“People gravitate towards Harlem,” said Leon Ellis, the accomplished entrepreneur behind Harlem Underground.
Leon Ellis grew up on the island of Jamaica and went to college in Alabama. He would often stay in New York over the summers as he sold Black history books door to door to pay for his education. Upon graduating, he chose to remain in Harlem permanently and embark on a bevy of intriguing business ventures throughout the 1990s, including a gaming store, Emily’s — a restaurant named after his mother — and a barbecue joint named for his father. Today, his clothing shop is surrounded by two newer ventures: Chocolat, a full-service restaurant, and Ganache Cafe, a coffee shop.
His projects as a restaurateur aside, Leon felt that he wanted to “spread the word about Harlem all over the world.” With the neighborhood already a recognizable name, when Leon would travel outside the city dressed in Harlem gear, many people wanted to know where he purchased his clothing. Thus, Harlem Underground began with a mission: “We look to create an image or projection of what Harlem is — its music, its culture, its people.”
The shop hires local designers to create merchandise that revolves around the “raw theme of Harlem NYC.” To Leon, this is the essence of his success. “Our resources are developed here, and we expend those resources here. We embrace the Harlem community, and we believe it embraces us.”
(Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, after years of operating on 125th Street, Harlem Underground consolidated its locations and now remains open on Frederick Douglass Boulevard.)
Stopping into the firehouses on the side streets of Manhattan has continued to be a true joy for me and the Manhattan Sideways team. There is always an interesting story to be heard and warm, generous people to meet. When we visited the fire station on 125th, we were greeted by an apologetic fireman who told us that their trucks were out responding to a gas leak in the area. He did, however, show us the truck they had on loan, which some of the men were busy cleaning and which he called their Special Operations Command vehicle. We were immediately curious about the truck, and he explained that it is equipped with a dewatering shower unit intended for use after any kind of catastrophe that has potentially contaminated firemen or civilians. This was conceived following 9/11, but we were pleased to learn that in 2017 it had still only been used for training. It has never been needed in the real world. “It’s something we hope we never have to do, ” the fireman confessed.
The modern, stylish setting of Capsule is the perfect backdrop for the well-curated collection of clothing and sportswear. I was fascinated to learn that the owner, Daniel Farouk, originally from Ghana, always had a passion for fashion, but actually studied aeronautics and trained to be a commercial pilot. It was only after finishing his pilot certification that he found he missed fashion, prompting him to emigrate to the States to delve into the industry. He never received any formal training - instead, what he knows he learned “on the streets and on the job. ” For a period of a few years Daniel worked at Sammy’s Fashion in the Bronx as a buyer and then became head buyer before opening his own stunning sportswear store. Stopping by in the middle of the afternoon on a warm July day, in 2017, it became immediately apparent that many are attracted to this beautiful shop. I was surprised by the number of people from every age group that were there chatting with the friendly, knowledgeable sales staff, while browsing through the well-presented racks of men's and women's clothing. I loved that not only were there jeans, jerseys, sweatshirts, athletic shorts and baseball hats, but there were also women's handbags and an adorable pile of t-shirts for little ones. Walking towards the back of the store, and up a step, a sliding door opened automatically to reveal an eye-catching display of unisex sneakers, as well as a selection of other stylish shoes and boots. When Daniel got a moment to breath, he came over to speak with the Manhattan Sideways team. He was proud to share that he had personally designed the store and its decor, focusing on a vision of brick walls and wood pallets to display his merchandise. Daniel told us that his goal in opening the store two years prior in 2015 was to “supply customers with stuff that is rare, ” and he takes care to order clothes that are exclusive and high-end. “We’re trendy, in that we try to stay ahead of the trends, ” he explained. A big advantage in accomplishing this is the fact that he works the floor and interacts with customers on a daily basis. That way, when the time comes to order new items, he can search out things that he knows will be “hot for the customers” rather than relying on general fads. Daniel chose Harlem as the ideal neighborhood to set up shop because he felt it was the “birthplace of fashion” and has a colorful past. His particular location on 125th Street has a very rich history, as it housed the famous M& G Diner, which was used as a filming location for movies like Precious and Belly and even a James Brown shoot. To respect this legendary site, Daniel has kept the diner’s sign displayed on his storefront. Despite his fondness for their current location, Daniel is hoping to open more shops around the city and in other boroughs. He was happy to say that they have “gotten a lot of love” from their customers and the neighborhood over the past two years. This is partly because Daniel is dedicated to providing an approachable shopping experience, where anyone can feel free to peruse his high-end wares without feeling any scrutiny or pressure. As a result, people who frequent the store range from Harlem locals to well known athletes and celebrities. When asked how he attracts so many high-profile clients, Daniel stated simply, "social media. " He then went on to say, “We have the hottest brands, the hottest fashions, and we’re growing daily. ”
The Caribbean Cultural Center Africa Diaspora Institute, which moved to its latest location on 125th Street in October of 2016, celebrated its new home with the three-part exhibition “Home, Memory, and the Future, ” which focused entirely on Harlem. When the Manhattan Sideways team visited in the summer of 2017, the Center was in the midst of the second part of their exhibition: “Harlem and Home in the Global Context. ” We were eager to learn more about the project and were fortunate enough to chat with Janet, one of the staffmembers, as we browsed through the art on display. Janet began our conversation by clarifying that “the Center is not a museum. We don’t collect here. ” Instead, there is an ever-changing array of different exhibitions that usually revolve around a theme. Those themes are always under the overarching topic of the African Diaspora, as one of the Center’s core missions is to raise awareness of how the forced dispersal of Africans and their customs affected other cultures. Namely, it demonstrates how different cultures and their respective arts are interrelated due to the common thread of African influence. This goal has been an essential one for the Center ever since its beginnings in 1976, when its founder, Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, realized that there was a general ignorance in regards to Caribbean, Latin American, and African cultures. Thus, through education and outreach programs, she sought to enlighten others. Equally as significant, she modeled herself and her institution on the concept of being an “artivist, ” which involves finding the intersection of social justice and art and understanding how positive social change can be effected through creative mediums. The Center tries to reach students at a young age with its Teaching Living Cultures initiative, tailored for those in Pre-K through 12th grade, which provides exposure to the various art forms associated with the African Diaspora. It also continues to modernize its methods of connecting with and gaining the interest of the public through a series of apps that better appeal to their young audiences. The CCCADI also maintains that it is never too late to educate oneself, which is why it offers programs for adults via Community Arts University Without Walls, which offers international exchanges that are open to everyone. By creating a platform for people to go abroad and immerse themselves in foreign customs and art forms, the Center hopes to promote “conscious cultural tourism. ” At the time of our visit, Janet told us that the staffmembers were busy preparing for their trip to Puerto Rico, where they planned to visit local artists’ studios and gain a direct understanding of the country’s contemporary art scene. She reiterated that although these exchange programs are open to anyone, they are often used by members of the Latinx community to reconnect with their cultures. Another important aspect of the organization is the Sacred Traditions project. Janet revealed that the Center is “unofficially known for decolonizing African secret traditions, ” meaning that it seeks to dispel negative stigma surrounding certain belief systems. She said that many people hold misconceptions about so-called “fringe” beliefs like santería, voodoo, or gagá, which are often practiced throughout the Caribbean. The CCCADI helps to clear up misconceptions and demystify these sacred traditions in various ways, be it through trips to African nations, symposiums on African and indigenous beliefs, or exhibitions and concerts. The Center also demonstrates how elements of these traditions live on today, highlighting the relevance of learning about past practices and honoring the collective cultural heritage created by the African Diaspora.