In late 2000, Janet Rodriguez gave a tour of Harlem to a friend who was moving into the community from the West Village. As night fell, she was struck by how unwelcoming and grim her neighborhood seemed with stores and businesses hidden behind block after block of roll-down steel sheet gates. Dark and desolate, Harlem seemed poised for war.
The impact of that image, the fear it evoked, inspired Rodriguez to commission a steel artist to assist her in creating a design for aesthetically pleasing security gates. This, plus a history of working with creative individuals her entire life, was the impetus for opening Straight Out of Harlem (SOH), as an outlet for the gates, and other artisans who needed a venue for their work.
As the sole creative outlet among retail stores and bodegas in Sugar Hill since 2004, the SOH storefront became an integral part of the community, addressing its broader needs by producing public programs, exhibitions, and salons that explored contemporary cultural issues, and by promoting and selling the work of more than 250 local and global artists who created functional and wearable art.
From this vantage point, SOH proprietor Janet Rodriguez watched the recession deepen, job after job lost, store after store closing, until the summer of 2009 when SOH, like so many other entrepreneurial ventures in the neighborhood, closed its storefront, shut down by escalating, prohibitive rent, and a consumer base decimated by rising unemployment.
Rodriguez’ response was to re-invent SOH as a tool for strengthening community-driven development efforts in Harlem that targeted those who were hurting most: unemployed and unskilled workers with limited access to higher education and few opportunities for employment.
Drawing upon an extensive background in community-based arts program development, and more than 20 years as a grantmaker in policy making positions in public, private, and corporate philanthropy, Rodriguez viewed the development of a cultural industry workforce as key to addressing the urgent need for jobs in Harlem.
Working in close collaboration with partners, The Janus Property and Innovative Charitable Initiatives (ICI), a subsidiary of the New York Council of Nonprofits, she focused on using Harlem’s cultural assets in ways that would enable Harlem’s poorest to achieve economic self-sufficiency.
In the Fall of 2010, Straight out of Harlem (SOH), a small retail creative outlet in Harlem concerned primarily with promoting and selling the works of individual artists, morphed into SoHarlem, a place-based social enterprise charged with creating a skilled cultural workforce in Harlem.