One of Toronto’s prominent gathering spaces for Black artists, musicians and community members is closing March 12. Harlem announced over the weekend that it will shutter its 67 Richmond East location after a decade in business. It’s sister restaurant on Queen West, Harlem Underground, will continue to operate.
“We sold the building. Someone’s going to use it for another restaurant,” owner Carl Cassell explains. “We’ve been there for 10 years. In the restaurant business, that’s like an eternity. It’s very rare that a restaurant ever gets to close on its own terms. We’re glad about that.”
Over the years, the Caribbean/soul food restaurant became known as more than just a place for authentic Southern-fried chicken, grilled catfish and jambalaya. Inspired by the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Harlem paid tribute to Afro-Canadian and Afro-Caribbean cultures, showcasing art and films, as well as musical performances spanning soul, jazz, Motown, blues, R&B and funk.
“We really focused on local acts, which is why Harlem resonated. We didn’t book big acts, but focused on the talented guy who lived in the burbs and really wanted exposure downtown,” Cassell says.
Harlem also often opened its space to local Black community leaders. This month, Harlem’s owners offered event spaces at both locations free of charge to artists, writers and performances in honour of Black History Month. Last spring, Harlem Underground hosted an exhibition of art created during and inspired by Black Lives Matter – Toronto’s tent city.
“Harlem has always been about community,” says Cassell. “There’s really been an outpouring of support and love for us, which is incredible.”
Harlem will hosting a staged reading for Black History Month February 27 and 28, with proceeds benefiting the owners and curators of Blank Canvas, a small gallery on Bloor that supports queer and racialized youth. In January, Blank Canvas co-owner John Samuels was reportedly tasered by Toronto police and a few days later, the locks on the gallery doors were changed. Donations collected at Harlem’s two-night event will help fund Samuels’s legal fees and a new space.
Meanwhile, Cassell, who grew up in Jamaica and got into the restaurant business when he co-opened Irie Food Joint with former business partner Carl Allen 17 years ago, isn’t planning on reopening Harlem in another location. He tells NOW that he’s scaling back and focusing all his attention on Harlem Underground instead.
“Underground will carry the mantra, and we’re reassuring everyone that Underground is still on the map and we’re still going to be focusing on the community,” he says.
In celebration of its history, Harlem will throw a two-night goodbye party March 11 and 12. Performers include former Harlem co-owner and DJ Carl Allen as well as DJs Black Cat, Adam Kahn, Dave Campbell and Mensa. Guests can RSVP on Facebook or make a reservation at the restaurant.
“We’re going to celebrate the life that was Harlem,” Cassell says. “We’re going to throw it down. We’re going to shake the foundation.”
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