‘The New Soul of Harlem’

The sight of a poster promoting an all-white “new soul of Harlem” shook up some readers February 2021 before a local business reassured them that it was not an authentic case of gentrification gone too far, once again proving that Poe’s Law will reign undefeated as long as there is an internet.

The poster bearing the slogan depicted a group of white people sitting around a restaurant table in what appeared to be an advertisement for a “French bistro” restaurant:

The website Harlem Bespoke, which covers the neighborhood’s architecture and history, noted in a February 25 2021 post that the poster’s location coincided with that of a local Black-owned restaurant, Ponty Bistro, which had previously advised customers that it would be closing for three days in order to be used for a television shoot — implying heavily that this poster is either a joke or a prop.

The site Cinema Bespoke also said on its Instagram account that the poster would appear in “an all Black female cast comedy series set in Harlem starring Whoopi Goldberg.”

The restaurant corroborated the story in a post on its own Instagram account featuring head chef and owner Ejhadji Cisse:

We realize that many people in the community have been alarmed by the TV show being filmed at our location because they thought we were permanently closed and taken over by strangers. Chef Cisse and Ponty Bistro are here to stay and we are not going anywhere!!!!

The restaurant mentioned that the production team had been compensating businesses and residents in the area.

“The show’s episode is addressing the topic of gentrification which is something that continues to be a focal point in our community,” the post read. “We’re also glad to be part of that discussion and help bring light to it.”

Cisse told us in a statement that Harlem Bespoke and Cinema Bespoke (which published the initial Instagram post clarifying that the poster was made for a production) were the only outlets that contacted the restaurant about the matter.

“We were quite shocked at the number of prominent news sources and blog outlets that reposted just the prop poster without fact-checking it or reaching out to us directly, or checking our social media channels,” he wrote. “Even today folks are still reposting this even though some of the blogs had taken down the story once they heard it was not real.”

But Deadline Hollywood did report days prior to the poster first being spotted that both Goldberg and Jasmine Guy had agreed to join the cast of Harlem, an upcoming Amazon Studios show starring Tracy Oliver. According to the story, the show follows “the lives of four Black women – friends from their college days at NYU – as they navigate sex, relationships and chasing their dreams.” The story also outlined the roles Goldberg and Guy will be playing:

Goldberg plays Dr Elise Pruitt, the brilliant, intense new department head at Columbia University with a warmth that has a fragile on/off switch.

Guy portrays Patricia, Quinn’s wealthy mom who wants her daughter to give up her seemingly failing career as a designer and just settle down.

Cisse did not comment on the reporting casting of Goldberg but did confirm to us that Ponte Bistro was a location for an upcoming Tracy Oliver project. He also reiterated that the production worked in tandem with local residents and businesses at the restaurant’s 139th Street location.

“We at Ponty Bistro have always aligned our values and goals with that of the community, our customers & neighbors and would never jeopardize those relationships,” he wrote. “That’s why we were excited to partner with the ‘Untitled Tracy Oliver Show,’ because their values align with ours. We love to support the facilitation of women & people of color in spaces that used to exclude them.”

He added:

The scene in question is supposed to be a scene relating to a known & beloved neighborhood restaurant being bought out and “sold out” to new investors. Hence the posters in the window and the new signage that was part of the scene. In this case, it seems art does imitate life as our customers thought this was real and were ready to organize and protest very much like the scene being shot.

While the poster for Oliver’s show was not real, an authentic advertisement first spotted in September 2019 was criticized for focusing exclusively on white people while promoting the neighborhood, which is historically steeped in Black culture. As the real estate news site Inman reported at the time, the ad was placed by agents for the Compass real estate company and brought to light online by educator Erica Buddington.

“I have to laugh so I don’t cry,” she wrote:

The site reported:

The optics of two white men positioning themselves as experts for a historically-black neighborhood wasn’t progress — it was an example of gentrification.

According to a study released by the City University of New York (CUNY), Harlem’s black population dipped to less than 50 percent in 2008, a 20 to 30 percent drop from the mid-1900s when 70 percent of Harlem was black. The population share has risen to 61.1 percent according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, but residents say that won’t last for long as home prices continue to rise.

Both Compass chief executive officer Robert Reffkin and the company issued apologies for the ad.

“Inclusion and diversity are at the center of our mission at Compass,” a spokesperson said at the time. “This ad is not consistent with our company values and we, in partnership with Dominic and Gerald, are removing the ad. We are listening to the communities we are a part of and will continue to help our agents better serve them.”

Update February 26 2021, 4:55 p.m. PST: Updated with comments from Ponty Bistro head chef and owner Ejhadji Cisse.