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Breaking Boundaries At A Harlem Barbershop


In central Harlem, the ratio of blacks to whites is roughly 6 to 1, but the clientele of the area's businesses can make it feel like an even split - except, that is, for the local barbershops and salons. Their customers are predominantly black. WNYC's Jorteh Senah looks into what's behind this racial divide.


JORTEH SENAH, BYLINE: I'm standing outside the AK Barber Shop on 116th Street near St. Nicholas Avenue with Justin Clavadetscher.

JUSTIN CLAVADETSCHER: Right now I feel OK. I'm little anxious because this is happening for real.

SENAH: He needs a haircut. But even though this white New Jersey native moved to central Harlem about two years ago, he's nervous about entering a space where very few whites in the area venture.

CLAVADETSCHER: The thing that's holding me back is kind of feeling like I don't belong. You look in, you see a bunch of guys hanging out having a good time. It's going to be different when I walk in there.

SENAH: While central Harlem's white population has almost doubled, what hasn't changed is that the barbershop is still a long-standing black sanctuary. But entering this historically black space isn't the only reason for Justin's angst. He's also about to have his hair cut by a stranger. But I assure Justin that what he calls the "Boardwalk Empire" look - trimming the sides of his head short and keeping his straight, black hair long at the top - can be executed by my barber, Jesse Johnson.

JESSE JOHNSON: What's up, man? How you doing, man?

SENAH: So like he just wants like a little fade on the side type of thing.


CLAVADETSCHER: You don't have to mess with the top.

JOHNSON: Alright.

CLAVADETSCHER: We can leave that, but I just do a high fade with no attachment on the sides and the back.

JOHNSON: Yeah, no problem. That's easy.

SENAH: You can tell by Justin’s specific, almost jargony description, he knows exactly what he wants. A bad haircut can be demoralizing. Just ask Lindsey Lowe. She isn’t willing to risk her long curly hair in a local salon.

LINDSEY LOWE: Not that I wouldn’t be welcome, you know, I’m sure everyone will be nice and everything, but it’s more than just a salon. It seems like it’s more of a place where people get together. And it’s like, I wouldn’t want to intrude, you know?

SENAH: What Lindsey is describing is essentially what makes black salons and barbershops unique; they also serve as local hangouts. It’s the reason there’s a sign that reads “no drinking allowed” on the wall of the AK Barber Shop. Customers can easily forget they’re in a place of business on a Saturday evening, while hanging with friends and watching a ball game.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Somebody playing with their heart right now. Somebody's trying to win.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: People be sitting in here arguing about that basketball, man, as if they got some stocks and bonds into the game or something.

QUINCY MILLS: They’re arguing, they’re debating with each other, with the barbers, with the customers that are in the chair, and I think that’s what’s really exciting about these kinds of spaces.

SENAH: Vassar College professor Quincy Mills wrote the book "Cutting Along The Color Line: Black Barbers And Barber Shops In America."

MILLS: But what’s most exciting is that time that I think folks are waiting. You sit in the waiting chair and you wait for maybe 15, maybe 45, maybe 50 minutes or an hour before you get in the chair.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: That's one thing I worry about, when you walk around downtown, you be good. Go to the right bar. You're from New York, man.

SENAH: And back at the AK Barber Shop, Justin Clavadetscher's time in the chair is also producing some pretty interesting conversation with Jesse Johnson.

CLAVADETSCHER: It wasn't as much my concern that a black barber shop didn’t know how to cut my hair. I just always felt like I was intruding.

JOHNSON: But you know what's so crazy about that? I been living in Chinatown for about 10 years, right? And I feel the same way when I walk inside their little markets and stuff like that, and they don't even speak my language. I got to go in there with pictures.

SENAH: So Jesse Johnson and Justin Clavadetscher have both struggled with adjusting to new environments. But in the end, they're just two men from different world who connected with each other in a city known for bringing together people from diverse backgrounds. Jesse's hair is curly, but he lived in Chinatown. And Justin just got his straight hair cut in a black barber shop and the world didn't stop.

JOHNSON: What do you think?


JOHNSON: Solid fade.

CLAVADETSCHER: Thank you, man.

JOHNSON: Yes. Good to meet you.

CLAVADETSCHER: Nice meeting you.

SENAH: For NPR News, I'm Jorteh Senah in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jorteh Senah
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