Dancing the night away. Photo: Harlem History
Harlem's unique cultural, historic, and commercial landmarks make it a place unlike any other in New York or even the world. In contrast to Wall Street's aggressive bronze "Charging Bull" and "Fearless Girl" or the massive augustness of the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building surrounded by looming skyscrapers, in Harlem, you discover expansive boulevards reminiscent of the Champs-Élysées with tree- and flower-filled meridians and garden benches, and bordered on either side by elegant Paris-scale buildings. Named after historic greats Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., these wide streets invite you to sit and take it all in, with space that allows you to breathe deep and feel the sun on your face.
Although best known as for its African American culture and population, Harlem was originally settled by the Wecksquaesgek Indians.
Portrait of two members of the Wecksquaesgek Indian tribe. Photo from Evita in West Harlem
Dutch farmers followed in 1639, and the farming community was formally organized in 1658 as "Nieuw Haarlem" (after a city in the Netherlands). Its name was anglicized to "Harlem" following British invasion in 1664.
Harlem also played a role in the Revolutionary War, giving George Washington his first success on the battlefield.
Following the building of the New York and Harlem Railroad in the 1830's, first Irish and German, then, Jewish, Italian, African American, Puerto Rican, and West Indian immigrants began arriving.
The influx of large numbers of African Americans apparently began with the confluence of a real estate crash in Harlem and worsening conditions for this population elsewhere in New York City. According to CUNY Neighborhood Projects Research for Professor Lobel, "in 1904 the Afro-American Realty Company helped blacks migrate from their previous neighborhoods. Then the Great Migration took place as blacks left the South to escape Jim Crow laws. They found jobs in the industries created for WWI and many settled in Harlem. The high cost of space forced people to live in close quarters, and the population density of Harlem became over 215,000 per square mile in the 1920s.
Marcus Garvey in 1925. Photo from George Grantham Bain Collection in the US Library of Congress
The influx of blacks into Harlem contributed to the Harlem Renaissance, which spanned between 1920s and 1930s. It was a movement toward equality through a flourishing of the arts. With African-American activists such as W.E.B du Bois and Marcus Garvey steps toward achieving civil rights were taken. There was also an explosion of music and art at this time. Harlem earned its reputation as the Mecca for Jazz and blues. Venues like Apollo Theater, which opened in 1914, and the Cotton Club became places where musicians such as Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway became famous."
Meanwhile, by the 1940's East Harlem became known as, and remains today, "Spanish Harlem", because of its large Hispanic population and its cultural influences.
The Great Depression, along with race riots in 1935 and again in 1964 ravaged Harlem. It suffered from poverty, neglect, lack of jobs, and accompanying crime. Then, in the 1990's, people began to buy and restore decayed, but once magnificent brownstones; the area began to rebuild and be reborn.
Today, Harlem's rapidly growing population and its geographic boundaries aren’t rigid. In Upper Manhattan you’ll find Harlem is typically known to stretch between 96th Street on the south (east of Central Park) and 155th Street on the north end, and, on the other axis, from the East and Harlem Rivers to 110th Street (also known as Cathedral Parkway because it passes by the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, well worth its own visit) north of Central Park on the west. In a word, vast.
Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Thriving Harlem neighborhoods like Striver’s Row, Sugar Hill, Manhattanville, Hamilton Heights, East, Central, and West Harlem, provide museums, community-focused parks, theatre, classic, and avant garde music venues -- as well as first-class eateries you won’t find replicated in Vegas.
Stunning brownstones line streets where creatives like Maya Angelou, Richard Rodgers, and Lorenz Hart once lived and wrote poems and composed their musicals and, later, Arthur Mitchell founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem (466 West 152nd Street). Notables like Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the activist pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church (132 West 138th Street), catapulted himself to the NYC Council and, subsequently, to the United States Congress.
On vibrant 125th Street, a major commercial thoroughfare, you’ll find the still-vibrant Apollo Theater (253 West 125th Street). In years past, talent like Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson, and Prince graced the stage, and, today, you can still see brilliant shows and get tickets to its famed Amateur Night competition.
Ella Fitzgerald made her singing debut in 1934 at the Apollo Theater. Photo: Harlem History
After you have walked (or biked), the friendly streets, visit the Studio Museum (429 West 127th Street), the Jazz Museum (58 West 129th Street) in Harlem, and independently-owned boutiques like Capsule (383 West 125th Street) and Flamekeepers Hat Club (273 West 121st Street).
Jazz Museum (58 West 129th Street). Photo: Annette Nielsen
For worship, history, and music that can transform your soul, join in with a congregation at any number of churches that have played significant roles in social justice and the Civil Rights movement, such as Canaan Baptist Church (Wyatt Tee Walker, its long-time pastor and civil rights leader and adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., passed away in January 2018) and Abyssinian Church.
And, in between, enjoy Harlem’s foodie scene from toothy "soul food" with a twist to "new American" and fine French cuisine. Take a seat in Sylvia's Restaurant (328 Malcolm X Boulevard) started by the late "Queen of Soul Food" or Marcus Samuelsson's always-packed Red Rooster (310 Lenox Avenue), with Ginny's Supper Club (310 Lenox Avenue) in the basement for a fun evening out. Or, try Lido (2168 Frederick Douglass Boulevard), known for its bottomless mimosas, led by Serena Bass; do your own sampling comparing Amy Ruth's waffles and fried chicken (113 West 116th Street) with Melba's comfort food (300 West 114th Street); Maison Harlem (341 Saint Nicholas Avenue) for a bit of Paris in Manhattan; Vianteri (2211 Frederick Douglass Boulevard); Harlem Shake (100 West 124th Street); Lolo's Seafood Shack (303 West 116th Street); Clay (553 Manhattan Avenue); and many more.
Outside of Red Rooster. Photo: Annette Nielsen
And of course, plan for at least one late evening of immersing yourself in the sizzling notes of Harlem’s jazz and music scene at Bill's Place (148 West 133rd Street) or Minton's Playhouse (206 West 118th Street). You will need a reservation.
Be part of the new Harlem Renaissance. Harlem's distinct neighborhoods provide a variety of places to see and things to do. Check out New York Makers' Guide to Exploring Harlem's Mount Morris Park Historic District, and go deep into but one of Harlem's unique communities.
With contributions by New York Makers
Annette Nielsen is a writer and a health and wellness specialist who grew up in the Adirondacks and calls Harlem her home.