Harlem’s 125th Street: Gateway to new corners of Manhattan

Elizabeth Chang

THE WASHINGTON POST – I’ve probably made close to a dozen short jaunts to New York City over the years, and the list of classic destinations I’ve been to more than once is long – the Empire State Building, Museum of Modern Art, Central Park, Chinatown, Broadway, Times Square, the High Line … you get the idea.

My husband and two grown daughters also have been to some of those sites at least twice. But none of us had ventured farther north than the Upper East and West sides, until circumstance and serendipity conspired to send us to parts of the Big Apple we’d never seen.

When Darryl and I arranged to meet our daughters and their significant others for a few days in Manhattan in March, we were so preoccupied with coordinating dates and booking early train reservations that we forgot to consider the issue of accommodations.

I soon realised that finding enough space for us in hotels near Penn Station or the Broadway theatres (our only planned activity was a show) would be extremely pricey, and Airbnb wasn’t offering up any affordable six-person options.

Then I broadened my Airbnb search and saw a three-bedroom, two-bathroom listing in Harlem. It was less than a half-hour by subway to Penn Station. It was close to many of the neighbourhood’s historic highlights and well-reviewed restaurants. We’d never been to Harlem.

I booked it.

The community-created Know Your Rights mural at the intersection of 138th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Clinton Babers performs in 2017 on Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in a tradition dating to the 1930s

And here I must point out that while, as far as I can tell, this Airbnb listing was legal, roughly three-quarters of the Airbnb listings in New York City are not. New York state law stipulates that an apartment in a residential building with three or more units cannot be rented for less than 30 days unless the owner is in residence.

This dichotomy between enterprise and loss turned out to be emblematic of our visit to Harlem. With crime down and the need for housing up, the storied area has been attracting new residents, stores and restaurants since the late 1990s, imperilling the status of some long-term residents and significant landmarks.

Despite that influx, only one hotel has opened – the Aloft on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. But in a project that has been more than a decade in the making, Marriott plans to open its approximately 200-room Renaissance Harlem in mid-2020.

We barely scratched the surface of things to do in Harlem, much less nearby neighbourhoods.

After checking into the Airbnb – two spare but roomy stories above a store in an early 1900s duplex – we set out to explore.

Our first stop was dinner at Sylvia’s, a famed soul-food establishment. Online critics complained that it’s full of tourists, but it also seemed a quintessential Harlem experience we shouldn’t pass up. Short on time, we opted to skip the line for the dining room and eat at the counter, which is part of the original luncheonette that Sylvia Woods purchased in 1962. A waitress behind it shooed a couple of men to a high-top table so we could sit alongside one other.

As tourists stood waiting in the narrow space, we enjoyed our perch, where we could watch all the bustling it takes to keep the place going: food being plated, regulars arriving to pick up to-go orders, waitresses shouting to the cooks and grill men in the back.

When the Wednesday-night live music started, we couldn’t see the band and singer unless we peeked into the narrow passageway from the counter area to the dining room, but we could hear them. Sitting at the old counter with the local people rather than with other tourists, savouring my food and the music, I wasn’t sorry we’d missed the dining room.

It was pure luck that we arrived in Harlem on a Wednesday and caught Amateur Night – the vehicle for the discovery of such talents as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, the Jackson Five and Mariah Carey.

The next day, on a recommendation from our host, we learnt about the neighbourhood by way of a Free Tour by Foot. Our guide began with a capsule history, explaining how the former Dutch farming community of Nieuw Haarlem has seen its fortunes rise and fall with the vagaries of history and real estate.

Then came the shock waves from the Depression, World War II, the civil rights battles and the crack epidemic. In today’s Harlem, where some point with pride to a second renaissance, others decry the gentrification that’s displacing residents and demolishing history.

As our guide spoke, we passed the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and Harlem Hospital, which was the first municipal hospital to hire a black physician and displays reproductions of its Works Progress Administration murals (the first major commissions awarded to African American artists) on its glass exterior.

In Central Park, we wandered around Conservatory Garden, set off by elaborate wrought-iron carriage gates originally designed for a Vanderbilt mansion; peaceful Harlem Meer (Dutch for lake); and the Adirondack-like North Woods, listening to water cascading in the stream that winds through the woods and watching a flock of small birds band together to fight off a hawk.

The highlights of the Cloisters, the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that displays medieval art, are the exquisite Mérode Altarpiece (displayed in a room designed to echo its setting), and the beautiful, disturbing and mystifying Unicorn tapestries.

On our last evening, we saw a Broadway show and had several quintessential Big Apple experiences on our way back to Harlem: weaving through the Times Square crowd of picture-taking tourists, stilt-walking Statues of Liberty and abusive street preachers; waving off someone trying to sell discounted subway swipes; dealing with a blasé subway booth worker.

Harlem may be changing, but some things about New York City seem eternal.