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Great Days in Harlem

We found our corner of Harlem by a twist of fate in December 1997: a basement fire gutted our apartment in lower Manhattan. Nearly eight miles (and 150 city blocks) from the Lower East Side, on a spine of rock above the Hudson River, was Sugar Hill, block upon block of grand stone and brick row houses. The area's commercial axis, Broadway, teemed with foot traffic—and street vendors selling ceviche, empanadas, and flans. There were community gardens and corner bars with live jazz on Sundays. At one building we visited, a soprano was practicing an aria, her voice floating up through an interior courtyard.

We took it as a sign and moved in.

The western edge of Harlem turned out to be richer and even more melodious than we'd ever imagined—with the same vibrant street culture (that moved to a distinctly Dominican beat) and the hot breath of history we had grown accustomed to downtown. A couple of blocks east of our apartment was St. Nick's Pub, a friendly basement bar known for its Monday-night jazz jam session. A few blocks north, the Hispanic Society of America's cavernous room of Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida murals became a monthly pilgrimage that immediately melted away our deadline stress. To the south was Café Largo, a hangout with spicy arroz con pollo and evening poetry readings. On the benches of Riverside Park, we overheard old-timers talking about the days when Ralph Ellison and Marian Anderson roamed these streets. Spring came, and the rose thicket around our community garden filled with fragrant blooms.

In the years that followed, Harlem got a Starbucks and an H&M. Bill Clinton took an office at 125th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, and friends stopped asking about our safety, asking instead how we liked having the former president around. It was tough to know how to respond: Clinton's office, down in Central Harlem, was about as far from our apartment in West Harlem as Madame Tussaud's in Times Square is from the Met. But things were changing in our neighborhood too. Talk on the Riverside Park benches turned to rising rents and property taxes. On weekends, real estate brokers appeared on stoops, hosting open houses—a term perhaps too apt for the hulls of brownstones on sale for $600,000.

So we decided to survey the changing social and commercial landscape of greater Harlem, an area so vast—extending from the East River to the Hudson and from 110th Street north—that it almost feels like a borough in itself. To begin our journey, we called Thelma Golden, the dynamic curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem. Where should we start, we wondered?"My advice to visiting artists is to walk around first. A lot about Harlem you could never plan for; it just happens on the streets. In many other parts of the city, the life of the neighborhood is interior. So much of Harlem is exterior, and that makes street life really vital."

So we laced up our boots and headed a few blocks south.

125th Street
Perhaps the best vantage on Harlem is 125th Street. It is Harlem's Canal Street—cacophonous, neon-lit, and crowded with incense hawkers, bootleg-CD vendors, and street preachers. Most of all, it's Harlem's Avenue of Change—and not just loose change. If developers play their cards right, we should see the opening of the Langston, a 140-room boutique hotel; a 15,000-square-foot Isaac Hayes restaurant; and the National Jazz Museum in the next few years. Old Navy may have found a home here, but 125th Street is not just a noisy chain-store strip. The independent Hue-Man Bookstore, in the Harlem USA shopping mall, has a deep black-history collection and the best Harlem star-sightings after Rao's (a neighborhood fixture where getting a table is next to impossible). One recent week's roster of readers included filmmaker Spike Lee, rapper DMX, and attorney Johnnie Cochran.


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