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Saturday, 23 December, 2000, 20:28 GMT
Harlem's second coming
Harlems famous brownstones
Harlem's famous brownstones are being restored
Ruth Evans and Sue Armstrong in Harlem, New York

As African Americans celebrate the 20th Kwaanza festival, an African-American multi-cultural alternative to Christmas, Harlem comes alive with artistic and cultural life.

Until a few years ago, Harlem had a reputation around the world as an urban hell - a place of murder and riots, where drugs were dealt and used openly on the streets, and outsiders feared to stray.


Harlem used to be a place of gutted, boarded-up tenements, where the life expectancy of an average male was lower than in many Third World countries

But today, there is an artistic boom going on in Harlem that some people are calling "a second renaissance".

The first Harlem renaissance, in the 1920s and 30s, was an unprecedented outburst of creative activity among black Americans, in all fields of art and music.

Powerful art

With the great migration of black Americans to northern cities came a proliferation of powerful works of literature, such as Jean Toomer's novel Cane, which gave voice to the poor and dispossessed.

This was accompanied by an explosion in blues and vibrant jazz music, played in many of the clubs that thrived in Harlem.

Harlem in 1992
Once an archetypal scene of urban decay
Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins all played here, but it was Duke Ellington and his band, playing at the legendary Cotton Club, that perhaps came most to personify Harlem Jazz.

Today, a new generation of musicians, writers and artists is coming to the fore.

The Aaron Davis Hall is Harlem's principal performing arts centre. A recent renovation has made it among the most technically- advanced performance venues in New York City, and it is home to more than 35 companies, including the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Opera Ebony and the Boys' Choir of Harlem.

Restoration

Harlem used to be a place of gutted, boarded-up tenements, where the life expectancy of an average male was lower than in many Third World countries.


Many locals are concerned that as Harlem becomes more gentrified and acceptable, they may be priced out

But, hot on the heels of a sharp drop in crime - murder in the neighbourhood is down by 72% in the last five years, and drug dealing has disappeared behind closed doors - investment and development groups are moving in, and the walls of the ghetto have been breached decisively.

Today the wonderful old "brownstones", built in the late 1800s for Dutch settlers, are being bought up and restored, by locals as well as incomers, revealing extraordinary architecture and artistry.

Many of the brownstones had been divided up into rooming houses and had fallen into disrepair.

Now their grandeur is being restored and rediscovered under the layers of paint and torn linoleum.

Beauty and diversity

Jane Mendelson was one of the first to see the potential, giving up a corporate Manhattan career to open Harlem's first guesthouse for 30 years, the Urban Gem.

It took her a year to strip away the layers of old paint and restore the house's three-metre high intricately-carved doors.

"People who want to come to Harlem appreciate beauty and diversity," says Jane.


Black artists still find it hard to be accepted in the mainstream. Maybe it's because we remind people too much of a painful past

Lloyd Toone, artists
Her own Eastern European Jewish ancestors once lived in Harlem many years ago, and she feels she has found her roots in the neighbourhood.

Lloyd Toone has also refurbished his magnificent brownstone house and filled it with his sculptures and collages, made entirely of recycled materials like shoe leather.

He collects the materials from local cobblers and creates lips from red soles and hair from shavings of rubber shoe soles.

The materials dictate and give life to the nature of his creations and he produces unique and distinctive works that fetch impressive prices.

'Painful past'

Although Harlem artists like Lloyd are making a name for themselves, he says black art tends still to be sidelined.

The art of Lloyd Toone
The recycled art of Lloyd Toone
"Art mirrors the society in which it exists" he says.

"Black artists still find it hard to be accepted in the mainstream. Maybe it's because we remind people too much of a painful past."

These days Harlem is on New York's tourist track, and increasingly, people do not just come on buses to drive through.

They come on their own to eat traditional southern soul food at "Sylvia's" or to hear the best of live jazz in bars made famous by people like Duke Ellington and Aretha Franklin; and to visit Baptist churches on Sundays.


There's definitely a new Renaissance in Harlem - Harlem is hot

Murphy Heileger
Murphy Heileger used to be a graphic designer for Armani, but now he prefers to sell images of Harlem on T-shirts and posters, and to promote and exhibit the talents of local arts and crafts in his shop "Harlemade".

A resident of Harlem for 20 years, Murphy says he has seen tremendous changes.

"There's definitely a new Renaissance in Harlem, " he says. "Harlem is hot!"

Apollo Theatre

Harlem's famous Apollo Theatre has also just been refurbished and has found a new lease of life.

The amateur nights that gave the Jackson Five and Whitney Huston their first breaks still take place, with enthusiastic audiences quickly cheering or booing the acts.

Big business has also been moving in as property prices boom.

A supermarket chain has dared to open a big store in the neighbourhood for the first time. Starbucks and Body Shop have followed. And an ultra-modern, glass-and-steel shopping mall with all the High Street names has been built in the heart of Harlem.

Many locals are concerned that as Harlem becomes more gentrified and acceptable, they may be priced out, and that the neighbourhood may end up losing its distinctive character.

You can hear more about the new Harlem renaissance in the BBC World Service's "Arts in Action" programme 6th January.

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