How do you sell Harlem? That was the question of the day at the Harlem Hospitality and Culinary Conference on Wednesday.
The Studio Museum on 125th Street played host to the conference, where residents discussed how to turn Harlem into a desirable destination for tourists and New Yorkers alike. The event, which was organized by the local nonprofit Harlem Park to Park, featured four discussion panels with representatives from the restaurant, hotel, and nightlife industries.
During a panel on neighborhood marketing strategies, some panelists said that although Harlem has a rich history, the neighborhood needs new hospitality businesses that draw on that history. Panelist Melanie Young, the founder of The Connected Table, which specializes in marketing and special events, said that Harlem has “a great heritage, but it’s still evolving.”
“The potential is here,” she said.
Panelist Nevah Assang, a senior vice president at NYC & Company—the city’s official marketing, tourism, and partnership organization—said that Harlem has already seen an influx of new businesses over the last few years.
“Every time you walk down the street, there’s something new to see and do,” Assang said.
Throughout the day, panelists from across the city described efforts to bolster the hospitality and culinary industries in other Manhattan neighborhoods, although the focus of the event was Harlem.
“This is a community. I find it different than the Meatpacking District or Times Square,” said Janet Barbash, vice president of the Davler Media Group, which is based in Midtown Manhattan.
“Every year it’s growing,” she added. “There’s so much here—your history, your food, your music.”
Curtis Archer, president of the Harlem Community Development Corporation and one of Wednesday’s panelists, talked about choosing the right kinds of hotels for Harlem.
“In sifting through proposals, we want something unique to Harlem, to the neighborhood,” Archer said. “We want people to know they are not staying downtown or on 42nd Street.”
For local attendees, the conference was also a forum in which to network with other members of the hospitality and culinary industries.
“It puts the notion of Harlem hospitality on the radar and provides a venue for players of the industry to connect,” said Lamont Blackstone, a local urban developer who attended the conference.
Harlem has seen an increasing number of large-scale developments over the last few years, although there are still some obstacles to building up the neighborhood’s hospitality industry, such as zoning laws and the availability of finances. The historic Victoria Theater on 125th Street is in the process of being turned into a mixed-use building that will include a hotel and arts center, but the project has faced some setbacks, including height restrictions and, until recently, a dearth of funding.
“Being a developer is a very tough business,” Beatrice Sibblies, a founding board member of Harlem Park to Park, said. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done and the most inspiring.”
Problems like those could make people reluctant to build in the area, Archer said.
“These tremendous constraints create lots of hotel trepidation,” he said.
While the panelists discussed these potential problems, they remained optimistic that Harlem can become a booming New York neighborhood. Savona Bailey-McClain, founder of the West Harlem Food and Beverage Association, said she attended the event to hear about the progress Harlem has made.
“New York is a hard market,” she said. “It’s always good for people to talk. That’s a very good place to start."