Millions of tourists flock to New York City each year but it is not often that they venture to Manhattan Island’s northernmost neighborhood, Harlem.
Originally settled in 1658 by Peter Stuyvesant under Dutch rule, Nieuw Haarlem was lush agricultural land distinctly separate from Nieuw Amsterdam at Manhattan’s southern tip. Since then, Harlem has seen many rises and falls, from the population boom in the 1830s when the Harlem Railroad was built to the Vaudeville era when Oscar Hammerstein built the Harlem Opera House on 125th St. in 1889 to the age of prohibition when The Cotton Club was Harlem’s most exclusive nightspot, presenting headliners like Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey and Lena Horne.
It wasn’t until, in what might seem a contradiction, that Prohibition ended in 1933 that Harlem began to go on the decline. After booze became legal everywhere, there was no reason for so many people to trek up to the illegal clubs of Harlem. Clubs moved closer to their wealthier white patrons downtown; the music industry moved to Hollywood, and most jazz greats followed. Only a few clubs remained, like the Apollo Theater on 125th Street.
In recent years, Harlem has seen a resurgence of interest from the real estate market as the young and hip go looking for cheaper rents. Brokers have even begun nicknaming certain sections of the neighborhood in an attempt to shake any lingering not-so-great connotations Harlem might have in order to increase sales, such as the reviled SoHa (South Harlem), which thankfully has yet to catch on. But has Harlem continues to receive more and more positive press, new business, especially restaurants, and tourists have begun to flock there.
Within Harlem are smaller, sub-neighborhoods and three of the most historic ones are Astor Row, Strivers’ Row and Sugar Hill.
Much of today’s Harlem was purchased as undeveloped land by John Jacob Astor. His grandson William Backhouse Astor developed the block of townhouses located between Fifth Avenue and Lenox Avenue on 130th Street, now known as Astor Row, protected as a New York City landmark for their rare wooden porches and front yards.
Located between 126th and 127th streets, Sylvia’s is a local landmark, serving soul food to Harlem residents and famous visitors since 1962. Every politician visiting Harlem, from Nelson Mandela to Bill Clinton, has dined at Sylvia’s Restaurant of Harlem.
The Apollo Theater
Built in 1913, the Apollo Theater has been refurbished several times and is now owned by the State of New York. Originally a burlesque theater, in 1934 the Apollo introduced its famous Amateur Night contests that launched the careers of countless performers. That year, seventeen-year-old Ella Fitzgerald won $25 as an Apollo amateur; her prolific career and an Apollo tradition were born. Some other famous performers (though not amateurs) at the Apollo include: Billie Holliday, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Diana Ross, the Jackson Five, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and many more. The lobby and gift shop are open to visitors during business hours.
253 West 125th Street, New York, NY 10027-4408 – (212) 663-0499
In 1937, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. succeeded his popular father as pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, after graduating from nearby City College and Columbia University. The younger Powell used the strength of Harlem’s large population to crusade for jobs and housing. He forced the utility companies to hire black employees, and organized a bus boycott until 200 black workers were hired by the transit authority. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was the first black man to be elected to the New York City Council in 1941, but just three years later he was elected to the US House of Representatives as the delegate from Harlem, the first black Congressman from New York.
The Abyssinian Baptist Church
Located at Lenox Avenue and 138th Street, the Abyssinian Baptist Church is in the middle of the block. Everyone is welcome for Sunday services, but the place is always packed, so plan to arrive very early.
132 Odell Clark Place, New York, NY – (212) 491-2920
Strivers’ Row houses
Comprised of three rows of townhouses in western Harlem on West 138th and West 139th between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, even in the sad years when Harlem real estate fell into decline, the houses of Strivers’ Row were well maintained. In Harlem’s heyday, these townhouses were the homes for songwriters Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, “father of the blues” W.C. Handy, comedian Stepin Fetchit, singer-dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. The townhouses on the north side of 139th Street were all designed and decorated by famed architect Stanford White.
Sugar Hill is possibly the most beautiful neighborhood in Harlem. While most of the hills and valleys throughout Manhattan were leveled over a century ago, this hill remained intact, with elegant townhouses built on its high ground.
Located a few blocks north of City College of New York, the Sugar Hill landmark district officially extends from 145th to 155th streets, bounded by Edgecomb Avenue on the east and Amsterdam Avenue on the west.
Famous residents have included Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall, bandleader Duke Ellington and composer Billy Strayhorn. The neighborhood was declared both a Historic District by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2000, and a National Registered Historic Place.
Convent Avenue is the center boulevard of the landmark district. To view the architecture of this historic place, start at Convent Avenue at 145th Street. Head North toward 155th Street, winding your way through the attractive tree-lined streets both to the East and West of Convent Avenue, ending at 155th Street.
Nowadays, a day in Harlem wouldn’t be complete without a few culinary pit-stops. The most famed, and equally as delicious, choices are
646 West 131st Street, New York, NY 10027-7948 – (212) 694-1777
Cake Man Raven (whom you might recall from multiple appearances on the Food Network)
708 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY 11217 – (718) 797-2598