Harry in Harlem: How does the prince measure up to uptown musical royalty?

Posted at 6:59 PM, May 14, 2013
and last updated 2013-05-14 18:59:02-04

He is royalty, but Prince Harry of Great Britain was not only in a part of Manhattan with its own version of cultural and literary nobility on Tuesday.  Harry is also third in line to the throne of an empire whose political and cultural influence has faded over time.  So how does the prince stack up to the likes of Count Basie, Theolonious Monk, Zora Neale Hurston and Tito Puente?  And why do Americans — including Americans from Harlem and East Harlem — adore the British royals so?  A more detailed look at the prince’s visit provides some answers.

Prince Harry’s Harlem visit featured a 50-person international and local media entourage as well as large NYPD and Diplomatic Secret Service details.  Also, the location of his East Harlem appearance on East 101st Street was officially kept secret before Harry’s arrival for security reasons.  Why all that for a young man who has virtually no chance of becoming king of a shrunken empire?

An answer comes from East Harlem resident Gladys Lind.  “I’m proud because he’s coming to the neighborhood where I was born and I was raised,” she told PIX11 News.

As a lifelong resident who’s seen remarkable improvements in her neighborhood, it’s hard to argue with her about how Prince Harry’s presence both showcases positive changes in East Harlem, and how he is being part of that change.

The street where the national standard Little League baseball field Harry visited is located had once been filled with decaying tenements and vacant, trash strewn lots.  In addition to the state-of-the-sport field, the area is dotted with new condos and renovated apartments among its large but tidy public housing stock.

Harry Harlem

“He’s coming over here,” Gladys Lind said, emphasizing that last word.  “I’m so happy.  I’m very proud.  It’s something to talk to my grandkids about.”

Prince Harry chose to visit the Harlem RBI baseball organization because the older, high school members in the 1500 -student group help to coach and advise the younger boys and girls.  Harry, a sportsman, wants to set up a similar organization in Great Britain, focusing on sports other than baseball, of course.

Why he specifically chose Harlem RBI, a 22-year organization that trains young leaders, its development director explained.  “We’ve been at this work a really long time,” Megan Hodges said.  “We think we do it very well, and Prince Harry must agree with us.”

The 28 year-old member of the House of Windsor gave an undisclosed financial donation to Harlem RBI.  But his gift was by no means the first time a prince has given big money to a Harlem group.  Two years ago, to name just one of many major donations regularly made to Uptown organizations, the Harlem Children Zone received a $1 million check from Prince — the Artist Formerly And Currently Known As Prince, to be precise about the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and multi-platinum recording artist.

Jazz Greats

So how does the prince stack up to the likes of Count Basie, Theolonious Monk, Zora Neale Hurston and Tito Puente? And why do Americans — including Americans from Harlem and East Harlem — adore the British royals so?

Also, Harry’s visit was certainly not the first time royalty has visited Harlem.  In fact, the king and queen of Sweden made an official visit to the uptown neighborhood just last week.  A few local print photographers and a European camera crew or two  followed King Carl Gustaf XVI and Queen Silvia, but their press and security entourages paled in size by comparison to those of Prince Harry in Harlem.

An explanation for the attention given to British royals came from East Harlem resident Cleto Bonilla, who spoke with PIX11 News while he waited with his German shepherds King and Lady.

“I was a fan of Prince[ss] Diana,” he said.  The celebrity and tragic death of Prince Harry’s mother has not been forgotten, but Bonilla said there are deeper reasons to adore the British Royal Family.  “Who wouldn’t?” he asked.  “I would love to live [as British royalty], as a matter of fact.”  Then he gave a mock royal salute.

His reaction underscores how the American fascination with British nobility may simply be an intangible, inexplicable attraction.

Then again, Harlem RBI softball player Angie Ordonez, who showed up at the organization’s field for practice after the prince had been gone a few hours, was among many young members of the group who said they didn’t know who Prince Harry is.  Instead, they had just one question on their minds about him.

“How much money did he give to Harlem RBI?” Ordonez asked.  That confidentiality of that information remains as high as the confidence the middle school girl exhibited asking her question.