It’s hard to believe that the name Harlem—a place that has become so central to black culture across the globe—derives from the name New York City’s early settlers gave it—“Haarlem” after a Dutch village. Even more difficult to believe is that Harlem was once a small hamlet considered a suburb of Manhattan—until the late 1800s, this area was mostly rural, inhabited by a handful of families with one church, one school, one library, and an hour-and-half steamboat passage away from the hustle and bustle of lower Manhattan.
In 1880, it was decided that the elevated railroad (what is today Metro North) would be extended to Harlem and prospects for the “suburb” bloomed. It was predicted that Harlem would be the new “posh” neighborhood—polo grounds were planned, an opera house built, and large luxury apartment buildings sprang up faster than they could be filled.
This section of Harlem’s history might be compared to a hurried Brooklynite’s hopeful streak down the stairs to the G train only to see the notoriously elusive train receding into the dark—the railroad took much longer than expected to build, and with these delays, the real estate market plummeted. Buildings were left unoccupied and owners allowed their properties to fall into disarray.
Moving forward, Harlem was inhabited by a variety of communities—Eastern European Jews, Irish and Italian immigrants, African Americans pulled from the south during the Great Migration, to, most recently, Hispanic Americans.
With the fluctuating demographics of Harlem came periods of fortune and misfortune, the remnants of which can be easily seen in the architecture of the area today. Refurbished brownstones on 130th street as regal as those lining Park Avenue stand next to dilapidated brownstones, their windows boarded shut. However, a push to commercialize 125th street has brought a lot of businesses to the area, and although Harlem is certainly beset by many social and economic issues, it seems to be, at the moment, once again in a period of prospect.
So different from the narrow alleys of Chinatown, the look of Harlem is distinguished from the rest of the city as its streets and sidewalks are wide, the buildings uniformly tall, and the sky seemingly somewhat less far away than in other parts of Manhattan. Although hardly suburban, this layout may harken back to Harlem’s beginnings, and it certainly gives the neighborhood a less hectic and homier feel. And it is not only the space (and the fact that there is literally at least one, or maybe two churches on every block)—that makes Harlem’s streets sing with familiarity. When walking down a side street, you get the feeling that people know their neighbors’ names. Unlike other parts of city, I got the distinct impression from many of the people I interacted with on my exploration of Harlem that they are proud of their home and were genuinely happy to welcome me to it.
Start your day in Harlem at the very top of Central Park at Harlem Meer. This small lake at the northeast corner of the park (110th and 5th avenue) is a shockingly tranquil setting and unique from the rest of Central Park for its (albeit slight) changes in elevation. Instead of the flat expanse of the Reservoir, the Meer is surrounded by rocky cliffs and the rolling tree-covered hills of the North Woods. It is a superb spot for people-watching and the diversity of families and folks walking the perimeter of the water makes a New Yorker proud to call this city home. Also, it doesn’t hurt that a faint murmur of the latest pop hits can be heard wafting over the water from the ice skating rink/swimming pool at the southwest corner of the lake.
From Harlem Meer, travel north on Malcolm X Blvd/Lenox Ave (no more numbered avenues for you grid-lovers) to Native for brunch (161 Malcolm X Blvd at 118th street, http://www.menupages.com/restaurants/native/menu). Touched with a Caribbean/Moroccan flare, Native gives a special twist to brunch classics—and for only $13.95 you can have your eggs benedict and a brunch worthy buzz too.
From Native, continue north where you may want to take a quick detour through Marcus Garvey Park (between 120th and 124th and Madison Ave. and Malcolm X Blvd). If you’re visiting during a warmer month, check out SummerStage’s schedule before venturing as this small green space contains a large amphitheater that hosts some of the program’s events from March through September. This outdoor theater is perfect for an excuse to be outside on a balmy summer night (I once convinced a friend that the Royal Shakespeare Company was performing here for free. It was actually the Harlem Shakespeare Company. You say tomato, I say tomato; it was a spectacular performance.) Plus, the amphitheater at Marcus Garvey Park is less frequented than SummerStage’s spot in Central Park, so you’ll skip the crowds.
Next, stop by the Studio Museum in Harlem (144 West 125th street, http://www.studiomuseum.org/). The Studio Museum, opened in 1968, is the first museum to promote artists of African descent in the United States. Thanks to good-ole Target, the museum is free to visit on Sundays if this is your day of choice, so stop in to see how the sights of Harlem have inspired countless others.
After the museum, head over to Sylvia’s Restaurant for lunch (328 Lenox Ave, between 126th and 127th street, http://www.sylviasrestaurant.com/). This family-run business welcomes you to their restaurant as if you were a long-lost relative; even the décor makes you feel like one of the family as pictures of the dynamo Sylvia, her husband, and family adorn the walls in gilded frames. Quite the inspiration, Sylvia, the “Queen of Soul Food,” was a mainstay of the Harlem community and New York City at large (she even rang the opening bell at the Stock Exchange). As a friend who works in Harlem assures me, her influence in Harlem was obvious after the community-wide festivities held in her honor after her passing in 2012. Along with fabulous fried chicken, out of this world collard greens, and a perfect hot sauce, this restaurant proves that its mission is more than filling people’s bellies, but to have a positive and integral impact on its community. Quite the definition of “soul food.”
Next, take a stroll down some of Harlem’s architecturally unique streets to walk off the butter. Astor Row (130th street between Lenox and Fifth Ave.) brags row houses with actual, fully-fledged front porches—almost as rare of a sight in New York as a sign for the H train (because apparently the H train exists now?)
A quick trip down 138th street will have you passing the mammoth Abyssinian Baptist Church (between Lenox and 7th Avenue). Founded in 1808 (at a different location), the Abyssinian Baptist Church was started by former members of the First Baptist Church in the City of New York who protested the church’s segregated seating. From then, the church has served as an important site for social activism in Harlem.
Also on 138th street is Strivers’ Row (between 7th and 8th Avenue). This block of beautiful row houses will transport you to an earlier time in New York’s history when horse and buggies were the norm. Built back-to-back in the late 19th century, a small alley runs between the houses once used for stables. The horses have been traded in for Hondas (these apartments are part of the few elite residences that have private parking in New York City), but the ornate gates leading back to the alley still read “Walk Your Horses.”
From Strivers’ Row, head back south to 125th to visit the Apollo Theater (253 West 125th Street, between Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd and Frederick Douglass Blvd, http://www.apollotheater.org/). Tickets to “Amateur Night” at this famous theater run for around $20-$30 if you’re in the mood to crush (or coddle) some dreams, or if you come on a day for amateur night auditions, you may have the pleasure of hearing a free show outside the theater from a hopeful applicant.
End the night at Harlem Tavern (2153 Frederick Douglass Blvd, at 116th street, http://www.harlemtavern.com/home), an indoor-outdoor beer hall with plenty of seating and a great selection on draft (although, they do not have Sugar Hill beer, a special brew from Harlem Brewing Company that I went on a wild-goose chase to find. If you are lucky enough to find this mysterious ale, leave a review!) Harlem Tavern has karaoke, jazz brunch, and on Wednesday nights, the Sugartone Brass Band plays, which should harken you back to the days of Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem where smoky jazz clubs, hushed up speakeasies, and parlor parties abounded.