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Will the Real Harlem Please Stand Up?

Mark Reynolds

Harlem's current renaissance has less to do with the art and culture that flowed freely during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, and more to do with good old-fashioned commerce. The new gentry went looking for a new ground floor, and found it right in their own mythic backyard.

"Harlem's HOT!" That's what the cover of the premiere issue of Uptown magazine proclaims, and from the recent trends that would be hard to debate. Many a news article in recent years has observed the phenomenal rebirth of America's most historic black neighborhood. Where once there were mom-and-pop storefronts, now there are ambitious entrepreneurs. Where once there were vast stretches of vacant brick shells, now there are renovated brownstones fetching prices in the higher six figures. Where once there was a neighborhood trading on past glories, there is now a neighborhood attempting to rebrand and redefine itself as a rebirth of that tradition.

Harlem's current renaissance has less to do with the art and culture that flowed freely during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, and more to do with good old-fashioned commerce. In many ways, it is the result of a perfect storm: a newly emergent African-American upper-middle class wanted to spend its money, and everywhere else in Manhattan had gotten too crowded and pricey. Artists had helped revive pockets of Brooklyn in the 1980s, but the new gentry went looking for a new ground floor, and found it right in their own mythic backyard.

Mythic, because ever since the heady days of Langston Hughes and Duke Ellington, days of rent parties and jumping joints, days of James Van Der Zee's photographic documents of a people in search of dignity, Harlem has been black America's star in the northern sky, its city on the hill. Africa was and is the Motherland, but Harlem was, in many respects, our truer and more accessible cultural capitol. The people there set the tone in jazz, in fashion, in literature and dance, in style, taste and opinion. Throughout much of the 20th Century, when blacks on all rungs of the economic ladder lived in the same urban neighborhoods, Harlem was the king of all those neighborhoods. When Harlem caught a cold, black America sneezed.

And Harlem caught a bad cold after rioting there in 1964, when those who could leave, left, and those who couldn't made the best of it, anyway (not unlike any number of American cities). Harlem the neighborhood didn't die, but the idea of Harlem-as-black-American-mecca no longer held the same sort of romance for the post-civil rights generation. Not until black folks with at least a little money moved in, and the Old Navys and IHOPs and other corporate logos of the world followed (not to mention former President Bill Clinton's office), did anyone beyond New York City have reason to imagine that dreams in Harlem, dreams of Harlem, might be possible, again.

And now there's a magazine to tell the story of those dreams. Uptown debuted this summer, presumably to tell the story of Harlem's new blood (print circulation is likely to be confined to the East Coast, others can check it out at UptownMagazine.com). "In this inaugural issue we celebrate those who are defining the new renaissance of urban culture", writes editor-in-chief Myra Sengestacke. "You will have an opportunity to get a glimpse of Uptown's finest and see the faces of people who are stalwarts in Manhattan as well as others who are blazing new trails. Throughout the pages of Uptown, they will tell us their stories, show us their talents, their businesses and their homes."

A bit of publishing genealogy is in order. Once there was Emerge, an acclaimed national black newsmagazine that occupied a unique niche in black media. It was part of cable mogul Bob Johnson's Black Entertainment Television-driven conglomerate. When Johnson sold BET to Viacom in the late '90s, Emerge and two other publications were spun off to a new concern, Vanguarde Media. Almost immediately, Emerge was folded, and in its stead emerged Savoy, a hopelessly lightweight concoction more concerned with celebrities, recipes, and travel tips than bringing light to underexposed issues. It aspired to the tone of Vanity Fair. The best that can be said about Savoy's two-year existence is that it got the "vanity" part down pat. The entire Vanguarde enterprise collapsed, a victim of soft ad sales and bad corporate decisions. Vanguarde's former publisher, Len Burnett, is now the publisher of Uptown, which is even more lifestyle-focused than Savoy. I, for one, did not think that was possible, but I've been wrong before.

Every page of Uptown drips with opulence, from the cover story announcing "the return of the gentleman" and featuring Fozworth Bentley, he of the umbrellas in various rap videos (can anyone explain where he came from and why he deserves to be on the cover of anything?), to pages of fashion and expensive baubles, to tips on buying real estate - and decorating it with panache. It looks nice, but the editorial content is uninspiring. Clearly, Uptown isn't trying to be Emerge, nor necessarily should it. Burnett is fashioning a chain of city magazines for and about the black moneyed class, akin to magazines chronicling the considerably less black moneyed class in places like the Hamptons and South Beach (next stop: Bronzeville for Chicago). It's a market segment that doesn't have a magazine to call its own, and if Burnett can pull it off, he might make a decent piece of change.

Fine and dandy, this being a free enterprise economy and all, but there's just one catch: not all of Harlem strolls around in designer suits. There are pockets of Harlem that have been untouched by the new economic blood. In one 60-block section, for example, more than 60 percent of the children live below the poverty line. Geoffrey Canada dubbed this the Harlem Children's Zone, and has devoted his life and resources to giving these children a chance at a decent education and life. The 20th June New York Times Magazine cover story told the tale of Canada's efforts to build up these kids, and their parents, to create "a safety net woven so tightly that children in the neighborhood just can't slip through."

There is no room for the Harlem Children's Zone in the pages of Uptown. Images and tales of poverty, and the Herculean effort it takes to overcome it, would destroy the new Harlem myth Burnett is trying to peddle. Too much focus on the real would distract from the aspirational. One of Harlem's more luxurious sections way back when was known as Striver's Row. But Uptown is less concerned with the actual striving than with the successful results of it.

That may be a good business strategy, but it's a disservice to Harlem. It's a disservice, even an insult, to the thousands who've been there through thick and thin. How would you feel if a magazine that purported to be about your corner of the world featured only places and things you couldn't afford? It's also a disservice to those outside New York City, who may have heard some of the hype about Harlem's comeback, then see this magazine and think that Lenox Avenue (Malcolm X Boulevard) and 125th Street — the streets that form Harlem's most famous intersection — are paved with gold and everybody's walking around like one great big fashion show. What if they were to make the pilgrimage to Harlem, inspired by Uptown's lives-of-the-nouveaux-rich-and-famous, only to discover that all the finery masks a more complicated reality? I will not begrudge any black person (indeed, any person at all) the right to make and enjoy their fortune, but I cannot accept Uptown's proposition that the hard times around the corner from that remodeled brownstone matter less than a trip to St. Tropez.

Harlem 2004 is a fascinating place, full of fascinating stories. Issues being played out in Harlem, from black gentrification to corporate giants doing battle with locally-owned businesses, are echoed all over America, and Harlem might be the best microcosm of all for examining them. This generation of accomplished black tastemakers is definitely worth celebrating, but not at the expense of the masses that can only afford to window-shop through the tastemakers' lives. Uptown is the story of the part of the glass that's half full. Its most strident detractors would wonder about the part of the glass that's half-empty. What Harlem needs most from a magazine is a consideration of the whole darned glass.

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