‘Harlem Heights' aims higher

by Aaron Barnhart

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

15 March 2009


Lamar Ballard was back home in Hutchinson, Kan., introducing his girlfriend to friends and family, when the call came from New York.

“We’ve heard about you,” said the voice on the phone.

And just like that, the kid from Oklahoma by way of Kansas wound up getting cast on the new BET reality show, “Harlem Heights.”

Known simply as Lamar or Lamar James, the half-Mexican, half-African-American model has such a compelling story that the “Harlem Heights” producers couldn’t wait to get him back to the big city that Lamar has called home the past five years.

Three months after moving to Hutch in 1990, his mother was in jail. By the next year she would be in prison. His father was long out of the picture. A neighbor lady named Bonnie Brown, whose three boys played with Lamar, took a cotton to him. Eventually she became his legal guardian.

“She worked very, very hard to provide things for them as well as for me,” he told me. “That’s one reason I’m very grateful.”

He got an associates degree from Hutchinson Community College, moved to Wichita, started working at the “Y,” heard that a modeling agency was coming to town, showed up, got invited to a tryout in Kansas City, was recruited by 10 agencies, and now models everything from Reebok to Jean Paul Gautier.

And as you will see in this week’s edition of “Harlem Heights,” airing at 10 p.m. EDT Monday on BET, he has a devoted girlfriend named Ally Love, whom he met one day while playing football in Central Park. Lamar and Ally are so in love that some of their friends in the circle of urban professionals seen on “Harlem Heights” ask him for relationship advice.

“She definitely believes in me, even when I’m not doing so well,” said Ballard.

Though the couple aren’t primary characters on the show, “Harlem Heights” co-creator Randolph Sturrup said he knew he had to work them in somehow.

“The goal for this show, for me, is to start a new conversation among these young upwardly mobile African-Americans in their 20s who make up the new Harlem renaissance,” said Sturrup. “You don’t see them at all (in the media), unfortunately.”

Including on BET, at least until now. “Harlem Heights” arrives at a propitious time in cultural history, when a generation of African-Americans have been overachieving but their voice in the national media has been underachieving. (Not for nothing was the first episode, which aired March 2, filmed on Election Night in Harlem.)

“Harlem Heights” is only one show, 10 half-hours in a sea of cable, but it’s a step in the right direction.

To Sturrup, having Ballard and Love together was a great way “to show people that this is what the new black upwardly mobile professional image is.”

But convincing the couple wasn’t a slam dunk.

“There were certain things I said I didn’t want to do on television,” Ballard said. “You know how TV shows are with all that cheating and crazy cursing. I didn’t want to get associated with that.”

“I was very honest when I met with them,” said Sturrup. “I told them I wanted to show a real, true, accurate depiction of these African-American professionals living in New York. They knew we weren’t going to put eight of them in a house and have them fight.”

The show is narrated by Bridget Bland, one of the cast members and for four years the sole African-American working in the writing department at MTV (which, like BET, is owned by Viacom).

Bland recently told Essence.com that most of the MTV programming she had to watch at her job “was so God-awful” and “didn’t positively impact or portray the types of black people I know.”

To be sure, there’s no shortage of catty behavior on display in “Harlem Heights” - one of the regulars disses Ally’s “ghetto dress” in an early episode - but the show doesn’t begin to approach the car-crash horror of BET’s “College Hill.”

Nor are these cast members looking for their own spinoff TV shows or endorsement deals, like the cast of “The Hills.” It’s clear that these aspirational African-Americans belong to a larger community that defies the “buppie” label.

Take Landon Dais, one of the show’s regulars. The son of Larry Dais, a revered community affairs officer at Columbia University, he wants to follow in the footsteps of his father but struggles to define himself, a common problem among sons of great men. And there’s Jason Allen, who’s served time and is seen on the show trying to launch a nonprofit to help other children of incarcerated parents avoid his fate.

Speaking of which, when Lamar James Ballard found out I was writing about him, he asked one thing of me.

“Try to give my mother a little credit,” he said. “She is a great woman and has since turned her life around in the past six years. It is a nice rebuttal to all the negativity in her life.”

//Mixed media