By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — After a countdown quickened by the cold, celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson flipped the switch and lit up 125th Street from river to river for the first time, marking the holiday season and a new spirit of cooperation, he said.
"We worked together. This shows our togetherness," said Samuelsson, owner of the Red Rooster Harlem, a much-anticipated restaurant on Lenox Avenue that he said will open in two weeks. "It's so exciting to be in Harlem right now."
When Samuelsson hit the button, lights depicting stars and snowflakes lit up a bright white.
But organizers say that these were no regular holiday lights — the effort to raise the $60,000 to pay for them represented a coming together of local business leaders, politicians and area residents.
It started when Barbara Askins, president and CEO of the 125th Street Business Improvement District, told community leaders that the group did not have the money to put holiday lights on 125th Street for the second year in a row. When the chairs of Harlem's three community boards heard the news, they offered to help her raise the money.
The effort snowballed from there, with two neighborhood fundraisers and new community partnerships formed.
"We are going to make sure Harlem is never dark again," said Larry English, chair of Community Board 9, which covers West Harlem.
"They made a statement with this effort that 125th Street is here and still strong," Askins added.
The evening was punctuated with performance and preceded by the lighting of a Christmas tree at the West Harlem Piers, another partner in the effort.
"It was wonderful. I hope they continue this tradition," said Harlem resident Earline Johnson, who braved the cold and stayed for the entire ceremony.
Vince Morgan, chair of the 125th Street BID, said that's the plan.
"This is just the beginning. I'm already thinking about 2011," he said.