BY Nicole Lyn Pesce
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
Everything’s bigger in Harlem.
What started as a single day to inspire neighbors discouraged by the ’70s urban blight quickly grew into a week of musical performances, street fairs and sports expos celebrating uptown’s rich heritage.
That was just the beginning.
Harlem Week 2011 kicks off today with a month full of dance parties, film festivals, restaurant specials, a 5K race, an auto show and more in the blocks and businesses housed above 125th St.
“Only in this community can a ‘week’ be 47 days of activities!” laughs Voza Rivers, a chairman and co-founder of Harlem Week.
It takes a village to organize a gala this ambitious, so the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce (where Rivers is vice president) began lining up sponsors (including the New York Daily News) back in January and enlisting local vendors such as celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson from Red Rooster Harlem to join the fete.
“It’s going to be amazing,” crows Samuelsson, who serves free catfish sandwiches in a food truck outside of General Grant National Memorial Park today as part of “A Great Day in Harlem” from noon to 4 p.m.
It’s the new restaurant’s first year joining the party, and they’re eager to make a good impression.
“We are successful because of this community, so just doing something for free and giving back makes me so happy,” Samuelsson says.
The restaurant crafted a three-course Harlem Week menu featuring chicken and waffles and a tomato watermelon soup at Restaurant Week’s $24.07 and $35 prix fixe prices. The “Top Chef” even bought a pair of vintage bicycles that he’s letting customers borrow for free two-hour spins around Harlem.
“I want people to come up, enjoy the neighborhood and learn about it,” he says. “There is so much richness here.”
The Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program gets into the swing on the Aug. 21 “Harlem Day” by hosting a community clinic where they are handing out free rackets to the first 50 senior citizens and the first 50 children who arrive at the new Howard Bennett Playground tennis courts.
“Our goal is to give children the opportunity to get a scholarship in a sport that most African Americans don’t play,” says program director Dante Brown. “What better way to make tennis accessible and available to the Harlem community than through Harlem Week?”
Harlem Junior Tennis also hosts a free tri-state tournament Aug. 18-21 at the Fred Johnson Tennis Courts where children ages 12 to 18 compete for scholarships.
Guests enjoy a belly full of free barbecue on Aug. 20.
ImageNation Cinema Foundation showcases local short films including “Rubber Soles,” which was filmed in Harlem, and the James Brown tribute “Say It Loud” in free movie nights on Aug. 20 and 27 that also screen Michael Jackson’s “This Is It” and Lena Horne’s “Stormy Weather” in St. Nicholas Park.
“We also have an Apollo Amateur Night child star, Maurice Johnston, singing on the 27th,” says ImageNation’s Moikgantsi Kgama.
The Apollo Theater gets in on the act by offering Harlem residents half-priced Amateur Night tix for just $9.50-$14.50 (from $19-$29) through Sept. 7. And the New York Road Runners team up with the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce to host a 5K and family walkathon around the historic parts of the nabe as a tribute to the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and relief efforts in earthquake-ravaged Japan.
“I’d like to think that we played a role in changing the image of this community,” says Rivers. “We were coordinating these projects at the beginning to highlight Harlem’s assets as opposed to the negative articles about the community, and to bring people back. We’ve made it attractive enough that people from all over the city are coming into Harlem.”