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.