Mullings used to sing with Eliot at the Morris-Jumel Mansion; she comes to the parlor after church each Sunday. “After the second son died, she took it pretty rough,” she says of her friend. “But she still got to hold on to the piano. You can’t tell people how to heal. She’s been built up now, she’s coming back.”
Parlor Entertainment has become “the essence of my life,” says Eliot. “Everything kind of jumps off of this, and that really speaks to the universal language of music. It nourishes the soul.” At one recent performance, she told an audience that on Sunday nights, she’s “so happy that I can’t go to sleep.”
“People power” keeps the piano tuned and the punch flowing, says Eliot. “So much love and goodwill comes through these doors every Sunday. Folks have taken what is a very sad story and they make something beautiful of it.”
Published: October 27, 2009
Viaduct Valley, Harlem’s “meatpacking district”, is trying hard to survive. ♦
Whipping up from the Hudson River, wind funnels through the cross streets between 125th and 138th Streets. Up on the Henry Hudson Parkway, traffic inches toward the George Washington Bridge. On the other side of 12th Avenue, which disappears under a stone bridge, Riverside Park rises out of a steep embankment. A handful of restaurants nestle in this unlikely spot, under the spidery arches of Riverside Bridge.ViVa, or Viaduct Valley, is the latest contender for Manhattan’s next big entertainment district. Yet, despite several successful launches, scattered news references to the “new Meatpacking District” and a few celebrity sightings, Harlem’s waterfront restaurants still face many obstacles.“It’s like a hidden valley,” said Fernando Mateo, an entrepreneur and activist whose wife, Stella, co-owns Talay, one of ViVa’s uptown upstarts. “This place is so beautiful but so uninhabited. We’re still waiting for a Christopher Columbus who can come and discover us.”ViVa’s earliest pioneer was the 35,000 square foot Fairway Market, sprawling across several blocks around 132nd Street. Fairway, which opened in 1995 in an area that some people considered unsafe, remained the sole draw for years. “You couldn’t walk down here,” Mateo said. “You would run from one block to the other.”
The area’s three most visible restaurants – Talay, Covo Trattoria and Body Bar & Grill –operate in an old meatpacking warehouse at the end of 135th Street. Building owner Peter Skyllas originally considered relocating his plumbing business there. The neighborhood “was infested with drug dealers,” Skyllas said. “You couldn’t come within 10 feet because of the stench of garbage.”
In late 2004, however, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, fired up its grills on 131st Street, just opposite Fairway. Dinosaur’s popularity made Skyllas reassess his property’s value. He knew that the Parks Department was developing the nearby Harlem Piers waterfront and that – eventually – Columbia University would expand into the area with its Manhattanville Campus.
“My whole idea was to bring the Meatpacking District to Harlem,” Skyllas said, acknowledging that urban planners have been talking about developing the 12th Avenue waterfront for at least 20 years.
Skyllas recruited Antonio Bruno, owner of the Morningside Heights restaurants Max Soha and Max Caffé, whose Italian menu he thought would make a good “anchor” for the area. Bruno needed a little more convincing. “When I first saw this place in 2004, I ran away,” he recalled at his airy, wood-oven-warmed restaurant Covo.
Skyllas found two other groups of tenants to open Talay, a Thai-Latin restaurant and lounge, and Body, a large restaurant and nightclub. As construction began on Skyllas’ warehouse, restaurateurs Hamlet Peralta and Max Piña opened Hudson River Café, just north of Fairway. Meanwhile, Skyllas successfully petitioned the city for permit parking, a sidewalk and a green island in front of his building.
In June 2008, just after Talay, Body and Covo opened, the Harlem Piers park opened. Further development seemed imminent and property prices rose. Warburg Realty, which managed Skyllas’ property in 2006, listed an asking price of about $85 per square foot per month on its web site – double what the realtor listed for the previous year. Still, ViVa rents were reasonable compared to similar locations along Broadway, which had no waterfront access.
As various owners, diners and critics recount, ViVa’s restaurant row enjoyed early success. Body caught on with well-heeled Harlemites and partygoers from further afield, who lined up outside on weekends. Shaquille O’Neill celebrated his birthday there and several cast members of “Harlem Heights,” Black Entertainment Television’s reality show about young, black professionals, counted Body among their favorite Harlem hangouts. Cast member Brooke Crittendon, Kanye West’s ex-girlfriend, wrote on the show’s web site that Body “could possibly be the crunkest club in the city right now.”The splash didn’t last long. Body regulars were surprised to find the club’s signage stripped in late August. Sam Benjamin, who organizes a black/Latino social networking group, arrived at the club for a September event and found it closed. Body’s owners, Rigo Herasme and Joe Robles, had given him no warning, he said.
The owners did not respond to calls, but earlier this year, Body’s chief financial officer, Felix Parache, said he departed after a “falling out” with the owners. “I’m guessing these people invested $1.5 million or more to fix the place and believe in my dream,” Skyllas said. “Running a restaurant is a difficult job. I personally wouldn’t get into it.”
The current economic climate makes running a new venue difficult. The trade magazine Nation’s Restaurant News runs an online Restaurant Index; it plummeted between September 2008 and March 2009 and remains 30 percent below mid-2008 levels. Skyllas estimated that restaurant earnings, including tips, have fallen by as much as 60 percent. Bruno confirmed that the area had faced difficulties, though Covo makes more money than his Morningside Heights eateries.
Mateo acknowledged that ViVa is “definitely not coming up roses. Anyone who tells you that they’re making so much profit – it’s just not true. We’re barely breaking even.” Still, he remains optimistic.
Getting foot traffic is still the area’s biggest challenge. The restaurateurs want to dedicate the traffic island to Muhammad Ali, to include “a big statue – then it becomes a tourist attraction to bring people down,” Mateo said.
Though Harlem’s facelift continues, catering to the community’s changing clientele has proved a tricky business. In early September, Talay shut down briefly to turn its downstairs section into Pancho Gringo, a Mexican restaurant with a more “familiar” menu. But Body remains closed.
Visitors may be reluctant to walk from the 135th Street Subway station through Riverside Park. “There’s still that myth about Harlem – that it’s dangerous and people are scared to come down,” Mateo said.
Published: October 20, 2009
By Rachael Horowitz and Sonal Shah ♦
After an intense two-month search, police have arrested the man they believe is responsible for raping and robbing four women in Hamilton Heights during August and September.
DNA from the suspect, 21-year-old Vincent Heyward, matches DNA samples from all the rapes, and a 5th attempted attack, according to officers from the 33rd Precinct.
At his September 21 arraignment, Heyward tried to escape the courtroom but was easily restrained. He will next appear in New York Supreme Court on October 22. “It’s too bad he got lawyered up,” said NYPD Deputy Inspector Scott Shanley. “I want to know what drives this guy.” Heyward had been in a Virginia jail for car theft and had been released in June.
Police involved the community in the investigation, widely publicizing a sketch of the suspect based on surveillance footage and victims’ descriptions. They also circulated still photos from the surveillance.
At a community meeting, Sgt. Richard Crespo from Manhattan Special Victims assured residents that the police were following all leads from the four attacks and encouraged local residents to provide information. He even urged people to “ask your kids to snoop around.”
“If this guy’s in jail, it’s because of the community and the police,” said Officer Alan Asusta of the NYPD Crime Prevention Section at a City College meeting after Heyward was arrested on September 21.
The rapist first attacked on August 1, assaulting a 59-year-old woman at knifepoint in the courtyard of 565 W. 148th Street at 2:45 a.m.. After the second attack on August 10 – on a 23-year-old woman at 144th and Convent Avenue – police began looking for a single perpetrator.
The rapist struck again at 4 a.m. on August 18 when he followed a 69-year-old woman into the lobby of an apartment building at 765 Riverside Drive as she returned from work. She was raped and robbed inside the building elevator.
In the last attack on September 7, a 28-year-old woman was raped in her apartment on St. Nicholas Avenue. The attacker jumped to her apartment’s fire escape from the roof of a neighboring building and entered through a bathroom window.
Details of the attacks led some residents to speculate early on that the rapist might be local. “I get the feeling he might be from the neighborhood,” Raquel Monserrate, who lives at 788 Riverside Drive, said in August. Police said that Heyward lived on Edgecombe Avenue, close to where the four attacks occurred, and they later confirmed that he probably picked out victims and followed them from the subway. Monserrate was avoiding going outside to walk her dog during those quiet hours. “Since that happened, we bought wee-wee pads,” she said.
Deputy Inspector Shanley hopes that the community involvement will remain even though this particular crisis has ended. “People have to realize he’s not the only rapist in the world,” he said.
Published: October 13, 2009