Neos Kosmos talked to three people who are deeply invested in the providing services and building resilience in Harlem. Lloyd Williams, the President and CEO of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, Donna Walker-Kuhne America’s foremost expert in audience diversity in the arts, and Louis Katsos, developer and Co-Chair of the Second Harlem Renaissance Commission reveal how business, communities and academic institutions in Harlem are harnessing their forces in meeting a confluence of crises.
Rebuilding and ramping up the Harlem Renaissance
Harlem’s story is one of continuity and resilience built on the coordinated efforts of business, culture, and community.
Over the last twenty-five years Harlem has been reborn, cultural institutions have shifted there; existing ones refurbished. The streets where the first renaissance was born, like 135th Street, early in the 20th Century, have burst to life again. The complexities natural to renewal and gentrification have been played out over the course of the latest renewal. Business, local government, educational institutions, the cultural and arts sector and communities have all been involved in Harlem’s regeneration. That is of course until the pandemic which ravaged New York City, especially the vulnerable, and the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police were made worse by President Trump’s divisive management.
Lloyd Williams, the President and CEO of The Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce says that the pandemic and a history of the brutal police treatment of African Americans exposed deep fissures in American society.
“These factors coming together, COVID19 and racism, makes this the most challenging and critical period of time in the history of America since the Civil War.
“When you combine that with what has been happening in the White House – a president of the United States who fans and fuels division and bigotry – this is one of those times that the United States is no longer the moral compass for this world,” said Williams.
William’s godfather was Malcolm X and his tutor was the great African American poet and playwright Langston Hughes, a driving force of the first Harlem Renaissance. The first golden age in African American culture was born in Harlem between 1918 – 1930. It was revealed in new literature, Jazz, new dance, and new social, intellectual and political movements all with global impact. Since the late 1990s, Harlem has been enjoying a renewal through gentrification and the rise of new art; invigorated social and cultural movements; and of course, business and urban development. Partnerships between businesses, academic institutions, developers, communities, the arts, and local government conferred Harlem the title of the Second Harlem Renaissance.
“We now have a pandemic within the pandemic; the COVID19 pandemic and the systematic racism and brutality towards people of colour from the Police Department, so you have two massive pandemics,” says Williams.
The Chamber’s chief also fears the “long hot summer that is getting ready to hit America especially in July and August” will ramp up conflict and division. He knows from the past.
Over 30,000 people have died from the COVID19 pandemic in New York City. Williams points to “massive under reporting of the homeless population, people that died in their homes, those in jails, or the Native American populations, all those that have not been counted.”
Donna Walker-Kuhne, President of Walker International Communications Group, who’s playing a leading role in Harlem’s, Brooklyn’s and New Jersey’s cultural ecology, perceives the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd as “a watershed as big as the Civil War.”
“We are coordinating meetings of the business communities with each other, arts communities with each other, health communities with each other, many who are not practised talking to each other in the past because they did not need to do it. We have created the Second Harlem Renaissance Commission to prepare for the Centenary of the Harlem Renaissance.”
Lloyd Williams, the President and CEO of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce
She thinks that the pandemic will “change life forever”.
“There’s no going back to normal,” says Walker-Kuhne to Neos Kosmos.
She is unsure how quickly arts and culture driving the second Harlem Renaissance can rebound.
“I can’t imagine from a cultural perspective that we will have large festivals like we had before,
audience surveys have come back and audiences say they will wait for a vaccine, but traditional ticket buyers, the loyalists are not coming back any time soon,” Walker-Kuhne says.
Greek American, Louis Katsos, the Co-Chair of the Second Harlem Renaissance Commission also knows the deeper source of recent events.
“The things that took place like protests are not just an outcome of George’s murder, but there they’re systemic issues that have existed in the nation.
“African American Slavery, the Civil War, the Reconstruction are at the base of issues that have not been adequately address over many generations,” says Katsos.
A united front against racism
“People of good will have come together; Jewish, Greek, Italian, Korean, Dominican and Cuban, but it’s mainly the African American and Caribbean American communities that have come together, and it is our responsibility,” says Williams.
“Many white Americans who decided to protest shoulder to shoulder with black American and were bold about it, they were not hanging back, it is mainly the younger Obama generation” says Walker-Kuhne.
“White Americans even got in front of the Black Americans, so when the police came and started pushing them around, and teargassing them, the whites took the hit, they wanted to and that was their way of protecting the Black Americans,” says Donna Walker-Kuhne.
Walker Kuhne calls it the “new awakening” but highlights the “guilt”.
“This is not about making white people feel better, we are not interested in that, just take the Band Aid off, rip it off quickly, and let’s move ahead.”
She warns that “the protests are in the moment” and says, “we can’t live forever with protests going on.”
“We need to begin thinking about where we are going to see the impact.”
She calls for “real inner reflection and inner transformation” and believes everything else is topical, “it will take white Americans to reflect and think about the years of racism.”
“I have ignored the pandemics COVID19 and racism, but it’s in my face, it’s in my neighbourhood and now I have to deal with it,” says Walker-Kuhne reflecting on white Americans.
She points to the police who are “stating ‘I am a good cop’, some of them have written essays, they are standing with the black community, others have taken then knee with the black community.”
“They realise they have to distinguish themselves, because unless they don’t all you see, if you’re black, is white police killing black men, and lately even black women,” Walker-Kuhne says.
“It is one of the few times when everyone was on the same page in terms of the murder of Mr. George Floyd, Republicans, Democrats, right and left, African and non-African Americans, everyone knew that what took place was outrageous,” Katsos says.
Katsos also reminds Greek Americans of the racism they faced in the past.
“We should remember the killings which took place against us, the second rise of the KKK which targeted Greeks, the burning of Greek towns in Omaha Nebraska in the 1920s.
“We were never considered a white people, we were always seen as a coloured people in the United States, and it only began to change in October 28th 1940, because this ‘little country’, (Greece), pushed back fascism – it transformed the way Americans Greeks were perceived,” said Katsos.
“White Americans even got in front of the Black Americans, so when the police came and started pushing them around, and teargassing them, the whites took the hit, they wanted to and that was their way of protecting the Black Americans.”
Donna Walker-Kuhne, President of Walker International Communications and America’s foremost expert in audience diversity in the arts.
Harlem is not waiting for anyone
Lloyd Williams says that he is “not waiting for any experts to come from the outside”. It is a bottom up redevelopment of Harlem through “business, universities, communities and the arts.”
“We are coordinating meetings of the business communities with each other, arts communities with each other, health communities with each other, many who are not practiced talking to each other in the past because they did not need to do it.
“We have created the Second Harlem Renaissance Commission to prepare for the Centenary of the Harlem Renaissance,” says Lloyd Williams.
Under the pandemic’s grip the Harlem Chamber of Commerce provides 1400 meals on a daily basis, to senior citizens, families and the homeless. It issues out PPE, sanitizers to vulnerable communities, to youth and seniors’ centres. Education is also a focus as the Chamber gives out tablets and computers to primary school and other students. Art and culture are also being supported by the Chamber.
“We have extended support to the arts and entertainment community, because with the close down of Broadway, The Apollo, restaurants, nightclubs, and museums the people in the arts community are unemployed; for a musician their next source of unemployment normally is as a waiter in a restaurant, but restaurants are all closed now so we created a foodbank for them,” says Williams.
“Creating communication getting communities, business, the arts folk to talk to each other is key,” says the Chamber head.
In mid-June the Harlem Chamber of Commerce brought together “all the major black publications across the country with former Governor David Paterson and former Congressman Charles Rangel” says Williams.
Williams says that local community banks like the Carver Bank and Bank Popular are being injected with money to support struggling Harlem small business.
“People are pumping money into our own banks and we can be resilient and respected,” he says.
The Harlem Chamber of Commerce has commissioned some of the “top minds from different fields, different races, and different backdrops” to talk about issues of the moment such as “unemployment, health discrepancies, and of lack finance for small businesses.
“Another group is cochaired by Louis Katsos to focus on the long-term issues and to develop a blueprint of what a new Harlem may look like,” says Williams.
Louis Katsos focuses on what a new “Harlem needs to look” like says Williams “how can we prepare ourselves the next pandemic or hurricane.”
Katsos says he will look at “areas of concentration in Harlem like healthcare and education; small business; transportation and government relations; development within the area, as well as arts and culture; technology and tourism.
“We’re going to bring distinguished people who can look at the long term and short-term considerations, it’s going to be a public and private coordination with community involvement and my coordination aspect will be more like Imagineering.”
“We will invite important Harlemites and use the resources of the universities for example City College and Columbia University, their various economic, architectural, sociology, health and other faculties will become very important contributors in the second Harlem Renaissance,” says Louis Katsos.
Donna Walker Kuhne calls the whole effort “incredible” and likens it to what “the Black Panther movement were like, when they were educating and feeding, people”
“We raised $300,000 (USD) from the first Save Harlem GoFundMe campaign, and we also received gifts and other support, and now we launched the second Save Harlem GoFundMe campaign focusing on Black Music Month, in July we are promoting Harlem Week and August is Back to School and a focus on education,” said Walker Kuhne. (link to Support Harlem Rebuilding and ramping up the Harlem Renaissance)
Katsos believes that “positive actions and partnerships bring money”.
“Private money comes in creates the infrastructure required and it balloons.
“When something become successful people jump on board, there are economic driven aspects to this which is why Harlem’s properties have spiked and businesses have been doing well until these recent events” says Katsos.
Harlem is the “African American capital” of the world says Katsos.
“We will invite important Harlemites and use the resources of the universities for example City College and Columbia University, their various economic, architectural, sociology, health and other faculties will become very important contributors in the second Harlem Renaissance.”
Louis Katsos developer and Co-Chair of the Second Harlem Renaissance Commission.
“What happens in Harlem, for example what we’re talking about right now is positive, and it will affect the greater society, that’s what this is all about,” says Katsos.
“Harlem’s is the historical, political, cultural and educational capital of America and much of what happens with black people and people of colour in America goes through Harlem, as the old saying goes ‘Where Harlem goes so goes Black America’” says Lloyd Williams.
Lloyd Williams, Donna Walker-Kuhne and Louis Katsos who have spent a lifetime working with and for Harlem have s no doubt that Harlem will meet America’s greatest challenges, the pandemic and racism. They seem to be greater national and global leadership models than the current occupants of the White House.