By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — As President Barack Obama prepares to visit Harlem Tuesday night for a $30,000 per plate fundraiser, some are hailing the trip as another sign that the neighborhood has reached a tipping point in its renaissance while others see it as a chance to critique the president's policies.
Obama will attend the small, six-table fundraiser at the Red Rooster Harlem, the restaurant owned by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson at Lenox Avenue between W. 125th and W. 126th streets. Afterward, Obama will attend an invitation only reception half an avenue away at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
"This is great for Harlem because it puts us on par with other places in Manhattan and around the country as a place where someone of that stature wants to make a statement," said Nikoa Evans-Hendricks of N Boutique and a founder of Harlem Park to Park, a business alliance. "His visit speaks volumes to the fact that Harlem has the clientele and facilities to host a fundraiser of this magnitude."
Thousands of people danced in the streets of Harlem when Obama was named the victor of the 2008 presidential election, but some disgruntled locals say they are planning a different reception this time around.
"There's an obscenity about coming to Harlem where the annual median income is $25,000 per year, $5,000 less that the $30,000 per dinner plate fundraiser," said Nelly Bailey, president of the Harlem Tenants Council and an organizer of Harlem Fight Back Against Wars At Home and Abroad, a new coalition of local groups that says it will protest Obama's stance on Libya among other things Tuesday night at Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard.
"I don't think people are dancing in the street now because many are homeless, they have been forced out the city and they don't have jobs," Bailey said. "Yet he thinks he can go to any black community and get treated like a rock star."
Security around the Red Rooster is already in full rock star mode, though. Metal barriers and no parking signs stretch along 125th Street from Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard to Second Avenue. Both Lenox and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard have security gates from at least West 123rd to West 127th streets.
Traffic around the city is notoriously tight during presidential visits. The NYPD has yet to issue any traffic advisories but Obama is expected to be in the city from 2 p.m. until 10 p.m. with scheduled stops at the United Nations and American Museum of Natural History.
Evans-Hendricks said the Harlem fundraiser has all the drama of the Oscars, as celebrity-watchers gather at the barricades to watch who arrives. The list of attendees hasn't been divulged.
"I'm not going anywhere near 125th and Lenox but folks are going to go because they want to see who is getting out of those limos and who is on the 'A' list visiting Harlem," said Evans-Hendricks.
Bailey said there are serious issues facing Harlem that Obama should be made aware of. She cited Obama's attention on using military force in Libya when Harlem remains a hub of joblessness.
"Harlem is symbolic for President Obama. There is no other black community that resonates domestically and internationally. But to come to Harlem on the heels of a brutal shock and awe campaign against an African country is one of political expediency," Bailey said. It is a disrespect and a slap in Harlem's face."
Nikoa-Evans said she has no quarrel with protesters, but she said protests outside Tuesday night's fundraiser could hurt some of the potential long-term benefits.
"We have a legacy to stand on but you want Harlem to be on par with the rest of Manhattan and not treated like step child," said Nikoa-Evans. "We can't make Harlem a difficult place for people to visit or host events. Who's going to want to do anything of this sophistication if there is a protest outside of every event?"