Storm Brings Reminder to Resurgent Harlem of Struggles

New York City’s Harlem has seen a resurgence of business activity and nightlife, with restaurants such as Harlem Tavern and celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster generating buzz in recent years.

For the past two days, it was a food bank on 116th Street that was the hottest spot in the neighborhood.

Some Harlemites, on the hunt for meals after superstorm Sandy forced groceries and restaurants to shut their doors, found refuge at the Community Kitchen and Food Pantry. It offered chicken noodle soup and beef with pasta and provided canned food and dry goods to those suddenly in need.

“We served people we’ve never seen before,” said Daryl Foriest, director of food distribution at the pantry. “We got here and we hit the ground running.”

While New York City is home to 8.25 million people, the U.S.’s biggest metropolis is a collection of neighborhoods and communities. Harlem, north of Central Park in Manhattan, is home to the Apollo Theatre, the Abyssinian Baptist Church, where Bill and Hillary Clinton have served as guest speakers, and Sylvia’s Restaurant, which has been serving soul food since 1962.

The neighborhood, which has a history of poverty, crime and drugs, is also filled with iconic brownstones, tree-lined streets and houses of worship. Its revitalization is underlined by some housing deals that are out of reach for most people: A five-bedroom, renovated townhouse in central Harlem is being offered for $2.9 million on real estate website

Sandy’s Devastation

Sandy caused at least 50 deaths in the U.S., shut down New York’s public transportation system and left streets in the financial district flooded. The flood gauge at Battery Park, at the southernmost end of Manhattan, registered at 13.88 feet at 9:24 p.m. on Oct. 29, beating the modern record of 10.02 feet in September 1960 during Hurricane Donna, the National Weather Service said. President Barack Obama declared New York and New Jersey disaster regions eligible for federal relief.

For Harlem, the storm is a reminder of the neighborhood’s economic struggles.

Foriest said the weather brought in new clients unable to stock up on nourishment prior to Sandy’s arrival. With prepared dishes and pantry bags filled with food for multiple days, his team provided 1,900 meals on the day of the storm and planned to hand out another 2,200 yesterday.

Can’t Work

Gabriel Duvall, 31, heard through word-of-mouth that he could find fresh food at the pantry just blocks from his apartment. With the city’s public transportation system at a halt, Duvall was thankful for the help.

“We can’t get to work, and that hurts a lot,” Duvall, 31, who works in construction, said yesterday while carrying bags of hot food, canned goods and cereal. “This gets food in your stomach.”

Harlem resident David Shawn, 34, who is looking for work, said he didn’t buy much in the way of water or batteries to prepare for the storm. He said the neighborhood will always endure regardless of the circumstances.

“Harlem is the soul of New York City,” he said while catching up with friends on a street corner. “I don’t think God would let Harlem go.”

A day after the storm, Harlem’s streets were littered with leaves and a few fallen trees. The area’s main commercial thoroughfare on 125th Street, usually bustling with pedestrians, sidewalk merchants selling T-shirts, perfumed oils and music, and groups of men playing on African drums, was quiet.

Open for Business

Many storefronts throughout the area were closed, though some corner groceries, restaurants and laundromats quickly reopened.

Red Rooster, which started in 2010, shut down for dinner on the day of the storm. The restaurant was open for business yesterday, its bar filled with patrons.

A Lenox Avenue salon that specializes in weaves and hair extensions was open without a single customer. It typically is a neighborhood meeting place, serving 30 customers at a time while those waiting for appointments spill out onto the sidewalk to chat.

Laverne Wright, 56, a former nurse who is now disabled, was enjoying the peacefulness after stocking up on food, water and supplies before Sandy’s arrival. She went out during the storm to take photos of the empty streets before retreating indoors with her husband to watch movies and relax.

“We just had a nice old family time in the house,” she said while walking her dog, Sheba, on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard.

Foriest of Community Kitchen and Food Pantry said his organization helps to boost the working poor during times of stress and those who are continually in need.

“There are people that have emergencies within emergency situations,” he said. “We were able to provide them with relief.”

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