By Liana Grey
Five years ago, Vie Wilson, a senior vice president at Corcoran, helped a restaurateur close on a luxury condo east of Morningside Park. The buyer and her husband owned several lounges downtown, including Bar Twelve in Murray Hill and Tonic Bar in Times Square.
“I told her she should open a restaurant in Harlem,” said Wilson, a longtime resident of the neighborhood and a top producer at Corcoran.
Sure enough, several weeks ago, Harlem Tavern opened on the corner of 116th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, an up-and-coming retail corridor lined with restaurants, luxury towers, and the first hotel to open in Harlem in 40 years: the Starwood Aloft near 123rd Street.
Over 800 people showed up to a launch party at the tavern — the second beer garden to open in south Harlem since the neighborhood underwent a renaissance last decade — and business has been brisk ever since.
“This is the Gold Coast of Harlem,” Wilson said of Frederick Douglass Boulevard, which is occasionally referred to as Eighth Avenue. “It has the most restaurants, the most gentrification.”
A year ago, Wilson herself contributed to the thoroughfare’s flourishing retail scene, opening Polished, a spa and nail salon, between 118th and 119th Streets. The shop is next door to BLVD, one of the latest condo projects to launch in the area. “I don’t tell clients about it,” said Wilson, who directs sales at BLVD. “They’ll wander in.”
Unlike some nearby developments, BLVD doesn’t have a storefront at its base. But the eight-story redbrick building, which housed rentals before undergoing renovations, brings to the table something long missing from Harlem’s luxury scene: a large supply of one-bedrooms.
The majority of new condos in the area, Wilson said, are too large for young couples hunting for their first home. “They don’t have a lot of money, but they want to get a foot in the door,” she said. BLVD’s 13 units, which range from studios to a pair of penthouses with two and three bedrooms, range in price from $295,000 to $880,000. A sister tower, at 2192 Frederick Douglass Boulevard, is awaiting attorney general approval before marketing can begin.
Since sales launched at the completed portion of the project earlier this year, young professionals from all over Manhattan, as well as Queens and New Jersey, have stopped in to see what such a low price point can buy. What they find are oak floors, tilt-and-turn windows, open kitchens with stainless steel appliances, and a roof deck overlooking the skyscrapers of midtown, the George Washington Bridge, and Saint John the Divine, a gothic cathedral on Amsterdam Avenue.
Morningside Park, which slopes up towards Columbia University, where Jorge Otero-Pailos, one of the building’s architects, teaches graduate courses, adds a splash of greenery to the view. Face the opposite direction when baseball games are in session, and “you can see big blimps over Yankee Stadium,” Wilson said.
Some units have private outdoor space, including the penthouses and a one-bedroom on the first floor with steps leading down to a bamboo-enclosed patio. But throughout the building are smaller, indoor conveniences, like marble-tiled bathroom walls that save residents the trouble of repainting or wallpapering. “I call it the millennium bathroom, because no one has time to do anything anymore,” joked Wilson.
Before luxury condos began rising on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, housing options were limited to older properties, many in need of refurbishing after being carved into boarding houses during the ’70s and ‘80s. “In the beginning, when you wanted to buy something in Harlem, you’d buy a brownstone,” Wilson explained.
Now, south Harlem’s housing stock is as upscale and varied as that of the blocks below 110th Street, from which it has lured a number of buyers. In the last few years, “people from the Upper West Side have come to Frederick Douglass Boulevard,” Wilson said.
As more restaurateurs flock to the corridor, the northern migration only continues to intensify. It helps that midtown and Wall Street are easily accessible on the A, B, C, and D trains, which all stop at 125th Street. At the southern end of Frederick Douglass Boulevard, commuters can catch the B and C trains, which zip to Columbus Circle in about ten minutes.
Much of the area’s growth took place while BLVD was under construction. Last February, Best Yet Market, a gourmet grocery store, opened across the street from the building, in a retail strip that also includes a Chase Bank and a branch of Levain’s, a popular bakery on 74th Street and Amsterdam. The shops occupy the base of SoHa, a block-long development offering two- and three-bedroom condos, which Wilson helped market several years ago.
As in much of Harlem, the neighborhood’s food scene is a colorful blend of trendy and historic. Down the block from BLVD, on the ground floor of a brick tenement building, Lee Lee’s Baked Goods, a neighborhood fixture, re-opened after residents campaigned to rescue it from financial trouble during the recession.
“Mr. Lee is an old-timer,” Wilson said. “He bakes the best cakes, and makes the best rugelach.” Indeed, scrawled on the bakery window is a slogan that serves, perhaps, as a testament to the neighborhood’s cultural diversity: “Rugelach by a Brother.”
On nearby Lenox Avenue, Sylvia’s, the legendary soul food restaurant that opened in 1962, offers jazz brunches every Saturday. While often packed with tourists, “they do a lot for the neighborhood,” namely providing scholarships for local college students, Wilson said.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s Chocolat, a popular (albeit jazz-free) brunch spot that opened last year, and Red Rooster, a gourmet soul food restaurant founded by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, winner of the second season of Bravo’s Top Chef Masters.Samuelsson, who has lived in Harlem for six years, named the bistro after a prohibition-era speakeasy on 138th Street.
Following in his footsteps, another well-known chef is starting a restaurant in the neighborhood, in a retail space near 122nd Street. “They won’t tell me who it is,” Wilson said.
In the early 2000s, Moca, a lounge on the corner of Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 119th Street, and Patisserie Des Ambassades, a Senegalese-French restaurant that bakes bread and pastries on site, paved the way for the arrival of the two celebrity ventures.
“They were here before any of this,” said Wilson. “They were the first pioneers. They came early and stuck it through. Now they’re doing well.”