In one West Harlem building, diners are sampling coconut sticky rice and ahi tuna at the new high-end restaurant The Cecil. Next month, they’ll be enjoying dulcet tunes at Minton’s Playhouse, an upscale revival of a jazz landmark that was the birthplace of bebop.
But what the diners and jazzgoers might not realize is that right above the restaurant and performance space are subsidized apartments for formerly homeless New Yorkers.
While fancy new businesses in the same building as low-income housing might seem to be a jarring reminder of gentrification, both the entrepreneurs behind The Cecil and Minton’s, and the nonprofit responsible for the housing see the partnership as mutually beneficial.
“The project needs to have a commercial rent stream to keep it afloat, so we felt very lucky this was going to work,” said Jim Dill, CC ’73 and executive director of Housing and Services, Inc., the nonprofit which runs The Cecil building. “We needed somebody who was financially strong enough to invest in the raw spaces … and sensitive enough to the needs of the Harlem community and the Cecil community.”
The Cecil, an “Afro-Asian-American” restaurant taking the name of a former hotel in the building, opened last week. Minton’s, the second revival of the 1938 jazz club, will open later this month in the same building at 118th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. Both are owned by Harlem Jazz Enterprises, a venture of former Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons and professional chef Alexander Smalls.
“We had the good fortune to stumble on the Cecil Hotel,” Smalls, who has lived in Harlem since 1998, said. The building brings “the value and the significance to the community.”
After the original Minton’s Playhouse—once home to jazz legends Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk—closed in 1974, the building sat vacant for several years before being acquired by the Harlem Community Development Corporation.
Housing and Services began subsidized housing in the building’s upper levels in 1986, but the space below continued to sit unused, generating no income as the historic furnishings continued to deteriorate. An attempted revival of Minton’s in 2006 shut down after four years, after which Harlem Jazz Enterprises started negotiations for the space.
“What’s great about this story … is it being the jazz club,” Dill said, instead of “dull financial necessities.”
“It added intangible value to this legacy,” he added.
Harlem Jazz Enterprises will pay $11,000 a month to Housing and Services, Inc. in rent—money Dill says the housing needs.
“Our funding is primarily government funding,” he said. “We never had any kind of funding to set up the Minton’s space for rental.”
In addition, The Cecil will operate a food program for the residents upstairs instead of donating excess food to soup kitchens.
“They’re a part of our community, and we wanted them to be included in the privilege of this building,” Smalls said. “We wanted them to know who we are. … They’re great neighbors for us.”
Minton’s will feature a restored stage mural and historic exhibits about the space’s former stars. It will also be the first time the space has been fitted with sound insulation.
“We were mindful that the restaurant supper club targeting a different demographic doesn’t ignore the fact there are people living upstairs,” HCDC President Curtis Archer said. “Whether it’s low-income people living above, middle-income living above, or the uber-wealthy … you don’t want the retail space below creating so much noise you can’t sleep.”
This week, few residents were willing to talk to a reporter about the opening, although those who were said they had no objections. Dill said a majority of the tenants have lived in the Cecil for more than 10 years.
Smalls said he is focused on making sure the newly opened restaurant runs smoothly.
“I am so happy to be in Harlem. It just means to everything to me,” he said. “It’s not like every day you’re given the opportunity to put something of this note on your shoulders.”
“In New York City, you see more homeless people on the streets—there’s definitely a need for transitional housing,” Archer said. “But you also need more and more diverse retail activity … two very different but two very needed areas of economic development.”