I’ve been to New York City many times 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, the High Line ... you get the idea. My husband and two grown daughters also have seen these sites. 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 my husband and I arranged to meet our daughters and their significant others in Manhattan, we had a hard time finding enough space for us in hotels near the Broadway theaters (our only planned activity was a show). 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 neighborhood’s historic highlights. We’d never been to Harlem.
I booked it.
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. That’s because, as a 2014 report from the New York state attorney general puts it, where “supporters of Airbnb and other rental sites see a catalyst for entrepreneurship, critics see a threat to the safety, affordability and residential character of local communities.”
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, imperiling 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. That will allow more visitors to consider Harlem as a base, and like us, to get a window into parts of Manhattan they would have otherwise missed.
After checking into our Airbnb — near the 125th Street subway stop — our first stop was dinner at Sylvia’s, a famed soul-food establishment. 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, savoring 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 at the Apollo Theater — the vehicle for the discovery of such talents as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, the Jackson Five and Mariah Carey. The show, a rowdy talent competition with results determined by audience response, was a blast. There were people of all colors and all ages, and all seemed to be in high spirits from the get-go. Only one contestant got booed off the stage, and he didn’t seem that bad; we concluded that the boisterous crowd was just eager to boo someone.
The next day, on a recommendation from our host, we learned about the neighborhood 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. Its housing stock — much of it built in the late 18th and early 19th century — has been affected by the expanding transit system, economic downturns and real estate speculation. When World War I started, many African-Americans moved up from the South to take industrial jobs as part of the Great Migration; their artistic synergy sparked the renowned literary, musical and theatrical works of the Harlem Renaissance. (Its 100th anniversary is this year; check harlemrenaissance.org for related events.) 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, site of the first New York Public Library to hire a black librarian, and Harlem Hospital, which displays reproductions of its Works Progress Administration murals (the first major commissions awarded to African-American artists) on its glass exterior. We saw the Abyssinian Baptist Church; genuine brownstones; Bill’s Place, the club now on the site of Monette’s, where Billie Holiday was discovered; an IHOP housed in the former Smalls Paradise (the only black-owned, integrated nightclub during the Harlem Renaissance); Strivers Row and its elegant attached homes and several other murals (Harlem is full of them). We also saw spaces where new construction had supplanted old landmarks.
Our location allowed us to visit other NYC destinations that had only vaguely been on my radar: the upper part of Central Park and the Cloisters at Fort Tryon Park. 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 North Woods, listening to water cascading in a stream 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 and the beautiful, mystifying Unicorn tapestries. But the museum itself is an attraction: Constructed around four actual European cloisters, it features cool stone, worn steps, narrow windows, stained glass, graceful archways, hushed chapels, peaceful courtyards and gardens and river-view terraces. It feels like a castle overlooking the Hudson River.
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. (“Why does the station smell like fire?” we asked. “It’s a smoke incident,” she said, without looking up.)
Harlem may be changing, but some things about New York City seem eternal.