Previously known as a crime-ridden ghetto, Harlem enjoyed a revival in the 1990s that continues today. Bob Curley experiences its authentic African-American and Latino culture and history
1. The Apollo Theatre
The Apollo is nearly synonymous with Harlem: if there’s one uptown attraction everyone seems to know, it’s this famous showcase where stars from Bessie Smith to Lauryn Hill have performed since 1914. The Apollo’s iconic red-neon marquee shines down on 125th Street, and draws more than 1.3 million visitors annually. If you’re not in town when a headliner is performing, try Amateur Night on Wednesdays. Tours run daily for groups, but individuals can usually join (call +1 212 531 5337). Pick up a souvenir T-shirt or other memorabilia at the Apollo Store (open Mon-Sat 10am-6pm). Tel +1 212 531 5300; apollotheater.org.
2. Sylvia’s soul food
The self-proclaimed “Queen of Soul Food” has lorded it over the Harlem dining scene since 1962. Perhaps the biggest testament to its greatness was that, even in the area’s darkest days, downtown residents would venture up to Harlem to enjoy Herbert and Sylvia Woods’ Carolina-style catfish, fried chicken and ribs with sides of collard greens, candied yams, cowpeas and rice. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the restaurant has grown from 35 seats to 450 over the years, and now occupies an entire city block between 126th Street and 127th Street. Tel +1 212 996 0660; sylviasrestaurant.com.
3. Central Park
Most New York visitors put a trip to this 843-acre park on their itinerary, but relatively few venture north of the reservoir. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted famously left many of the area’s natural features intact when laying out the park, and the north end of Central Park was designed to be the more rugged section. The swampy north-east corner was dredged and converted into the Harlem Meer, a quiet lake where you can see New Yorkers fishing or catch a live performance at a lakeside plaza. The bluffs overlooking the lake’s south end are studded with 200-year-old military fortifications and the Vanderbilt Gate at 5th Avenue and 105th Street provides access to the park’s Conservatory Gardens, while the Lasker Rink and Pool is a popular spot for cooling off in the summer and ice-skating in winter. Visit centralparknyc.org.
4. Museum row
Most visitors think of Harlem as an African-American community, but East Harlem is largely Hispanic, as evidenced by attractions like 5th Avenue’s El Museo del Barrio (tel +1 212 831 7272; elmuseo.org). Founded by Puerto Rican educators in 1969, the museum has expanded its mission to include the arts and culture of all of Latin America and the Caribbean. East Harlem is also home to an institution with an even broader mandate, the neighbouring Museum of the City of New York (+1 212 534 1672; mcny.org), where rotating exhibits cover every aspect of the city’s life and history, from baseball and fire-fighting to theatre and trade.
5. Jazz clubs
The Harlem Renaissance referred to this neighbourhood as an African-American literary, art, dance, and musical incubator in the early 20th century. Swing jazz was the soundtrack of the times, and a number of jazz clubs still flourish in Harlem. Billie Holiday was discovered on 133rd Street – known as the original Swing Street before 52nd Street claimed that title – and clubs such as the Nest were both notorious and glorious in their Roaring Twenties heyday. It would be a real shame to go to this area today and not check out the jazz scene. Harlem legend Bill Saxon serves up hot jazz and history at Bill’s Place (tel +1 212 281 0777), while the Lenox Lounge (tel +1 212 427 0253; lenoxlounge.com), recently restored to its original Art Deco glory, is one of one of Harlem’s oldest surviving jazz clubs. Opened in 1939, the club and its Zebra Room have played host to jazz legends such as Holiday, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Come for jam on Monday nights, blues and R&B on Thursdays, and headliners on the weekends. If you’re heading to Harlem during the daytime, check out the live jazz at EZ’s Woodshed in the back of the Big Apple Jazz Boutique on 7th Avenue (tel +1 212 283 5299; bigapplejazz.com). It sells jazz CDs and gifts, runs jazz tours and hosts a free art exhibit.
6. Marcus Garvey Park
Historically known as Mount Morris Park, this 20-acre patch of green along 5th Avenue overlooks all of Harlem. Built on and around an outcrop of Manhattan bedrock, the park centres on the Acropolis, a 70-foot high lookout that provides outstanding views of the surrounding neighbourhood as well as the George Washington Bridge, Yankee Stadium and the Empire State Building. The 150-year-old park’s historic features include a cast-iron fire watchtower built in 1857 – the only remaining survivor of a citywide warning network from the days before fire alarms.
7. Harlem heritage tours
Those daunted by the prospect of exploring Harlem on their own can sign up for one of the guided neighbourhood tours run by Harlem Heritage Tours (tel +1 212 280 7888; harlemheritage.com). The company runs everything from five-hour Harlem “day trips” to shorter excursions focusing on the neighbourhood’s gospel, jazz, hip-hop, and salsa history. Art walking tours stop at galleries in central Harlem and historic Sugar Hill, while a shopping excursion includes visits to some of the area’s unique local retail outlets. Prices vary, but expect to pay around US$50 for a four-hour tour.