Turning Harlem into the Tenderloin

Another night of movie magic in New York City

Turning Harlem into the Tenderloin
Not the real Gene Comptons

There was that night about five years ago when our super, Kent (the best super in Harlem, btw), was relaxing after a long hard day taking care of his fifteen buildings when he was shocked to hear gunshots. It had been years since that kind of gun play happened around here.

It turned out to be a film crew shooting an episode of Law & Order: SVU.

Everything in the city including film shoots are on hold now, but over the years uptown has gotten a lot of love from production companies thanks to our gritty, authentic “look”. Last summer Spielberg and Company came around to transform St. Nicholas Avenue from West 112th to West 114th into 1950’s era Hell’s Kitchen for the (not) much-anticipated remake of “Westside Story”. They paid off businesses to stay closed and then completely redid the fronts of nearly every building along those two blocks. They even installed fake phone booths.

That was pretty amazing to see, but probably the most mind-blowing transformation was when Netflix filmed the infamous Compton’s Cafeteria riot that predated Stonewall by three years. This was for the miniseries “Tales of the City” that picked up where Armistead Maupin’s beloved series left off.

There used to be a very good deli at the corner of West 110th and Lenox Ave (aka Malcolm X Boulevard) but, this being New York and all, that deli’s been gone for years. In keeping with our current trend of vacancy blight, the storefront has remained empty ever since. It’s crazy, too, since it’s an ideal spot for a cafe being right across the street from Central Park. The fact that the empty storefront is on the ground floor of a “hotel” subsidized by the city to house otherwise homeless families may have something to do with that, but who can say?

We were thrilled when crews moved in and started work on the space.

Now, keep in mind that in this case, they weren’t simply slapping up convincing-looking facades. They were installing booths and tables, restaurant appliances, decor, and some serious signage on both sides of the corner building.

We saw all this one morning while waiting for a bus. Once on the bus, I asked the Google about Gene Compton’s, having long ago forgotten about that name. But there it was. Three years before the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, the queers of San Francisco had had enough. When the police tried to make them leave, one fed-up patron threw a cup of hot coffee in a cop’s face and the brawl was on.

It took those crews, union workers I’m hoping, over a week to get the fake Gene Compton's ready for “business”.

By that time, we had resigned ourselves to the fact that this was fantasy and our neighborhood wasn’t going to finally get a decent park-side cafe. It was fascinating, though, to watch the place emerge. We made sure to stake the place out for the night of the shoot. This wasn’t my first rodeo having been an extra in John Cameron Mitchell's movie, "Shortbus".

But it was still something to see. All those people and all that equipment and all those takes and all the hustle and bustle and lighting and people yelling and then another take and then everyone milling around again. Complete pandemonium except, curiously enough, when the director yelled “Action”! Then it was like watching a dance performance. Every player knew the steps and did them over and over again, perfectly.

All to be on screen for less than four minutes

Recently, we finally saw that episode of the Netflix mini-series. As we aren’t of the television-viewing persuasion, that’s enough of it for us, but it was interesting to see how camera placement and lighting kept the actual location from being even remotely recognizable.

And, similar to my earlier experience being on a film shoot for over eight hours with three or four takes over the course of the night and then seeing myself on screen for less than three seconds, the entire two on-screen sequences at Compton’s took less than four minutes total. And, here’s the kicker, this location in Harlem looks nothing at all like what Gene Compton’s really looked like.

It’s mind-boggling, to me anyway, that that amount of time, money, and effort went into turning a vacant deli into the site of a historic riot in San Francisco for a television show.

I’d venture to say that the money and effort they poured into creating that illusion could have easily been used to actually open and run a really lovely cafe, something this neighborhood could certainly use. But it has to be said that even if they had, right now it would be closed down and quite possibly going out of business altogether.

At least a bunch of people had jobs for that week because now they don’t.

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Writing because I can't NOT write.

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