Neighborhood Guide: Harlem
by Nakisha Williams, 02/02/2009
Harlem might have started out as a simple Dutch farming village, but since its beginnings in 1658, the area has become a cultural focal point of the City. Sectioned into West, Central and East neighborhoods, Harlem's lowest point touches 96th Street and runs up to about 155th, spanning the width of Upper Manhattan. A series of boom and bust cycles have brought in various ethnicities over the centuries, but the area is particularly rich with African-American historical significance. Greats like W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston and Duke Ellington are just a few of the famous types who brought the neighborhood to the forefront of American consciousness during the Harlem Renaissance and transformed it into an artistic and intellectual epicenter for blacks. With many historical sites from this era remaining, the streets still teem with the memories of yesteryear. (Lest you forget, its avenues are named after influential figures like Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., both of whom took up residence in the neighborhood.) Today, a second renaissance is under way, as rapid gentrification, investors and entrepreneurs bring in new businesses. These newcomers add fresh appeal to Harlem and create an even longer itinerary of must-see destinations.
No trip to Harlem would be complete without a visit to the Apollo Theater, a national landmark and longtime staple of Harlem nightlife. But if the theater is quiet, there's always plenty of activity at The Studio Museum in Harlem, a two-floor gallery space dedicated to showing the art of local, national and international black artists. (Among the works in the museum's permanent collection: photos by James Van Der Zee, who snapped the Harlem scene from the '20s to the '80s.)
Another fascinating focal point of Harlem's cultural life is the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a branch of the New York Public Library. From Richard Wright's original manuscript of Native Son to the ashes of Harlem Renaissance notable Langston Hughes, the center boasts a massive collection of artifacts, documents and other research resources.
Farther south is Spanish Harlem, the area east of Fifth Avenue from 96th to 125th Streets. Institutions there include El Museo del Barrio—the only museum in New York City dedicated to Puerto Rican, Caribbean and Latin American art. Located on Manhattan's Museum Mile, the 40-year-old institution manages to pack in about 7,000 permanent works and has featured exhibitions by well-known artists like Frida Kahlo. El Museo del Barrio was renovated in 2009 and has reopened with a new café and galleries to host its permanent collection.
Harlem's business and cultural hub is 125th Street (aka Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard). The stores that line the road offer a slew of urban apparel options, but sneaker fans should pay special attention to Atmos, a boutique from the Tokyo-based footwear company. A wide selection of special-edition sneakers, clothing and accessories are available here, along with collaboration projects with giants like Nike, Levi's and The North Face. That's not even to mention the company's eponymous line, which also contributes to the kaleidoscope of products on shelves.
Those whose tastes veer to high-end brands should check out N Boutique, which is stocked with menswear and womenswear from the likes of Rock & Republic, Tracy Reese and Paul Smith.
If you're looking for deals, there are plenty of bargains to be found in the shops (and from the vendors) along 125th Street, featuring everything from oils and incense to CDs and artwork. Find even more discounts at the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market on 116th, in an outdoor flea market–style setting where vendors negotiate deals on African crafts, textiles and clothing, as well as jewelry, hair-braiding services and souvenirs.
Dining and Nightlife
Nestled along Riverside Drive and just a few blocks away from the popular Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, the Hudson River Cafe brings a hip, atmospheric vibe to its industrial surroundings. Spend a lazy Sunday listening to live jazz while lingering over unlimited mimosas or Bellinis (either of which come with the diverse options on the prix-fixe brunch menu). In spring or summer, dine alfresco on the massive outdoor terrace, or make reservations to catch the view on the upstairs patio.
If you're more interested in traditional fare, consider some of Harlem's tastier soul-food options, like Sylvia's Restaurant and Miss Mamie's Spoonbread Too. Amy Ruth's is another standout that offers Southern-style eats. Fried whiting, macaroni and cheese and collard greens are just a few of the savory dishes that make up the menu, which also features items named after local celebs ("The Rev. Al Sharpton" is a chicken-and-waffle plate). The restaurant even has extended weekend hours: with a 5:30am closing time on Fridays and Saturdays, it's one of the few eateries in the area to go to for an after-hours meal.
On the east side, carryouts, food carts and small restaurants imbue Spanish Harlem with some of its Caribbean and Latin American flavor. You can find cheap eats at a taquería on any corner, but Amor Cubano on Third Avenue and East 111th Street is an enticing sit-down option. The traditional Cuban restaurant has a vibrant decor and a very friendly waitstaff—they'll dance right alongside the diners during evenings when the eatery hosts live music. If the music's too loud, ask to sit in the restaurant's back dining room, where you can try the garlic- and tomato-braised ropa vieja—or a fresh, delicious mojito—in peace.
Music and Drinks
Harlem's nightlife scene has been jumping and grooving since the days of Jungle Alley, a 133rd Street stretch that was home to a number of famous clubs in the '20s and '30s—the Cotton Club, Connie's Inn and Small's Paradise among them. Those looking to experience the feeling of that era should head to Lenox Lounge, which dates back to 1939. Greats like Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and John Coltrane used to routinely bring down the house, and the art deco nightspot still offers up live jazz in its Zebra Room today. Other notable venues include St. Nick's Pub—originally called Lucky's Rendezvous and founded a year after Lenox Lounge by Duke Ellington's piano player, Luckey Roberts—and Bill's Place, offering an intimate setting to hear saxophonist Bill Saxton and his All-Star Quartet.
For a younger, hipster crowd, the neighborhood's burgeoning bar and lounge scene provides a reason to party above 110th Street. With its permanently drawn thick velvet curtains and teeny interior, 67 Orange Street's speakeasy-style bar is a cozy place to bring a date and down a 19th century–inspired cocktail. (Nectar Wine Bar is a slightly roomier option.) The scene is livelier down the street at Moca Lounge and across town at The Den. Each serves specialty drinks and full menus to a sound track of hip-hop, R & B and reggae, along with nights featuring poetry and African-American movies.
Harlem's continued development is further evident in Starwood Hotels' plans to open the neighborhood's first luxury hotel in 2010, but until then, the area has affordable alternatives for an overnight stay. Among the brownstone–turned–B & B offerings is The Harlem Flophouse on West 123rd Street. Antique-style decor lends character to the four-room guesthouse, and the friendly staff has the inside story on local must-sees, many of which are just steps away from the 1890s-era building. Backpackers and budget travelers should trek farther uptown to book a room at the Highbridge House on West 146th Street. This youth hostel's clean dorm-style rooms, with a kitchenette and full bathroom, have nightly price tags that start in the double digits.