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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

R.I.P. Copeland’s, Farewell Reliable’s: Collard Greens, Turkey Wings, Gentrification, Urban Infrastructure, and a Final Word of Thanks to a Harlem Entrepreneur

Posted by Stephen Lewis on July 27, 2007

This weekend, Copeland’s Restaurant on West 145th Street in New York City’s Harlem will close its doors forever. The demise of this upscale “soul food” restaurant — a favorite of local residents, African-American celebrities, and atmosphere-seeking European tourist groups alike — was reported this past Monday in the New York Times. Although the Times article paid adequate respect to the restaurant and to its founder, Mr. Calvin Copeland, it neglected Copeland’s no-less-worthy stepchild, the restaurant’s neighboring storefront cafeteria and take-out, known for decades to locals simply as “Reliable’s” (a diminutive of its original name, The Reliable Catering Co.). Reliable’s served the same delicious food as Copeland’s but from steam tables manned by affable white-uniformed, hairnetted serving personel rather than off the arms of uniformed waiters and onto linen-covered tables as at Copeland’s. Reliables was also far more affordable than Copeland’s and thus attracted ordinary residents of Harlem on their ways to and from work plus a sprinkling of good-food-at-budget-prices-seeking New Yorkers, black and white both, fleeing the stiffness, artificiality, and high prices of restaurants in more high-toned neighborhoods downtown. On Sunday afternoons, while tour goups enjoyed staged gospel-music concert brunches at Copeland’s, ordinary Harlemites returning home from the neighborhood’s churches shared informal lunches at Reliable’s formica tables or waited in line for their take-out orders. Daytime and evenings, one could linger at Reliable’s for hours chatting with friends, watching fellow diners stream in and out, and, of course, savoring the wonderful food — mildly-seasoned smothered chicken, immense turkey wings, vegetable plates of collards, black-eyed-peas and rice, and, for desert, Reliable’s inimitable bread pudding.

“Like a Tornado…”

Reliables flourished for decades despite, or maybe because of, its setting in one of New York City’s most underserved and economically stagnant neighborhoods. Ironically, the neighborhood’s recent upswing is exactly what caused Reliable’s demise. Sadly, the upswing was not rooted in a regeneration of black Harlem or in a change for the better in the lives and prospects of its longtime, mostly black, inhabitants. Rather, it was a blitzkrieg-paced case of “gentrification,” a massive influx of mostly white and very much better-off luxury housing hunters. This was spurred in large part by developers buying up substantial amounts of what since the 1920s had been low-priced rental stock and rapidly converting it into high-end cooperative apartments and staggeringly expensive single-family townhouses. The outcome: A flight of lower-income Harlemites and a sudden demographic turnover that caught Calvin Copeland and most other non-real-estate-savvy New Yorkers by surprise. Referring to the sudden exodus of African-Americans from a neighborhood that had been emblematic of Black America for more than 80 years, the Times article quotes Mr. Copeland as saying: “The white people who took their place don’t like or don’t care for the food I cook … the transformation snuck up on me like a tornado.”

It’s All in the Infrastructure

New York is a city in which the neighborhoods of the rich, poor and middle-class traditionally abut, and in which people of all backgrounds and walks of life are hyper-aware of each other’s existence, like each other or not. Such proximity and agglomeration have contributed to the economic mobility of the City’s residents and has shaped the traditional liberality and egalitarian nature of New York politics. A variegated population has also ensured that New York is continuously supplied with a work force adequate to the performance and competitiveness of its economy. Part of New York’s greatness is that it has avoided the tradition malaise of American cities, i.e. the impoverishment and death of inner cities and flight of the middle class and the rich to bedroom communities and distant suburbs. Until recently, New York has also avoided the European equivalent of this syndrome, i.e. the takeover of the inner cities by the young and the wealthy and the banishment of the poor and lower-income to oppressive housing estates and violent banlieue. New York’s relative demographic balance did not emerge by accident. It has been shaped and shepherded by public policy, from the rent control decrees of World War II and subsequent rent stabilization laws to the massive “slum-clearance” and public housing projects of the 1930s through 1960s. (How public housing destabilized neighborhoods will be treated in future entries).

New York had always been a city that has realized the importance of its human and physical infrastructure — housing, public transportation, universities, museums and concert halls, hospitals, and one of the world’s highest quality and most reliable water supply systems — and had been willing to invest accordingly. Still, there have been exceptions. One particularly acerbic recent mayor is reputed to have said: “This is the world’s most expensive real estate; if you can’t afford to live here, get out.” Such an outburst is easy to make but harder to live up to the consequences of. To be blunt, without affordable housing for the lower income people who serve them, New York’s rich would have to do their own cooking and eat from dirty plates in the exorbitantly-priced restaurants they patronize, not to mention having to change their own sheets and empty their own bedpans in the hospitals that are there for them when they fall ill. This year, issues such as the sudden encroachment on affordable housing in Harlem, the seeds of gentrification in long-dormant neighborhoods such as Brooklyn’s Bushwick, and the surprise conversion of lower Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town from fixed-rent lower-middle-class housing into luxury housing at “market” rates have revived full-force the debate over New York City’s housing policies. This debate is made even more timely and intense as New York’s revived role as a world economic and cultural center continues to work like a magnet, attracting wealthy new arrivals as well as the City’s traditional “huddled masses yearning to breath free.” (Over the next months, I plan to post a number of entries on these issues and other facets of urban change and public infrastructure, both on this site and, in a more anecdotal and visual way, on my alter-ego site Bubkes.Org.)

New Vegetables and New Names: “Branding” Comes to Harlem

A dearth of black-eyed peas and collard greens is not the only change gentrification brings to Harlem. The name Harlem itself is threatened. To make luxury housing more palatable to white investors and buyers and to disassociate the neighborhood from its 20th-century African-American and proletarian antecedents, real estate developers turn to the flim-flam of “branding.” To “spin” Harlem’s image, they have resurrected the name “Hamilton Heights” (previously familiar only to NYC historians, cartographers, and city planners) as an appellation for that section of Harlem in which Copeland’s is located. Sadly, so it seems, the white Midwestern, New England, and European corporate-types and professionals moving into and transforming the neighborhood find it more attractive to tell the folks back home and their colleagues at the office that they live in Hamilton Heights rather than simply to say that have landed in Harlem.

Finally: Thank you, Mr. Copeland

As a long-time customer of Reliables’ and a sometime patron of Copeland’s, I want to thank Calvin Copeland for years of fine cooking, sincere welcome, and good service to me and to people of all races. In flush years, an occasional meal at Copeland’s enabled me to feel quite flush indeed, and, in lean years, Reliable’s enabled me to eat very well for very little. And, not to forget, the ample tables, leisurely pace, and relaxed atmosphere at Reliables’ were the comfortable backdrop for hours of serious conversation and laughter with my closest friends.

In his family life, employment policies, and hospitality Mr. Copeland had the humanity, wisdom, and courage to cross the absurd and regrettable color lines that still divide and mar much of life in America. Thank you, Mr. Copeland, for enabling this “white” New Yorker to gain so much physical sustenance, aesthetic fulfillment, and human warmth in Harlem. I wish you continued good health and success in all you still plan to undertake. And … I’ll never forget the bread pudding!

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8 Responses to “R.I.P. Copeland’s, Farewell Reliable’s: Collard Greens, Turkey Wings, Gentrification, Urban Infrastructure, and a Final Word of Thanks to a Harlem Entrepreneur”

  1. This is a great analysis of the situation. The most intelligent breakdown of it than what I’ve been reading in the “popular” press.

  2. Amn.eris said

    Thank you for this. Copeland’s will truly be missed. I have been going there for almost 30 years…the majority of my life.

  3. Marina Raytchinova said

    Despite I have never been to Copeland’s I could imagine the pleasant, relaxed atmosphere of the place. Your analysis of the changes in your home city is a very fine reading…. And what a good idea to say “thank you” to someone, who provided you food and service with soul.

  4. Benjamin J. Salzano said

    A magnificently conceived and warmly executed eulogizing of a person, people, place and atmosphere that were indeed the very “soul” of New York City. Bravo Steve!!

  5. D. Williams said

    1. Bummer that Copeland’s is closing, but the food at Reliable’s was definitely NOT cheap. So I don’t buy the owner’s blaming a gentrification-driven demographic shift. The place looked like it hadn’t been remodeled since the 1950s; it was a dump. Maybe people were tired of paying too much to eat in a bad time-warp?

    2. I doubt there’s any significant reduction in the black population in Harlem. The new upscale developments are built on lots where the previous buildings had been empty and condemned for years.

    3. Harlem is named after a city in Denmark…

  6. Yella said

    Well done and thank you for this article. My husband and I have been dining at Reliable’s for over 20 years and was beside ourselves when we found out about the closing. The food was delicious and worth every dollar.

  7. Naomi said

    A hearty “amen!” to your warm reflections and insightful analysis. My family and our friends have been eating in/taking out from Reliable’s for as long as I can remember (and over the years we’ve even splurged occassionally for extra-special meals at Copeland’s). We were devastated when the closing was announced, but knowing of the socio-economic shifts in the neighborhood, it was sadly understandable, and perhaps should even have been predicted.

    My father pointed out that months ago the (delicious!) stewed okra had disappeared from the weekday steam table. With okra available only on Sundays (when an influx of churchgoers in the neighborhood lined up for takeout after services), and the inimitable bread pudding seemingly more plentiful, definite shifts in dietary patterns were obvious. Nonetheless, to those of us who loved Reliable’s both for its food and atmosphere–including the uniformed ladies behind the counter who inquired after the health and whereabouts of our family members while efficiently filling plates and packaging orders–its demise seemed unimaginable. Sadly, it appears that newcomers to the community didn’t see its charm as we did, and now a neighborhood institution has been lost.

    There’s much more to be said/written/debated on the topic of gentrification in Harlem. Changes are happening very rapidly. Please keep writing about these issues–your perspective and clarity of voice are much needed.

  8. Gina Rooney said

    Thank you Mr.Calvin I spent a lot of time with you there. I miss you very much. You meen the world to me and my family.

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