My Image Studios under construction

The journey

Back in 2007, I met with the developers of the Kalahari. Carlton Brown and Walter Edwards, of Full Spectrum, were extremely excited about the opening of their first green residential development in Harlem.  The development was to include space for a custom-designed, state-of-the-art movie theater, dedicated to showing independent black and Latino films. The project was to be called Soul Cinema in partnership with ImageNation.  Then, 2008 ushered in the collapse of the U.S. economy, and all was quiet on the development front. ImageNation turned their attention to securing space on the coveted 125th Street corridor, where they are now planning to open a scaled down version in the former Mart 125 next year.

In 2009, we welcomed a new President of the United States into office.  Optimism was again high concerning the future of development in Harlem. A former Uptownflavor blogger, Reef, informed me that a new entertainment space was opening on the lower level of the Kalahari, called My Image Studios (MIST). Trying to secure funding for this enormous undertaking in the face of an economic crisis was like taking on the task of Sisyphus. Fortunately, MIST was able to catch a break; A tax break that is. They received tax-free stimulus money, which was a real boost of confidence in a sagging economy for the CEO of My Image Studios, Roland Laird. Laird was fully committed to the dream of finally creating 20,000 square feet of entertainment space on the first floor of the Kalahari

All seemed quiet in 2010, but little did the average person know that Laird was busy securing additional funding for MIST.  He locked in Prudential and Goldman Sachs as investors and construction of the space began shortly thereafter.

The framework

My Image Studios is a 20,000 square foot space that will include a full service restaurant, a lounge, a concession stand/cafe, and a flexible state-of-the-art performance space. It is an ambitious project that will be the only one of its kind in Harlem.

MIST will offer three black box performance spaces, two 99-seat theaters and one 150-seat theater. The three spaces can be combined and configured to meet the needs of community organizations that lease the space, according to Taneshia Nash Laird, Chief Marketing Officer of MIST. The spaces can be converted into a screening room, a performance space, or a reception hall. The Director of Programming is Alexa Birdsong, who is already in the process of booking top-notch talent for the late spring opening of MIST.

Birdsong’s name may sound familiar. She has served as the Director of Arts and Cultural Programs for the City Parks Foundation, and the Associate Director at Jazz at Lincoln Center. She has worked on projects that include the Essence Music Festival, The National Black Arts Festival, and President Clinton’s Inauguration, just to name a few.

The goal of MIST is to provide opportunities and cultural space to the community with a focus on black and Latino cultures. Straddling El Barrio to the east, and Little Africa to the west, it makes sense that MIST would want to embrace both cultures.

As if the entertainment aspect wasn’t enough, a full-service restaurant is being worked on simultaneously in the same space. The restaurant has a yet to be named, but an Executive Chef is already on board. While I didn’t get specific details, I did learn that he specializes in Caribbean Cuisine.

MIST also hopes to stimulate employment in Harlem by hiring people from the community, primarily from the surrounding neighborhood. They have already received over 200 resumes without advertising, through Congressman Rangel’s job fair at City College, which took place the end of last year.

Laird has been overwhelmed by the support of the community. Residents of the Kalahari even signed a petition supporting a liquor license for the new restaurant. Residents have been waiting over four years for this project to come to fruition. The framing is going up in the cavernous space and the excitement builds with each passing day.

To find out more about My Image Studios, visit their temporary website at The official website is expected to be launched by March.

View our pictures of the construction site in the slideshow.

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All photos: D. Bell/