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.
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.
Despite new arrivals, neighborhood standbys continue to thrive. At Djema Imports, we found bolt upon bolt of dizzyingly vibrant African-print fabrics and gold-leaf earrings from Mali that sell for 10 times the price at SoHo boutiques. Across from the 42nd president's office is Young Spring Farm, a busy produce market that specializes in hard-to-find Southern ingredients such as muscadine grapes and green peanuts.
A few blocks west, the Apollo Theater, undoubtedly Harlem's most famous landmark, has been reborn over the past year with a multimillion-dollar renovation and a successful new production—Harlem Song—by George C. Wolfe, artistic director of New York's Public Theater. Ever since it opened in the spring of 2002, the musical has drawn busloads of tourists and downtowners up to 125th Street. Because of the success of its first season, the show will be starting another run in the fall. In fact, Harlem Song was recognized by New York City as a bright spot in its post-9/11 tourism picture. Even as the rest of the city suffers the effects of a stagnating economy, entrepreneurs in Harlem are as bullish as ever.
The calm inside the Studio Museum in Harlem balances the frenetic commercial energy of 125th Street. A network of steel beams cantilevers out over the street like an awning, and the ground floor's cool stainless steel and aqua-tinted glass contrast with the building's sober 19th-century façade. We were intrigued by Gary Simmons's exhibition of blurred, contemporary chalk drawings: Is that a baby's bottle or a spray-paint can?In the lower gallery was a Gary Simmons sculpture, a very lifelike moonshine-still made of Fome-core painted a blinding white; it was at once haunting and comforting for two boys raised in the South. A bit of mountain country on 125th Street.
In fact the presence of the agrarian South is felt almost everywhere in Harlem nowadays, thanks to the vast exodus of blacks from the South that took place over the past 100 years. It's there in the occasional boiled-peanut vendor—the Fat Man at 127th and Madison is our favorite—and in the type of preemptive familiarity, the small-town hospitality you encounter in elevators, on sidewalks, in restaurants. It's even felt in the pace of life, which is generous, purposefully slow, and often frustrating to midtowners trying to race through lunch.
This area is loosely defined by its three principal avenues, which were renamed in the sixties for key figures in African-American history: Frederick Douglass, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and Malcolm X. New Yorkers tend to use their commemorative and numbered designations interchangeably, but this need not be confusing: Douglass has eight letters and is also Eighth Avenue. Sixth Avenue has two further names—Lenox Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard, but if you note that all three words have in common the letter X, you'll never get lost.
Geographically and visually, these avenues give Central Harlem a sense of grandeur unmatched elsewhere on the island. South of Central Park, the scale of these same avenues, made dark by the skyscrapers that line them, seems inconsequential, even typical. Uptown, where few buildings top nine stories, the streetscapes are airy and light, as if Haussmann had been here—an effect compounded by Harlem's vast collection of late-19th-century architecture. Since Harlem was largely bypassed by 20th-century development—few banks would lend here after the Depression—the area was virtually exempt from the construction that transformed the rest of Manhattan into an architectural stew.
Walking the streets of Harlem these days is alternately exhilarating and perplexing. Some, like Striver's Row, are long stretches of stately, well-preserved town houses. On other streets, renovations stand cheek-to-cheek with smoke-stained shells that gape open to the sky, monuments to cycles of poverty and prosperity, renewal and decay. We felt we needed someone to animate the silent façades, so we booked an appointment with Michael Henry Adams.
Adams is Harlem's most prominent tour guide and the author of z a lavish illustrated time line of the neighborhood seen through its architecture, in which he makes a compelling case for preserving buildings—such as the Audubon Theatre & Ballroom, where Malcolm X was assassinated, and the legendary jazz club, Minton's Playhouse—that convey the richness of Harlem's past. In his bowler hat, fox-fur collar, and chesterfield coat, Adams looks as though he just stepped out of a James Van Der Zee photo. He has made himself visible in other ways, too: he's chained himself to the doors of the Landmark Preservation Commission to protest its inaction in upper Manhattan, and his activism often puts him at odds with community groups such as the Abyssinian Development Corporation, whose well-intentioned projects have occasionally required tearing down historically significant buildings. The scale of Central Harlem is grand but its residential heart is that of a small town. Adams is the town's self-appointed mayor, the curator of its intertwined social and architectural history.
Mount Morris Park
We'd asked Adams to show us around his neighborhood, the Mount Morris Park Historic District (part of Central Harlem). Our tour began at Bayou, a Creole restaurant that is to Harlem what Michael's is to midtown Manhattan and the Ivy is to Hollywood—movers and shakers (this is practically the Clinton staff cafeteria) lunch here. The handsome second-floor room has a pressed-tin ceiling and pendulous glass lamps that cast a soothing yellow glow. As we were shown to a table next to the broad window, which overlooks 125th and Malcolm X, a young woman we later learned was Sheena Wright, the new CEO of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, spotted Adams.
"Let's work together," she said to Adams. "I know we can do it."
"I hope so," Adams replied, sounding less than convinced.
After a bowl of dark turtle soup and crawfish étouffée, we set out toward 125th Street. Adams knocked on the door of a friend, Rod Keenan, a young milliner, and Keenan invited us in and showed off the recent restoration of the stone house where he lives and—in his immaculate basement studio—designs hats for stars like Wyclef Jean, Alicia Keys, and Brad Pitt. (The rest of us can find his creations at stores such as Barneys New York.) Then we strolled 122nd Street, our necks craned skyward, to take in the delicate ornamentation on a stretch of neo-Gothic houses built in 1887 by Francis Kimball, the designer of the mansion that now houses the Ralph Lauren store on Madison Avenue. We crossed the street to study a series of gargoyles—more Jerry Garcia than Medusa—carved in relief. Adams noted that the speculative market at the turn of the century was so brisk that builders didn't wait for the best artisan to come along; they took what they could get. So the quality of ornamentation varies greatly, even on a single building.
Walking in Harlem you are continuously enthralled by the details, but it helped to have Adams there, telling us the history of the neighborhood's former tenants. On 119th Street, we admired the houses that once belonged to Langston Hughes, Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers. On 120th, steps away from Mount Morris Park, we passed the brownstone that Maya Angelou had recently bought to restore, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's house. Just down the block was the birthplace of New York Times don Arthur Ochs "Punch" Sulzberger. This last house was nearing the end of a refurbishment, and Adams climbed the stairs and knocked on the door. When there was no answer, Adams entered, and it was as though we'd time-warped across a hundred years. Inside the 1880's frame was a lofty, contemporary space of poured concrete and stainless steel, more van der Rohe than Van Der Zee. Such renovations have made property values in the Mount Morris Park Historic District skyrocket. The landlord is selling the brownstone in which Adams lives, and he will be forced to move.
"The dreams we dreamed for Harlem yesterday are coming true today," Adams said. "The question is: Am I going to be here to enjoy them?"
In Harlem, the fear of being swept away by change is keenly felt. We encountered it in conversations with business owners and residents, and sometimes it is palpable on the sidewalk. Just a block west of Mount Morris Park, a Brett Cook-Dizney portrait hangs on a construction fence. Dizney creates Chuck Close-like portraits of Harlem residents in colorful spray paint. Around the painting of a woman he has stenciled, "I don't think you have to sacrifice the character, and the nature, and what gives the community its identity, in order for it to grow." The woman looks south, toward a stretch of Lenox Avenue that proves her point, a stretch that has flowered into an axis of locally owned shops and restaurants.
One Saturday morning, we stopped for a breakfast of prosciutto panini at Settepani, a café and bakery on the corner of Malcolm X and 120th Street. Settepani has a clean design, terra-cotta-colored chairs, marble-topped tables, and a banquette along one wall. We scored the last available table—between a family of Spanish tourists eating napoleons and a neighborhood couple wearing coats over their pajamas and slippers, lingering over coffee, scones, and the Times.
Settepani is one of the few anchors on this stretch of Lenox Avenue, along the western edge of the Mount Morris Park Historic District. One block to the north, the Turning Heads Day Spa offers hot stone treatments and Vichy showers in a corner mansion. Across the street is Xukuma, Georgia Boothe's smart boutique filled with housewares, scented candles and soaps, and baby-doll tees. Just south is Harlemade, Inc., a store that sells hard-to-find books about Harlem—such as a facsimile of fire!!, a literary magazine founded by Langston Hughes and Richard Nugent in 1926—as well as a line of hats, shirts, and bags that have Harlem logos and are designed by Murphy Heyliger, the store's young owner. "Harlem's like a village," Heyliger told us as we browsed. "That's why we love it so much."
We hopped a bus down Fifth Avenue to 104th Street and El Museo del Barrio, a hatbox of a museum founded in 1969 by a group of Puerto Rican activist artists. Over the years, its mission has expanded to include art from Latin America and the Caribbean. There's a permanent collection of pre-Columbian vessels, tools, and jewelry circa A.D. 1200, but the real excitement the day we visited was in El Museo's biannual "(S) files" exhibition, a showcase of pieces by Latino artists living and working in the New York area. We mused about what it would be like to take Chico Macmurtrie's Too Big Dog Monkey, a fully functional quadruped robot the size of the T. rex skeleton at the Museum of Natural History, for a walk down Fifth Avenue.
The cashier at the gift shop recommended El Paso Taquería on Lexington and 104th Street, a terrific Mexican restaurant just a few blocks east of the museum, at a busy intersection that seems to be a village unto itself. Across the street from El Paso is P.S. 72, whose playground is always crowded with kids playing basketball. Catercorner is the gallery and studio of James de la Vega, an artist whose primitivist-inspired murals can be seen on buildings and sidewalks throughout Harlem. Looming over the scene is The Spirit of East Harlem, a four-story-tall mural painted by Hank Prussing 40 years ago. On sunny days, the mural's depiction of a checkers game, street musicians, and young basketball players mirrors life on the street today.
East of Lexington is Third Avenue, the neighborhood's busy, mostly Puerto Rican commercial strip. Vestiges of the area's former Italian character remain, such as Frank Cangelosi—who sells window treatments and slipcovers to Hermès-scarf-wearing ladies from the Upper East Side—and there are a few brand-new places, like Canela y Anis, a bakery owned by two young sisters who make decadent dulce de leche cakes, guava-paste cookies, and savory beef pies with a flaky crust.
That evening, we went to Orbit East Harlem on 116th Street, an intimate bistro with exposed-brick walls and dim, flattering light. One of the partners in Orbit is Minnie Rivera, the owner of the landmark downtown lesbian bar Henrietta Hudson—a longtime neighborhood pioneer. She opened Orbit in the former space of the beloved Italian restaurant Andy's Colonial Tavern, which closed just last summer. Some of the old crowd from Andy's is still here. And there was a group of Puerto Rican couples as well as regulars from Henrietta Hudson. Toward the end of the meal, a short septuagenarian in a three-piece suit walked in the door, and a young lady shouted, "Hey, it's Little Vinnie." And the bar crowd, all the tables, the Andy's crowd, the ladies, shouted, "Hey, Vinnie!" Vinnie made his rounds, shaking hands. We were miles from home, but it felt like the same small town. "Hey, Vinnie," we said and shook his hand.
WHERE TO SHOP
Whether you're looking for a Raymond Loewy-inspired frame or vintage Dizzy Gillespie memorabilia, in Harlem, the service is relaxed, personal, and without a hint of attitude.
The Brownstone This restored town house has a nail salon, clothing store, tearoom, and jewelry shop (whose house design is a silver Harlem charm bracelet). 2032 FIFTH AVE.; 212/996-7980
Djema Imports The ne plus ultra among African fabric and fashion shops. 70 W. 125TH ST. 212/289-3842.
Grandview A small boutique with big names (Vivienne Tam, Byron Lars), a half-block away from Striver's Row. 2531 FREDERICK DOUGLASS BLVD. 212/694-7324
Harlemade, Inc. Smart, graphic street wear and Harlem collectibles, including classic movies like Gone Harlem. 174 LENOX AVE., BTWN. 118TH & 119TH STS.; 212/987-2500
Hats by Bunn Bunn has been making hats in Harlem for the past 30 years. His brand-new store and workshop on Adam Clayton Powell has racks of his signature styles: sleek grey felt fedoras, feathered Sunday bonnets, and colorful lids of woven straw with balloon-like crowns designed to harness a bundle of dreadlocks. 2283 ADAM CLAYTON POWELL JR. BLVD.; 212/694-3590
Xukuma Reasonably priced housewares, aromatherapy products by Elizabeth W and Votivo, and the shop's own line of Harlem-themed T-shirts. 183 LENOX AVE., BTWN 119TH & 120TH STS.; 212/222-0490
WHERE TO EAT
For years, dining out in Harlem meant soul food at Sylvia's or a meal at Rao's, the fabled East Harlem Italian restaurant. There's still great fried chicken to be had in Harlem, but now there are far more ambitious options—plus some of the best Mexican cuisine this city has ever seen.
Bayou The food may be New Orleans, but the scene is pure Harlem. DINNER FOR TWO $70. 308 LENOX AVE., BTWN 125TH & 126TH STS.; 212/426-3800
Café Largo City University students flock here for the arroz con pollo and poetry readings. DINNER FOR TWO $40. 3387 BROADWAY, BTWN 137TH & 138TH STS.; 212/862-8142
Charles' Southern Style Kitchen Charles Gabriel turns out the best skillet-fried chicken—moist, with a delicately crisp crust—north of the Mason-Dixon. DINNER FOR TWO $24. 2841 FREDERICK DOUGLASS BLVD., BTWN 151ST & 152ND STS.; 212/926-4313
El Paso TaquerI´a Excellent chilaquiles and chorizo huarache (black bean-stuffed corn tortilla with sausage and cotija cheese). LUNCH FOR TWO $20. 1642 LEXINGTON AVE., AT 104TH ST.); 212/831-9831
Jimmy's Uptown Glamorous young Harlem hangs at this stylish bar, restaurant, and nightclub. DINNER FOR TWO $80. 2207 ADAM CLAYTON POWELL JR. BLVD., BTWN 130TH & 131 STS. 212/491-4000
Settepani Leah Abraham's smart-looking Italian bakery serves scones and cappuccinos to tourists and locals alike. BREAKFAST FOR TWO $7. 196 LENOX AVE., AT 120TH ST. 917/492-4806
Tony Merenda's Flash Inn Delicious steaks and chops, and a great place to have cocktails on a quiet Sunday night. DINNER FOR TWO $50. 107 MACOMBS PLACE, BTWN 154TH & 155TH STS. 212/283-8605
Orbit East Harlem Comfort food—both Italian and Puerto Rican—for a crowd of obsessed regulars. DINNER FOR TWO $54. 2257 FIRST AVE., AT 116TH ST. 212/348-7818
Kitchenette Uptown This sunny diner serves breakfast late into the afternoon—even on weekdays. BREAKFAST FOR TWO $30. 1272 AMSTERDAM AVE., BTWN 122ND & 123RD STS. 212/531-7600
On weekends, Jimmy's Uptown (see above) is the place to see, be seen, and dance the night away. But during the week, many bars offer live jazz sessions where aspiring soloists get a few minutes of play time with the house band, and boldfaced names occasionally show up for impromptu jams, too.
Hide*A*Way Cocktail Lounge A charming corner bar with a happening Sunday night scene. The stellar group Miss Cantrese and the Gerald Hayes Quartet plays the music, while Barbara pours the drinks. 3578 BROADWAY, AT 147TH ST. 212/283-8384
Lenox Lounge The recently restored Zebra Room of this jazz bar is where swells with deep pockets gather, but the fun is up front, around the Art Deco bar, during the house band's smoking sets. 288 LENOX AVE., BTWN. 124TH & 125TH STS.; 212/427-0253
Moca Bar & Grill Harlem's newest lounge, a few blocks south of 125th Street, has buzzy after-work atmosphere and a bumping hip-hop sound track. 2210 FREDERICK DOUGLASS BLVD., AT 119TH ST.; 212/665-8081
Nikki's A brandy at this classic seventies watering hole—red paint; twinkling lights; framed shots of Coltrane, Nat King Cole, and Billie Holiday—is the perfect nightcap after a show at the Apollo. 289 ST. NICHOLAS AVE., BTWN 124TH & 125TH STS.; 212/961-0565
St. Nick's Pub There's jazz six nights a week at this basement bar. The Monday-night jam session, which runs past midnight, attracts serious aficionados.773 ST. NICHOLAS AVE., AT 149TH ST.; 212/283-9728
Sugar Hill Bistro A fine brunch buffet with gospel accompaniment is served up on Sundays, but the Saturday night jazz is the draw, especially if you're lucky enough to catch Wynton Marsalis joining the band. 458 W. 145TH ST.; 212/491-5505
West Harlem: Take the A train, of course—or the B, C, or D, which run along St. Nicholas Avenue. Farther west, the 1 and 9 trains travel up Broadway. Central Harlem: The 2 and 3 trains travel up Lenox Avenue. East Harlem: The 6 train stops at all stations along Lexington Avenue.
Buses are the best way to travel distances within Harlem; they run along the avenues and the principal crosstown streets—125th, 135th, and 145th.
Yellow taxis are a rare sight, but there are plenty of livery cabs, which should be just as reliable. Negotiate the fare (tip included) with the driver before you get into the car. The cost of traveling by taxi from Harlem to midtown is usually $15 to $20.
The finest armchair tour of Harlem is Harlem Lost and Found, by Michael Henry Adams, and beginning next month, the Museum of the City of New York will host a companion exhibition of photographs, maps, and ephemera of Harlem history. Adams also leads customized excursions (212/426-5757).
More suited to walking around is Andrew S. Dolkart and Gretchen S. Sorin's Touring Historic Harlem. The small paperback—with great maps and informative history—is divided into walking tours of Harlem's four landmark districts.
Hamilton Heights stretches from 140th Street to 155th, between Edgecombe and Amsterdam Avenues. Architectural historians seem to agree that the most noteworthy block is 144th Street between Convent and Amsterdam.
Mount Morris Park The boundaries of this district, as designated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, run from Mount Morris Park west to Lenox Avenue and include the streets from 119th to 124th. But buildings of architectural interest extend farther south, to Central Park, and west, to Manhattan Avenue.
Striver's Row consists of two blocks: 138th and 139th Streets between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard (Seventh Avenue) and Frederick Douglass Boulevard (Eighth Avenue).
Jumel Terrace, between 160th and 162nd Streets, just east of St. Nicholas Avenue, offers the handsome Morris-Jumel mansion and Sylvan Terrace, a magnificently preserved cobblestoned block of wooden row houses.
MUSEUMS AND GALLERIES
El Museo del Barrio A museum dedicated to the art of Latin America and the Caribbean, and to Latino artists working in the New York area. 1230 FIFTH AVE., AT 104TH ST. 212/831-7272; www.elmuseo.org
Hispanic Society of America A turn-of-the-century museum preserved in amber, right down to the sleepy guards—the permanent exhibition is always sold out when it tours in Europe. 613 W. 155TH ST., AT BROADWAY; 212/926-2234; www.hispanicsociety.org
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture This branch of the New York Public Library hosts major exhibitions of African and African-American art. BROADWAY BTWN. 155TH AND 156TH STS. 212/491-2200; www.schomburgcenter.org
Storefront An artist's collaborative in a basement that exhibits accomplished, affordable work by young talents and sponsors "painting exchanges" among artists. 1838 ADAM CLAYTON POWELL JR. BLVD. 212/866-1838; www.storefront1838.com
Studio Museum in Harlem A center for modern and contemporary art. The museum has an ongoing exhibition of contemporary artists' photos of Harlem. One upcoming show will examine young African-American architects' visions for Harlem's future. 144 W. 125TH ST.; 212/864-4500; www.studiomuseum.org
Triple Candie This brick-walled art gallery, housed in a former brewery, is enormous—hence the emphasis on large-scale sculptures and installations. 461 W. 126TH ST.; 212/865-0783; www.triplecandie.org
Crime in New York City has continued its downward trend. Police statistics show Harlem's precincts to be as safe as other Manhattan precincts. As with any other city neighborhood, it is wise to stick to well-trafficked avenues when walking after dark.