Savoring Harlem: Watching the New Harlem Renaissance Come Alive

by Marcus Samuelsson


As the famous Langston Hughes poem entitled "Harlem" starts, "What happens to a dream deferred?" many often think that the line refers to Harlem itself. That somehow some grandiose dream of what Harlem was or could be has withered or in this case "dried up like a raisin in the sun." Well, I'm here to testify that that's not the case! The Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem is alive and thriving, more so now than ever before, and in many cases food is at the center of Harlem's new economic growth. Within the midst of great history and cultural diversity lies a food side of Harlem just waiting to be discovered by those foodies who seek it. My goal is to show you just that, and that's why I invite you to join me this Friday at 8pm ET/PT for a Food Network special where I show you my neighborhood, Harlem as we cover its current food revolution.

Harlem's rich culture and impressive ethnic diversity inspired me to move to Harlem eight years ago. I knew when I moved here that one day I would want to open a restaurant in Harlem that would represent Harlem's diverse community and be a place people from around the world would want to visit. What makes Harlem special is that at any given time, food seekers can not only find food deeply rooted in Southern, Latin and African traditions, but also can taste the newer Senegalese, Chinese, and Italian influences as well. Virtually every type of cuisine now has a place in Harlem.

For decades, Harlem has also been the birthplace and safe haven for the arts and social movements like jazz, American poetry, and many other ideals that still resonate in our country today. In one of its most flourishing times, known as the Harlem Renaissance, great poets, musicians, actors, athletes and intellectuals roamed its streets finding inspiration in its people, buildings, and living institutions of thought and culture. It was home to dozens of theaters, restaurants, and even speakeasies -- and all shared the purpose of housing creativity, entertainment, and brotherhood. Even at Rooster, we take inspiration from an original Harlem speakeasy.

While many thought opening a restaurant in Harlem was a lost cause because of its economic decline in the past couple decades, I knew through its deep artistic and cultural history there could be a resurgence of the types of restaurants that made the original Red Rooster a prime destination for everyone from politicians to musicians. With a higher unemployment rate than the rest of the city (18% as compared to 4-5%), Harlem has been hit hard by the recession, yet in recent years, Harlem has seen an influx of new shops, restaurants, and businesses that are starting to bring it back to how it once was in its glory days. These businesses are not only bringing commerce to the neighborhood but are also hiring within the neighborhood as well. When I opened Red Rooster in 2010, I quickly learned that you can't help improve a neighborhood unless you bring everyone along with you. We made it a priority to hire the majority of our staff from Harlem. I constantly think about affordability when planning out my menus, since inclusion of the community is what drives my interest for Red Rooster.

Slowly, we're starting to see great improvements in Harlem and city dwellers are starting to see plenty of reasons to come uptown, not just to be entertainment but as a new place to live and create new business opportunities. Harlem currently has a higher percentage of growth in new housing units, population growth, and growing median household income than the rest of Manhattan, according to the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone. With a cheaper rent base and available vacant spaces, Harlem is starting to see an influx of diverse city dwellers that are moving uptown. When new businesses like Harlem Shambles butcher shop meet classic Harlem institutions like Sylvia's, the hope to revitalize Harlem starts to shine.

Join me on Friday, February 24 at 8pm ET/PT for my Food Network special, Savoring Harlem, as I share with you what all the excitement in Harlem is about! You'll not only get to see the new food revolution happening in this great neighborhood but you'll also get to witness what truly makes Harlem so great.




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