NEW YORK – When a trendy Starwood boutique hotel called Aloft opens in Harlem later this month, it will be the neighborhood's first major hotel since the famed Theresa closed in 1967.
Harlem is already a must-see for many visitors to New York, but the tourism industry believes the opening of this hotel will help make the area even more of a destination by encouraging people to stay overnight or longer.
"Instead of just going up to visit Harlem, you can stay in Harlem," said George Fertitta, head of NYC & Company, the city's tourism and marketing agency.
The Aloft is one of about 100 new hotels to open in the city since 2007. A number of other hotel projects planned for Harlem were abandoned or delayed by the recession.
Fertitta acknowledged that the opening of Harlem's first hotel in over 40 years has been a long time coming. "The interest in Harlem from tourists on a global basis is extraordinary. It's one of the top spots in New York City that people want to see."
Big Apple Greeter, which offers free tours led by volunteer New Yorkers, gets more requests for Harlem than any other neighborhood except Greenwich Village. And double-decker tour buses pull up all day long on 125th Street outside the Apollo Theater, which attracts 2.5 million visitors a year for in-house tours and its famous Wednesday Amateur Night.
Apollo CEO Jonelle Procope said the Aloft "will be a nice addition to the neighborhood, and will only increase Harlem's appeal to tourists."
Standing outside the Apollo, you can still see the sign for the old Hotel Theresa, located in a landmarked building that now houses offices. The Theresa was a haven for prominent African-Americans in an era when they weren't welcome at hotels elsewhere.
"Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald — all these people would come to the Theresa when there wasn't an option to go downtown," said William Gibbons, who teaches a course on the history of Harlem at City College, which is Harlem's branch of the City University of New York. "In its heyday at the Theresa, on any given day, Joe Louis would be in the bar having a drink. Malcolm X was visiting Muhammad Ali."
In 1960, the Theresa's guest roster included Fidel Castro, in town to speak at the United Nations. It was the height of the Cold War, and the Cuban Communist was reportedly asked to leave a hotel downtown because his delegation was too rowdy. One story claimed his entourage had brought in live chickens. But he was welcomed at the Theresa, where his visitors included Malcolm X and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
As the years wore on, the Theresa lost its luster. Desegregation meant black celebrities could stay anywhere, and Harlem, like so many New York neighborhoods, was also hurt by rising crime and urban decay.
But these days, Harlem is "vibrant and up and coming," said Brian McGuinness, senior vice president of Aloft Hotels. And that's why Starwood chose the neighborhood for Aloft.
"The Aloft brand is known for being cutting-edge and innovative, and as we looked at Harlem, and all the way back from when Hotel Theresa opened up in 1913, which was quite avant-garde at the time, we determined that Harlem was certainly the right place to launch the Aloft in New York City."
Dave McKinney, who lives in Annapolis, Md., and works in sales for a technology company, has reservations to stay at the Harlem Aloft and is looking forward to it. "This will be my first time ever coming to Harlem," said McKinney, who usually stays in midtown Manhattan. "I have been seeing more and more articles about the Harlem neighborhood changing, with new restaurants and revitalization taking place."
McKinney has stayed in Alofts elsewhere (there are 40 around the country) and says he also loves the brand's distinctive "style and urban vibe." McGuinness described the brand's target customer as "Gen Y, early adopter, tech-savvy, looking for a cultural experience they don't normally get."
Features at the Aloft designed to appeal to this demographic include a check-in process that allows you to bypass the front desk by registering online for a card key that's sent to you in advance. Once you're in the room, you'll find a high-tech jack box that connects iPods, iPads, cameras and other devices directly to the flatscreen TV, along with funky amenities like an old-fashioned clock with an analog face instead of a digital glow, plus eco-friendly dispensers in the shower for shampoo and soap rather than tiny bottles that often offer too much or too little of what the visitor needs.
Bill Carroll, who teaches at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, said it makes sense that a trendy, edgy brand like the Aloft would be the first to open here. The style of the hotel, combined with the resurgence of Harlem, "creates an aura of excitement and ambiance and newness. You're staking the claim for uniqueness early on."
Aloft's introductory rates are below similar hotels in midtown Manhattan — $239 at the Aloft for a king room Dec. 2 compared to $375 at the Four Points, $499 at the Sheraton Towers and $512 at the Westin Midtown. The hotel will have a soft opening Oct. 21 with a grand opening later this year.
Currently Harlem is home to several hostels and B&Bs but no commercial hotels. Both City College and the Apollo said they hope to house visitors at the Aloft.
Many of the hotel's energetic 35 employees live in the vicinity and are primed to help guests take advantage of all the neighborhood has to offer. Asked for recommendations, staff members in the lobby called out attractions like the Studio Museum and the Cotton Club, along with trendy new eateries like Chocolat and Mobay. Across the street, the Hue-Man bookstore regularly hosts events with best-selling writers like Terry McMillan, while Sylvia's, the soul-food institution, is a few blocks away.
The hotel's 124 rooms are located on the first six floors of the 12-story building, with a developer offering 44 condos on floors above, priced from the mid-$300,000s and up.
The condo pricetags and Starwood name underline a worry that some have about gentrification in Harlem: Starwood is just the latest big-name brand to make Harlem home, joining Starbucks, Old Navy and many others.
"In the next 20 years, Harlem will look like 34th Street," said Gibbons.
Harlem needs jobs and the money tourism brings, but gentrification also increases rents and pushes out small businesses. And corporate blandness could erode the very uniqueness that brings tourists to the neighborhood in the first place.
"It's a double-edged sword," Gibbons said.
Gibbons also says the Aloft is unlikely to replace the Theresa as a cultural center. Not only are more hotels likely to follow Aloft, but celebrities who come to New York these days have their pick of accommodations. "You're not going to have the traffic of famous people to produce the legacy of the Theresa," he said.
Still, Aloft employees hope to recapture some of the Theresa's glamour. Although their work is mostly check-in, bartending and other types of customer service, employees of every Aloft hotel are also asked to write and perform a song as a team-building exercise. In an impromptu performance of the Harlem Aloft song on a recent day by workers assembled in the lobby, one line stood out:
"Picking up the pieces of the Hotel Theresa, the shadow of the past, rejuvenated at last."