Like the rest of New York City, Harlem was hit hard by the economic downturn of the past two years. But even as it struggles to regain its financial footing, this most historic of Manhattan districts is showing sings of unexpected growth. Nowhere is this more meaningful than at the Aloft Hotel – a 124-room modern designed property from global hospitality giant Starwood Hotels. Rising 12 floors above Frederick Douglass Avenue along West 124th Street, Aloft arrives later this month as the first new Harlem hotel in almost 45 years.
With its stylish, functional, exec-friendly design by architect David Rockwell, Aloft is a lower-priced version of Starwood’s W brand. The Harlem property is New York City’s first, with a second Aloft opening in Brooklyn early next year. Costing $50m (€35m) to build – and capped with 44 private residences – Harlem’s Aloft is a brick-and-mortar vote of confidence for a district long-struggling to secure blue-chip development deals.
“Aloft serves as an incentive for similar types of commercial projects to come to Harlem,” observes Charles Walker, communications director at the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, which helps fund housing and infrastructure schemes in Harlem. “Investors realise that Harlem is a place where people spend dollars and money can be made.”
Although it’s too soon to tell if Aloft will make money, additional hotel operators already have their eye on Harlem. The new hotels come at a precipitous moment for Harlem itself, home to America’s most important African-American community. Increased migration by middle-class Whites and immigrant Latinos means the district – for the first time ever – is no longer majority Black. Harlem’s ethnic make-up will likely evolve even further with the arrival of a new 17-acre, $6.5bn (€4.6bn) “satellite” Columbia University campus opening in stages over the next two decades. First up: an expanded Columbia Business School arriving in 2016.
Despite the population shift, Harlem’s traditional political base has yet to reflect these changing demographics as evidenced by the September re-election of African-American Congressman Charles Rangel. Although facing a slew of serious ethics charges – from tax evasion to fundraising improprieties – the 20-term, 80-year-old Rangel still received a full 50 per cent of the vote last month.
While Harlem’s political base may remain stuck in the 20th century, its business leaders are hopeful the new Aloft will propel the area into the 21st. “We see the hotel as a major economic tool for all of Harlem,” says Barbara Askins, president of the 125th Street Business Improvement District. “It will be not just a catalyst, but a real connector between our cultural and retail venues.”