If you mention you are going to visit Harlem in Manhattan, you are certain to get the raised eyebrows and the head shaking, usually form people who have never been. It’s probably one of the most maligned, poorly-represented and incorrectly-portrayed areas in New York, yet is is a great part of the city to visit. It’s certainly had its rough decades, but the neighbourhood is experiencing a new renaissance. And like in many parts of the world, this area is as safe, if not safer, than any other neighbourhood if you use the same "street smart" mentality and common sense you would use where you come from.
Harlem was originally a Dutch village, formally organised in 1658; it is named after the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands. Harlem's history has been defined by a series of economic boom-and-bust cycles, with significant population shifts accompanying each cycle. Today Harlem is the centre of African American culture in New York City and a vibrant part of the city; it’s a hotbed of black music, art and culture. But Harlem has been home to many races and ethnic groups including the Dutch, Irish, German, Italian, and Jewish, and as well as being a predominantly black neighbourhood, it present a fabulous diversity and thus offers the the visitor a diverse and eclectic area to explore.
There is lots to see and experience in this neighbourhood. I spent almost a full day walking its streets, taking in its sights, and visiting a couple of cafes and restaurants. I visited with a New Yorker. It was a successful exploration for sure. One of the keys to our success was carefully planning. We had quite a list of local things to see, so mapped out a walking route so that we could see all we wanted to see, and get the feel for this vibrant community city.
Here’s our four favourite spots:
Striver’s Row: It’s a delightful historic district located on both sides of West 138th and West 139th Streets between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. The distinct architectural styles with a mix of red brick, yellow brick and brownstone are beautifully maintained, adorned with a tangle of wrought iron. It’s a visual treat.
The Apollo Theatre: This legendary theatre which opened in 1914, has launched careers and popularised genres through its devotion to showcasing black talent. The likes of James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr, Billie Holiday and Lauryn Hill found their starting point here.
Harlem’s “Walk of Fame”: On W125th Street by the Apollo Theatre, the “Walk of Fame” is an uptown Manhattan take on Hollywood's "Walk of Stars" that commemorates African-American musical icons with plaques embedded into the sidewalk.
The Cathedral Church of St John the Divine: This massive cathedral has been under construction since 1892, and is not yet finished. One of its chapels contains a bronze three-paneled altar with gold-leaf decoration, designed by Keith Haring just before his death.
But don’t limit yourself to those. Wander, and take in some wonderful street murals, local markets and businesses, little museums and art galleries, and an abundance of cafes and restaurants. We had coffee at a delightful coffee shop in the Hamilton Grange area, and an excellent lunch at the iconic Harlem restaurant that is Sylvia’s.
Many streets and avenues in Harlem are co-named for its famous leaders and residents like Lenox Avenue co-named Malcolm X Boulevard., 125th Street co-named Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevaqrd., and Eighth Avenue co-named Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
It’s a wonderful place to explore; we learnt a lot, and found the locals informative and welcoming. Stay safe, stay aware, and enjoy your visit.