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A renewed Harlem. But a Renaissance?

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In a fiery speech at the A.M.E Zion Church in Harlem, Frederick Douglass grapples with the country's transition from slavery and with his own transition from illiterate servant to intellectual trailblazer.

Dressed in a black tailored suit, the actor portraying Douglass grips the edge of a pew, looks out at the audience, and says, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress."

Outside the church's walls, change is also in the air. With the help of the arts, Harlem is changing.

"Harlem is the new Greenwich Village," says Richard Haase, the play's writer and director. "People are rediscovering it. It is what I remember the Village being in the '70s - a little edgy with an element of danger, but exciting, full of life and soul. I wouldn't have produced this play anywhere else."

It is being dubbed a second Harlem Renaissance - a return to the Harlem of the 1920s and '30s, when jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington turned the neighborhood into one of the most exciting, creative centers in the world.

The Great Depression plunged the district into a decline that lasted until the early 1990s, when nearly two-thirds of Harlem's elegant brownstones stood empty.

In the past few years, fueled by a real-estate boom and the $300 million budget of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone (UMEZ), a community-development organization, the arts as well as the neighborhood have been revived. Some 6,000 new jobs, half of which are slated to be in the arts and entertainment industry, are expected by 2005, according to a UMEZ-commissioned study.

Though critics say the optimistic tidings are premature, one thing is for sure: The art world has once again turned its attention to Harlem.

In addition to new businesses lining 125th street, the "main street" of Harlem, there are signs of new life in the neighborhood's traditional venues.


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