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?"