Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
Calvin Copeland, 82, is closing his restaurant, Copeland’s, known for its Southern fare and gospel brunch.
By FERNANDA SANTOS
Published: July 23, 2007
Calvin Copeland was there when rioters burned and looted stores in 1964, when crack cocaine and AIDS tore families apart, when brownstones were for sale for $50,000 and few outsiders dared move in. He endured fire and financial ruin, yet each time he picked up the pieces and prospered, as bold and resilient as the neighborhood around him.
If he could be the master of his fate, he would live out his days in Harlem, Mr. Copeland, 82, said yesterday, serving soul food from the restaurant he has owned for almost five decades, Copeland’s, a relic of the past anchored in a place fast in transition.
Gentrification has pushed away many of the black families who used to patronize his business. “The white people who took their place don’t like or don’t care for the food I cook,” he said. “The transformation snuck up on me like a tornado.”
After falling behind on rent and bills a year ago, Mr. Copeland tried to hold on to his business, investing more than $250,000 of his savings, he said. Finally, in May, he acquiesced to defeat.
Copeland’s, at 547 West 145th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, where Harlem is known as Hamilton Heights, will hold its last gospel brunch at 1 p.m. on Sunday and then close its doors for good.
“I just can’t do it anymore,” Mr. Copeland said.
With its smoke-mirrored walls, L-shaped marble bar and carpet the color of honey, Copeland’s is at once cozy and démodé, a place where men in polyester suits and women in hats dine alongside European tourists who come to Harlem to experience American black culture.
Yesterday, Fred Staton, 92, a saxophonist with the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, which plays on Sundays at the restaurant, stopped by to wish Mr. Copeland well. A tour group from the Netherlands had brunch there. Others, however, walked out after learning that the restaurant was not offering its usual Sunday gospel choir. (Mr. Copeland said he was too busy preparing for the final brunch to schedule entertainment.)
“The food here is delicious, and it’s so sad to hear they’ll be gone,” said Martha Marsh, who has lived in Harlem for 40 years and said she regularly eats at Copeland’s.
“She’s picky,” added her husband, John Henry. “If she says she enjoys it, it’s because the food is really good.”
Mr. Copeland started the business in 1958 as a catering service, one of Harlem’s first, in a modest storefront on Broadway north of 148th Street. He had but one worker, Gertrude Clark, who still works for him. Mr. Copeland, who is black, baked and decorated cakes; Ms. Clark, who is white and grew up on a farm in upstate New York, did whatever else was needed, which often included preparing Southern fare.
“I had never eaten collard greens in my life, and there I was making fried chicken and souse meat,” said Ms. Clark, 73. She is now Copeland’s banquet manager.
Mr. Copeland eventually rented the store next door, opened up a hole in the wall, expanded the kitchen and started serving breakfast and lunch, cafeteria style. It was similar to the one in operation today next to the restaurant on 145th Street, which opened for business in 1980.
In 1981, the restaurant burned to the ground and the insurance company went bankrupt before it reimbursed Mr. Copeland for the losses.
“I lost everything, except for the liquor,” he said with a chuckle. “We had it in a separate room with concrete walls, and I guess the fire couldn’t get through.”
At the time, banks were not prone to lending money to restaurant owners, especially if the restaurant was in a place as volatile as Harlem, which had had two riots prior to the one in 1964, incited by the fatal shooting of a black teenage boy by a white police officer. But Mr. Copeland had many friends, and one of them helped get him approved for a small loan. The rest of the money came from Ms. Clark, who mortgaged an upstate property to help her boss.
“If that thing didn’t go, she would have lost her property, she would have lost her job, she would have lost everything of value she had,” Mr. Copeland said. “She had a lot of faith in me, and I delivered.”
Copeland’s became a destination for black families from as far as Philadelphia. Black entertainers and other notables would stop by when in town. Desmond Tutu, the retired Anglican archbishop, ate there once, and so did Muhammad Ali and the comedian Richard Pryor, who threw money in the air when he left the restaurant so as to distract the crowd that had surrounded him, Mr. Copeland said. Natalie Cole is a regular. Michael Jackson came by once, but did not come in; one of the waiters took a plate of food to his vehicle, which was parked outside.
“I never paid attention to this stuff,” Mr. Copeland said. “I was too busy cooking.”
Born in Smithfield, Va., Mr. Copeland started working at age 13, washing dishes at a Greek restaurant in Newport News, Va., where his family lived at the time. He moved on to shuck oysters and prepare shellfish cocktails, but in his spare time, he watched the chefs at work.
Mr. Copeland moved to New York in 1945, and was married within five years. His wife, Rita Copeland, an Irish immigrant, was a waitress and he was a cook at a restaurant in Paramus, N.J.