Harlem Barbers and Hair Stylists Embrace New Realities

As Harlem changes, longtime residents and traditional businesses have had to adjust. But the flavor that defines the neighborhood, in its art and style, is not all gone. While a more corporate fabric begins to weave itself through the streets, minority-owned barbershops and hair salons remain a prominent feature of the neighborhood. And their individual identities remain, as though they were in a bubble, safe from the sameness of the name-brand stores and chain restaurants that are gradually arriving around them.

Changing demographics — including a rising number of white residents and residents with higher income levels — have led a few of the shops to broaden their services, but their core identities are still intact. Many of the owners and hair stylists have decided to accept and embrace the change.

Jenny Ramirez, a hairstylist, colored her hair at Dominican Style Complete Beauty Salon on West 125th Street on Wednesday, May 25. Harrison Hill / NYT Institute

“Change is going to happen regardless,” said Jenny Ramirez, a hairstylist from the Dominican Style Complete Beauty Salon on West 125th Street. “I live day by day and let God provide for what I need.”

Ms. Ramirez, 30, said her shop had added hair braiding and, for a brief time, a nail station in order to bring in more customers. The shop also raised its prices to cover rising rent costs, a threat felt by other similar businesses. But the clientele, she said, remains primarily the same.

Many of the barbers and hairstylists recognize that they cannot stop the changes, and that newcomers might make Harlem a better place.

Mike Kasiem, 57, a barber at Levels Barbershop on West 125th Street, said that as tourists pass through the neighborhood, they see people of many races living and working among one another. The changes, Mr. Kasiem said, make Harlem an example of a community where people coming from different backgrounds can get along.

Mike Kasiem, right, a barber at Levels Barbershop, said he embraces the changes in Harlem's demographics because they make it an example of a community where people of different backgrounds get along. Harrison Hill / NYT Institute

While the transition has created a Harlem that is different from what is remembered, it has not deterred the neighborhood’s barbers and hairstylists.

“Everything, over time, evolves,” said Alex Reynoso, 36, owner of B’Way Barber Shop near West 126th Street. “Everything evolves off what we grew up knowing, what we might remember, but it doesn’t mean it’s bad.”