By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — When Barbara Askins told the public last year that the 125th Street Business Improvement District didn't have the money to hang holiday lights on Harlem's main drag, the response was not good.
"We received lots of complaints," said Askins, president and CEO of the BID, which has strung holiday lights along 125th Street from Morningside Avenue to Fifth Avenue since the mid 1990s. "People were calling the Community Board offices saying: 'You can't let this happen in Harlem.'"
Askins was bracing to break the same bad news this year when three community boards in Harlem offered to team up and raise money to pay for the lights — and to take them a step further.
"We thought a great way in these hard times to give something to the community would be to light 125th Street from river to river, the first time that has ever happened," said Larry English, chairman of Community Board 9, which covers much of West Harlem. "We wanted to get the lights back on and turn it into a community effort."
The restaurant Settepani on 120th Street and Lenox Avenue is hosting a fund-raiser from 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday and plans are underway for a lighting ceremony at the State Office Building on Dec. 7. Running the lights from river to river is expected to cost $60,000, with the money coming entirely from fundraising and the 125th Street BID.
"I am surprised and delighted at the leadership demonstrated by the three chairs," said Askins. "They immediately got it. They said, 'Oh no, Harlem is not going to be dark two years in a row. Let's figure out how to work together.'"
It's the first time in recent memory that Harlem's community boards have banded together. Too often, said both Washington and English, Harlem is divided into East, West and Central zones with each area pushing for its own interests. In reality, issues such as crime and development are problems that all of Harlem faces.
"We are bringing those walls down that keep us separated as East, West and Central Harlem because the same issues affect us all, river to river," said English.
W. Franc Perry, chair of Community Board 10, was happy to be working with his fellow Community Board chairs on an improvement project.
"It's going to attract people to our main shopping district and be a reminder to people that they can stay in their neighborhood and shop and not have to go downtown," said Perry.
Matthew Washington, chair of Community Board 11, which covers East Harlem, said that the boards were trying to show that "we are unified and that we have a lot of the same concerns and needs."
"125th street physically runs from river to river. It is an icon unto its own and it is what connects the neighborhoods of East, Central and West Harlem. It travels through our communities in a seamless way and goes beyond the invisible community lines," Washington said.
In 2007, the American Planning Association named 125th Street, also known as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, one of the "10 great streets in America." They said the street, home to the famed Apollo theater, was one of the "cultural touchstones for black Americans."
The street has undergone a recent transformation which includes a new mall and new national retailers. Former President Bill Clinton recently renewed the lease on his office space on the street, and a recent — though controversial — rezoning allows the construction of high-rise buildings, including condos and hotels, along 125th.
"This street is one of the most famous thoroughfares in the world. We want this tree-lighting to be synonymous with the Rockefeller Tree lighting," said Donnette Dunbar whose public relations firm Dash Media is organizing the fundraiser. "No one is doing that uptown, so why not do it on one of the most famous streets in the world?"
Perry said 125th Street is Harlem's "Main Street."
"We eat there, we entertain there at the Apollo, we go to the Studio Museum of Harlem, we greet each other on the street," said Perry. "In a lot of other places in America, Main Street has been replaced by the mall. Here in Harlem, we still have our epicenter."