Waiting for a Christopher Columbus

Viaduct Valley, Harlem’s “meatpacking district”, is trying hard to survive. ♦

Antonio Bruno’s Covo, huge by Manhattan standards, is ViVa’s anchor eatery. (Photo by Sonal Shah)
Antonio Bruno’s Covo, huge by Manhattan standards, is ViVa’s anchor eatery. (Photo by Sonal Shah)

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.

Now shuttered and stripped of signage, Body Bar & Grill once hosted Shaquille O’Neill’s birthday party. (Photo by Sonal Shah)

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.

Originally published in The Uptowner, October 20, 2009.