West Harlem is the target of much construction and renovation lately, and the gentrification has its good points and bad ones. Rents go up, forcing long term residents to move elsewhere, and the more affluent slip in like Cinderella. Crime goes down, and the community starts to take notice. But long time shops close too, leases are lost, and the flavor of Harlem is threatened.
One way to keep Harlem rising is to support the businesses that make this neighborhood unique. That means shopping on 125th street and eating in the environs. There are lots of restaurants distinctly Harlem, due to the owners, their charisma and perseverance, and the charms therein. Some places are well known, such as Sylvia’s, Amy Ruth, Charles Southern Fried, and M & G Diner, just to name a few, but other less ambitious spots still exist.
One such survivor is Lee Lee’s Bakery located on 118th street, right off of Frederick Douglas Boulevard. It’s a small shop with three tables and is designed for take out for the most part. There is a large chalkboard with specials scribbled on it and a collage of gift items for sale along the right wall, just in case you need a last minute gift to go along with that birthday cake. Most of these curios are a blast from the past or something you might find at a dollar store.
At the tiny counter you place your order, after informal salutations with Mr. Lee, of course. The kitchen always looks disorganized, as Mr. Lee is always distracted by baking many things at once. The glass counter displays what’s available, unless you’re ordering breakfast, one of the best in the city.
Mr. Lee soft scrambles two eggs with breakfast sausage patties and cheese, a simple but well done combination stuffed betwixt a fresh sweet roll, all for $2.50. There are days I yearn for this breakfast beauty, and coordinate my departure according to Mr. Lee’s availability. You see sometimes Mr. Lee opens at 8 am, and sometimes 8:15 am or 8:30 am even. There is no rhyme or reason. It just depends on the day.
Of course there are pastries. Mr. Lee has been making rugelach for over thirty years. To quote Mr. Lee, “I’m tired of making them. But people keep eating them, so I’ll just keep making them.” He bakes bread pudding and danishes and a revolving array of pastries each week. There are special cakes made to order, such as the famous red velvet cake, African American dessert at its best.
The shop is full of characters, similar to a barber shop, denizens who talk politics and religion, and life’s daily problems. Mr. Lee’s shop is a hub, a town hall for the pulse of Harlem on that street. There’s a new thriving African patisserie around the corner called Les Ambassades. The bakery is spacious with outdoor seating. They offer Wi-Fi and very French pastries, some good, some so so. I go there occasionally, but I prefer old time Harlem, the salt of the community. If I’ve got loose change, my bet’s still on Mr. Lee, angel of Harlem.