Harlem Lights Up 125th Street, Revives Tradition

By Gianna Palmer on Dec 11th, 2010

The holiday lights on 125th Street span from river to river for the first time. (Photo by Gianna Palmer)

The winter solstice is fast approaching, but Harlem will be shining brightly, even on the darkest nights. After a one-year lapse, the annual holiday lights along 125th Street have returned.

Barbara Askins, president and CEO of the 125th Street Business Improvement District, started the tradition of lighting Harlem’s main thoroughfare soon after founding the group in 1993. Askins saw the decorations as a way to build community pride and promote local retailers by creating a celebratory environment.

“You don’t want it to be dark for the holidays,” she said Friday from her office on 125th Street. “It needs to be festive, it needs to be lively.”

The lights went up every holiday season until last year, when the district was mired in financial setbacks from the recession and couldn’t afford the seasonal tradition. Many people noticed, and called Askins and local community boards to lament the missing lights.  “We got a lot of complaints,” Askins said— even from other boroughs.

Budget constraints remained, however, and Askins originally thought 125th  Street would stay dark in this year as well, announcing that decision at the district’s annual meeting in June. But when Askins told Community Board 9 chair Larry English about the situation, “He said, ‘Well, this can’t be. We can’t have Harlem dark two years in a row,’” Askins recalled.

To raise the necessary $60,000, English called on his fellow Harlem community board chairs, W. Franc Perry of Community Board 10 and Matthew Washington of Community Board 11. Through a combination of private and public donations, and community fundraising events, they collected enough to bring back the lights for the 2010 holiday season. For the first time, the lights stretch from river to river, and feature an updated design of streamers with stars and snowflakes.

“I’m happy to see all of us working together,” said Jonelle Procope, president of Harlem’s Apollo Theater, at a November press conference. “Lighting 125th Street for the holidays is really a metaphor for the vibrancy of our community.”

On Tuesday, the 125th Street Business Improvement District held a lighting ceremony on the plaza in front of the Harlem State Office Building, featuring free cupcakes and hot chocolate and a full program of community performers. The night was bitterly cold as carolers opened the event with classics like “Deck the Halls” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

Members of the Renaissance Youth Theatre sang a jazzy version of  “My Favorite Things” and saxophonist Kazuki Kitamori braved the wind chill to play “The Christmas Song with ungloved hands.

Onlooker Desi Edwards, who’d come to hear the music and mingle with the crowd, was delighted. “The melody is the magic that puts a little ease to the heart,” he said.

Dilvania Rodriguez sat in the front row of the audience, shivering but enjoying the performance all the same. She said she’d stumbled on the event by accident, getting off a bus after work and seeing the crowds. “I actually just said, let me just sit here and see what’s gonna happen,” she said.  She was glad she stayed, despite the temperature. “It kind of just gets you in the Christmas spirit and makes you feel happy,” she said.

Near the end of the festivities, the crowed cheered as chef Marcus Samuelsson, owner of the soon-to-open Red Rooster Restaurant in Harlem, flipped the switch and 125th Street was officially lit for the season. The lights will remain through the first week in January.

Teen performer Breje closed out the evening with his catchy pop songs. (Photo by Gianna Palmer)

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