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.