I’ve probably made close to a dozen short jaunts to New York City 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, Times Square, the High Line . . . you get the idea. My husband and two grown daughters also have been to some of those sites at least twice. 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 Darryl and I arranged to meet our daughters and their significant others for a few days in Manhattan in March, we were so preoccupied with coordinating dates and booking early train reservations that we forgot to consider the issue of accommodations. I soon realized that finding enough space for us in hotels near Penn Station or the Broadway theaters (our only planned activity was a show) would be extremely pricey, and 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 and well-reviewed restaurants. 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, “[w]here 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 perhaps, like us, to get a window into parts of Manhattan they would have otherwise missed. We barely scratched the surface of things to do in Harlem, much less nearby neighborhoods.
To get to our Airbnb, we took the subway to 125th Street. When we emerged, we were at an intersection with a new Whole Foods, CVS and Starbucks, among other chains; other than a billboard advertising Amateur Night at the Apollo, it looked like Anycity, U.S.A. After checking into the Airbnb — two spare but roomy stories above a store in an early 1900s duplex — we set out to explore.
Our first stop was dinner at Sylvia’s, a famed soul-food establishment. Online critics complained that it’s full of tourists, but it also seemed a quintessential Harlem experience we shouldn’t pass up. 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 the legendary 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, watching my younger daughter’s boyfriend down his meal in seconds, 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 — the vehicle for the discovery of such talents as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, the Jackson Five and Mariah Carey. We could only snag tickets at the back of the third tier — which meant a steep climb and a bit of leaning forward — but it was worth it. The show, a rowdy talent competition with results determined by audience response, was a blast, mostly because of the emcees and the audience. 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 was the first municipal hospital to hire a black physician and 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 where both Adam Clayton Powell Sr. (a community leader and activist) and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (a civil rights leader and congressman) preached; 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) — as well as spaces where new construction had supplanted or was in the midst of replacing old landmarks, especially churches.
Had we had more time, we might have explored the burgeoning French dining scene in Harlem; the neighborhood has traditional French restaurants plus West African offerings. But that evening we had dinner at Red Rooster, the restaurant owned by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, in which he accents soul food with elements of his Swedish upbringing — cornbread with lingonberry butter for example. It’s the kind of place where your waiter brings out your chicken dinner with a flourish, so you can take a photo of it, then whisks it back into the kitchen to cut it up. It’s vibrant, crowded and noisy, but hardly anyone seems to mind that, and the food, especially the starters and side dishes, is delicious. We followed it up with a trip to the Shrine, a world music club our tour guide had shown us, which is spackled with posters and album covers, accented with African art and strung with lights. There we had a drink and tapped our feet along with a mellow audience to the sounds of a band named Funk Shui.
We would have viewed the works at the Studio Museum, known for its collection of art by artists of African descent, had it not been closed for construction. But our location allowed us to visit other NYC destinations that had only vaguely been on my radar: the upper part of Central Park, a short subway ride or long walk away; and the Cloisters, a 17-minute Lyft ride to 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 Adirondack-like North Woods, listening to water cascading in the stream that winds through the woods 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 (displayed in a room designed to echo its setting), and the beautiful, disturbing and 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.
More from Travel:
2296 Frederick Douglass Blvd.
This boutique hotel is the only game in Harlem right now. Rooms from $125.
328 Malcolm X Blvd.
This landmark restaurant founded by the “Queen of Soul Food” Sylvia Woods serves hearty homey meals from breakfast to dinner. Live music Wednesday; Gospel Sunday brunch. Open 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. Dinner entrees from $15 to $29.
310 Lenox Ave.
Marcus Samuelsson is an Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised Top Chef winner whose embrace of diversity and American cuisine has found expression in this lively, colorful restaurant, which serves creative comfort food. Dinner entrees from $24 to $40.
935 Columbus Ave.
Not far from the northern edges of Central Park, this Upper West Side counter serves some of the biggest and best banh mi sandwiches we’ve had. It has a full menu of other Vietnamese treats, as well. Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Sandwiches start at $11.
Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater
253 W. 125th St.
A fun and raucous tradition in which contestants are told to “Be Good or Be Gone.” Competition includes musicians, singers, dancers, comedians and rappers. The competition starts with a kids’ contest (no booing allowed). 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays. Tickets range from $24.
Free Tours by Foot
Excellent two-hour walking tour with no interior stops. Pay what you wish.
Shrine World Music Venue
2271 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd.
Independent music venue that attracts a neighborhood crowd and usually has several bands — could be jazz, soul, rock, blues, funk, fusion, African, Caribbean, Latin or more — performing nightly. Bar and food service. No cover.
Northern Central Park
96th Street to 110th Street
You could spend hours wandering here. We didn’t get to all the highlights, which in addition to those mentioned above include Duke Ellington Circle, the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center, the Blockhouse and Fort Clinton. Free.
The Met Cloisters
99 Margaret Corbin Dr., Fort Tryon Park
This castle-like edifice on the Hudson River is the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to Medieval religious art and architecture, created out of bits of four actual cloisters. Pro tip: Buying a membership might save you money. Open 10 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. daily March through October and 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. daily November through February. Cafe open April to October. General admission valid for three days at any of the Met branches. $25 per person for adults; seniors $17; students $12.