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Brandee Brown says she wants to write a guide to gentrification in New York. “You know how rich people do those books where they tell you to put the small fork on the right, put the small knife to the left. I want to do an etiquette book for gentrification in New York. How to fucking act.”
We’re sitting in Streetbird Rotisserie, a relatively new chicken shop in Harlem, a few streets away from 111th and Lenox where she was born and raised.
You might know Brandee from big billboards (DKNY with Cara Delevigne, Vashtie and Chelsea Leyland, to be exact) and magazine pages, famously the muse for big time fashion photographer Ryan McGinley. But modelling was never the big plan. She’s always wanted to be an artist and has shot on disposable cameras since she was young. Now officially at a time “when I need to take my shit seriously” she’s focusing on filmmaking and recently shot a short for Stella McCartney for Adidas.
If you could meet Brandee, you’d quickly see why she couldn’t fit all she wanted to say into a single photo. She talks at a million miles per minute, with wild stories and hundreds of ideas. Her sentences are punctuated with “yes bitch” or “no bitch” and she’s constantly veering off on ADD tangents which somehow lead to her next brilliant thought.
It seems that crazy things just seem to happen to her – interning with photographer Kenneth Capello at age 15, shooting with Cara in DKNY and doing Karaoke at Karen Os house (lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) – until you realise it’s her energy, spirit, wits and charisma which got her to all those places.
I knew she’d be my perfect host in New York when she ordered a gin cocktail at lunch on a Thursday and started to talk about Harlem. “A new place is popping up every fucking five seconds. I know this neighbourhood like the back of my hand, but every time I go out, I’m recognising something new.”
I ask how she feels about the noticeable changes in Harlem. In terms of local businesses moving in, she’s on board. “I think it’s great I can come get drunk in my neighbourhood instead of going downtown. This neighbourhood should have nice restaurants, places where people can go and laugh and have a drink not too far from their house. I think it’s amazing that there is a now a butcher here and that culture has been introduced. A low income family should have the option to serve their family fresh meat. Let’s move some of the fucking liquor stores out and move in some fresh local produce. Not all of them…. but some.”
But it’s the residents moving in with their own idea of where Harlem is heading that she does have a problem with. “You can’t move in with an idea of how you want that neighbourhood to be. You can’t change it as if it was new.”
Her modern etiquette book on gentrification of New York would start here: “If you want to live in New York and get on with your neighbours and get the most fun out of that fucking neighbourhood don’t be a twerp and complain. Don’t move to a building where everything is super close and moan when their TV volume is up. Don’t make a problem for people who have been living here for 20 years. And landlords shouldn’t prioritise them just because they are paying higher rent. If you move to Harlem you have to deal with the occasional weed smoke, the loudness. Because people like to have a good time up here.”
With that noted, we asked Brandee to give us some of her favourite spots in Harlem, both new and old.
Melba’s is a good soul food spot. It’s on 116th and 8th avenue. She’s the niece of Sylvia’s – the famous place that everyone knows about. She learned all her cooking techniques from her aunt and now she’s grown as hell and doing her own thing.
LoLo’s Seafood Shack
This place is mad good. It’s the cutest colourful place. In the summertime they have a backyard and you can order curried crab legs, crawfish and shrimp by the pound. You eat it out of a plastic bag and sit at a picnic table. It’s so cute inside.
I used to work here as a host for five minutes. It opened up recently and has some of the best chicken and sweet potato fries with macaroni and cheese.
Koronet pizza on 110th
This place has been a favourite of mine since high school. Back then they didn’t have an option for a smaller slice; now they have a half piece for those that don’t want to walk on the wild side. Usually you go for the fucking huge jumbo slice. And everyone knows you can’t go to NY without having a slice.
This is a chill ass place which is friendly towards everyone. It’s a sports bar and café blended together with a homey vibe. I go during the day to have a coffee and at night to work or watch the basketball game with a glass of wine. You’ll find familiar faces, and meet new people here. I don’t recommend the food, but as a place to drink and vibe with the neighbourhood.
When people think of Harlem they don’t think of Central Park. They think of the hood, soul food, but I grew up across the street from Central Park. They have a beautiful pond. And the shit has history. Something about the revolutionary soldiers using it as a barricade. I’m always waiting to see ghosts.
This is a small little place on 121st street. Not fancy one bit, but super charming. There is always live jazz music there and a hotpot tucked in the corner filled with bbq chicken and rice. The owner is always there and dressed to a T, like he’s going to church every night. There is one really nice bartender who reminds me of the sweet ladies who work behind the counter at the neighbourhood Dominican food spots. She’s funny when she wants to be and always makes sure your glass is never empty. There’s another bartender who is just an asshole. Try to avoid her at all costs. It’s a small place though so if you do run across her tell her Brandee sent ya!
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