Harlem's Main Drag Enters A New Era
Harlem’s main drag is thriving—and not for the first time. We took a look at bygone eras and what's happening nowadays on 125th Street on a recent tour with Eastern Consolidated principal Adelaide Polsinelli and New York Historical Tours director and historian Kevin Draper.
Maybe you’ve noticed the extra-wide sidewalks and Parisian look to Harlem’s broad boulevards like Lenox Avenue.
Kevin says that’s no accident. When the street for the area grid was being laid out in the late 1800s, the planners modeled the area after Paris’ grands boulevards. As the city’s wealthy classes continued to move further north, there was the sense that the wealth would keep going right past the end of the park, according to Kevin.
And, for a while, it did.
That’s why the area’s housing stock is comprised largely of grand brownstone townhouses instead of the cram-‘em-in tenement buildings you find in neighborhoods like Hell’s Kitchen and the Lower East Side.
Kevin says folks can head up to strips like Convent Avenue and Strivers Row, both in the Hamilton Heights section of Harlem in the 130s, to see some of the grander homes developed in the area when it was first built up.
The new residents—both the affluent and the less so—would need places to shop. Kevin points out that in Harlem, it wasn’t always all about 125th Street. Nine blocks to the south, 116th Street had the bigger retail draw in the early days of the neighborhood, because it was closer to established shopping on strips like Madison and Fifth avenues.
But as Adelaide points out, it’s easy to see the appeal of 125th Street: Unlike 116th, it’s an uninterrupted strip, spanning from river to river.
You can peruse from one end to the other—about two miles—and these days, according to Adelaide, there are 491 stores and about 850k SF of retail on the street.
And for retailers, Adelaide notes, the relatively generous floor plates are an increasing draw. Even along a lot of popular retail strips further downtown, you’re likely to see spreads well under 1k SF, whereas on 125th, they tend to be closer to 2k SF, and wide frontage is much more common.
Speaking of big plates, some of the biggest will be in Wharton Properies’ six-story, 200k SF retail development at the corner of Lenox & 125th, to be anchored by Whole Foods.
It’s set to open later this year.
Lenox functions like ground zero for retail rents, according to numbers Adelaide had at the ready on our tour. Within a couple of hundred feet of Lenox, rents run around $185/SF.
The number goes down to the $90s/SF as you head east towards Fifth Avenue. Even further east, at Lexington Ave, Extell closed on a 69k SF development site for $39M about two years ago. A residential project is coming to the site.
Big investment in properties along 125th Street started with a trickle. An early example is Harlem USA, a 285k SF retail development on the corner of Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 125th Street, developed by Grid Properties and the Gotham Organization and opened in 1999.
Go several decades further back and the flight of capital and resources from the neighborhood were the big story.
Kevin puts it like this: When much of the city—and especially the suburbs—were recovering from the Depression in the 1940s, it was almost as if Harlem stayed in a state of depression.
Jobs were scarce and opportunities granted to returning white veterans were often denied to African-Americans from Harlem and similar neighborhoods. New suburbs like Levittown on Long Island thrived, their growth spurred by subsidies like the GI Bill.
A different sort of subsidy was needed along 125th Street just to keep some of Harlem’s historic architecture from being lost to disinvestment and decay. Kevin says the State of New York took over ownership of the famous Apollo Theater and several other iconic properties in the '70s.
It was during that period that the Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building was built, as part of an effort to breathe new vitality into an area that needed it.
The trouble, Kevin says, is that its open plaza was criticized for having a barren feel, with no retail component and nowhere for folks to congregate and interact.
What it did have is a statue of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the first person of African-American descent to be elected to the US Congress. He was a figure revered in the neighborhood as both a symbolic and practical sign of African-American influence and representation in politics.
Across 125th Street from the statue is the Hotel Theresa, known for hosting cultural and political luminaries on their visits to the city.
Its most famous guest might be Fidel Castro, who stayed there in 1960 to make a point that he’d rather be among the city’s working class than stay in a high-end Midtown hotel.
The building has since been converted to office space. Kevin, just speculating, points to the story of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Times Square as one that might hold lessons for the Theresa. It was built in 1906, converted to offices in the 1920s, and turned back into a hotel, reopening in 2015.
With double-decker tour buses now cruising up and down 125th Street, Kevin asks: might the building find a third life in its roots as a hotel?
In a neighborhood that’s found ways of resurrecting itself again and again over the decades, stranger things have happened.