"Our policy is to give back to the community and you can do that in a boring way or a fun way. We thought Miss/Mr. Harlem would be a really fun way to give back."
-Jelena Pasic, Founder Harlem Shake
Harlem is ever-changing and its change is drastic and rapid. Many of the local favorite mom and pop shops are trading spaces for big retail chains and expensive high-rise luxury residential apartments amidst its popular cultural scene filled creative transplants all migrating to the historical mecca that is Harlem. Alongside its constant evolution is the wave of survival for independent small businesses establishing themselves in the heart of the cultural atmosphere that Harlem brings. The new brand of Harlem's businesses or what some call the "Second Renaissance" seems to stray away from is the traditional mom and pop legacy thanks to increasing gentrification, but there are new local businesses trending back to the local, intimate, curated neighborhood experience. Make no mistake about it, the ones assembling Harlem back into an essential must-see New York destination are local independent small businesses.
Combining the vintage charm with a contemporary vision, continually building on the foundation of genuine relationships, community, and integrity is the only way for small business survival in historical cultivating communities like Harlem. One restaurant intent on honoring the Harlem legacy with a modern retro twist for locals and visitors is Harlem Shake restaurant. the award-winning restaurant donning its famous classic burgers with old school milkshakes has earned its popular reputation as a neighborhood eating staple in Harlem. Known for its affordable eats, sociable atmosphere, and retro Harlem style decor, the flagship location on 124th Street and Lenox Ave. is a rebirth of the original diner which was occupied in the 1940's.
Owner, Croation born Jelena Pasic bought the location wanting to preserve the history that was already there with a few cool modern updates. Sitting amongst retails giants like American Eagle, Red Lobster, and Whole Foods, Pasic thought it was significant to preserve the vintage old school vibe especially for the locals during the current climate of neighborhood favorite like "Lenox Lounge" once the soul of Harlem closing its doors left and right. This is not Pasic's first shop as she formerly owned a coffee shop in Washington Heights, but she teamed up with interior designer Dennis Decker on her newest venture Harlem Shake. To preserve and capture Harlem's past they kept the original stained tin ceiling and hexagonal tile flooring that was restored alongside vintage Jet magazine covers as bathroom wallpaper and autographed photos of local residents and celebs on the other remaining walls.
After 3 successful years on the west side of Harlem, Harlem Shake expanded to its sister location in El Barrio. Following the signature retro swag of its flagship restaurant, the new El Barrio location customizes it's very own Wall of Fame this time called "Wall of Fro" which is a stunning wall of local Harlemites showing off their head-turning natural hair styles. The East Harlem location also channels the nostalgic themed designs of vintage diner decor with a 1962 coin-operated jukebox and Luke Cage Power Man comic book covers as wallpaper in the restrooms. The cool is also turned up a notch at the newest location with is customized menu to celebrate the culture of El Barrio with specialty food dishes like "Guava Iced-Tea and the "Pulled Pernil Sandwich".
The creative idea interaction theme seems to be one of the strongest assets of the Harlem Shake restaurant as they just celebrated its first pop-up shop "Shop, Sip, & Shake" last month in celebration of the conclusion of Women History Month and the newest search of the next 2017 Miss/Mr. Harlem Ambassador. Curated by the Young Brown Collective attendees enjoyed complimentary wine selections, with spa treatments, as well as fashion and beauty products created by local women of color. With food specials on Harlem Shake's signature menu items, an appearance from Miss Harlem Shake 2016, and an on-site kiosk to submit headshots for the 2017 Miss/Mr. Harlem Shake contest they are making sure the voice of the people are being heard, seen, and enjoyed with some good food and beyond.
We had a chance to interview interior designer Dennis Decker and Miss Harlem Shake 2016 about their journey with the popular eatery and the inside scoop on that bold decor.
ART LIVING: Danielle, what made you sign up for Harlem Shake and what was your expectation for joining the contest?
Danielle: I have fallen in love with Harlem. The people and the vibe are so magnetic. I saw this as an opportunity to be a Harlem ambassador - to share my love of Harlem and get to appreciate it on another level.
ART LIVING: Danielle, how has your experience been since accepting the title of Miss Harlem?
Danielle: It has been amazing. I've gotten SUCH a warm welcome from everyone I've met - from the little girls who waved with awe and excitement at the African American Day parade to the parents who expressed gratitude for our holiday story time and book giveaway event. Harlem has touched my heart even more deeply. And I am beyond grateful for how this role as Miss Harlem Shake has allowed me to grow into an even better version of myself.
ART LIVING: Danielle, what is your hope for the future of Harlem and Harlem Shake?
Danielle: That love continues to be the fuel that makes this place thrive.
ART LIVING: Dennis, with Harlem being this historical central nucleus space for Black culture how is Harlem Shake able to contribute to the traditional legacy of community engagement and cooperative economics?
Dennis: Many of Harlem's longstanding restaurants have been recently replaced with higher end alternatives and much of the relaxed feel of our recent past has been rapidly disappearing. Harlem Shake was created to provide an approachable, inviting neighborhood eating option for everyone who wants to sit down and eat great food or have a beer in a casual, relaxed Harlem-specific setting, rather than in a national chain or an expensive and/or "high end" setting. And now we are also in El Barrio on 111th and 2nd.
While many Harlem restaurants feature historical Harlem Renaissance references, Harlem Shake references the recent past to the present through features such as JET Magazine covers (50's to present), Luke Cage comics wallpaper and our Wall of Fame. Our jukebox (when it's working!) at our 111th St. and 2nd Ave. location evokes great memories as well. We want to help bring back memories and create new ones as well. The point is, Black History is not just the past. It is being created daily.
Ultimately our restaurant is for and about the people of Harlem. Our Wall of Fame features many of the famous and notable of the current Harlem community. On our Wall of Fro, any customer with an afro (past or present) may be showcased as well. Our Mr./Miss Harlem Shake contest is only available to Harlemites. And even the kids get a chance showing their talent in our windows each year during the Easter Egg Coloring Contest.
Harlem Shake continually contributes to Harlem community organizations such as Harlem Hospital, Mama Foundation, Harlem Children's Zone, MMPCIA and many others. As well, we are committed to staffing our restaurants from the nearby community, and we enjoy being a participant in the annual African American Day Parade.
ART LIVING: As the interior designer for Harlem Shake what made you choose the vintage diner concept?
Dennis: Most of the humble, old school and well-loved soul food restaurants which were here in the 90's, unfortunately, are no longer around. The experience of eating in them was one of casual, familiar comfort and most were the diner-type design you see at Harlem Shake. I have fond memories of the building of our first Harlem Shake location, as the area facing 124th St. had previously been a take-out food joint. Those of us at the old Lenox Lounge across the street would get food from there when we wanted to eat inside the bar.
When we got our space on 124th, it had low ceilings, fluorescent lighting, vinyl flooring, cut-up rooms with white walls and very little personality. During excavation, we discovered the original tin ceiling, steel columns and hex floor tiles which showed a hint to its past. We decided to keep the old neon LIQUOR sign in part as a link to its past. We wanted to make Harlem Shake feel like a place that has been in operation for decades so we incorporated formica, vinyl covered booths, swivel stools and vintage hex tile patterns, along with a backlit menu board. We tried to embody some of the old-school feelings of an older Harlem which is too quickly disappearing. The old M&G diner on 125th St. was a big inspiration.
ART LIVING: Dennis how did you develop the contest Mr./Miss Harlem Shake? What is the purpose of the community contest?
Dennis: The Mr./Miss Harlem Shake contest was made to be a fun summer competition and not overly serious. It was loosely inspired by the Miss Subway contest that the MTA held for years. In it that contest the subway riders would vote for their favorite "girl next door" and the winner was by popular vote. We have opened it up to both men and women, but there will just be one winner. Mr. or Miss Harlem Shake represents Harlem Shake for a year, gets lots of cash, a nice contribution to a Harlem charity, a free year of burgers and gets to ride in a cool vintage car at the African American Day Parade. What's not to love about that?
The point is that any Harlemite from 18 to 98 can participate. Ten contestants will be displayed in our windows with short bios. Every time a customer eats at Harlem Shake they may cast a vote. So ultimately, our customers are the ones that decide who will be the winner. We have had amazing winners and contestants so far. (Harlem is the incredible place it is, not because of the architecture, but because of the people that live here!) This is the second year that we've opened it up to guys, so this year we'll see if we get a Mr. Harlem Shake. As well, let's see if a senior will win the title. The people of Harlem will decide!