Travel: THE NEW HEYDAY OF HARLEM
In the Thirties Harlem was home to the hottest music and hippest writers and now, says resident Tessa Souter, it's enjoying a new revival. Go visit
Sunday 08 June 1997
The first stories I ever heard about Harlem referred to its dangers. "I suddenly realised that mine was the only white face on the subway!" said one acquaintance, recounting his horror at discovering, in situ, that the next subway stop after 59th Street in Midtown Manhattan on the A train Express is 125th Street, Harlem. Another acquaintance described coming to the Apollo on with his girlfriend. They were greeted by a man who announced, "White people! I love white people!" and insisted on escorting them across the street for "their own protection". He was clearly joking (the Apollo is literally 100 steps from the 125th Street station and is perfectly safe), but they didn't see the irony. As far as they were concerned they had found an English-speaking guide in a dangerous foreign country.
But as real estate broker Malcolm Barksdale of the New Harlem Land Company points out: "When the white tourists get off the bus they realise that people aren't lying in wait to rob them." And more and more people are catching on to that fact, helped by the almost weekly articles in the New York Times attesting to a New Harlem which is fast rivalling the district's heyday of the Twenties and Thirties. It's no wonder, when you consider that this tiny area (it runs between the Hudson and the Harlem rivers and from the upper 90s to around 155th Street) has, at one time or another, spawned, inspired or been lived in by practically every black American historical figure you've heard of.
Fats Waller's father was once the minister at the Abyssinian Baptist Church on West 138th, as was Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Junior; Charlie Parker's funeral was held there. Pianist Mary Lou Williams lived at 63 Hamilton Terrace. Billy Holiday lived with her mother at 108 West 139th Street. James Baldwin was born in the Harlem General Hospital on Lenox Avenue. Malcolm X used to hang out at the miraculously preserved (and exquisitely beautiful) Lenox Lounge bar. It's still open seven days a week from noon to 4am, putting on jazz, blues and comedy nights for Harlemites - a few of whom have been going there since it opened 52 years ago - as well as the odd, perfectly welcome tourist. "We even get Japanese tourists," says one Lenox Lounge old-timer. Japanese visitors flock to Showman's Cafe to hear their countrywoman Miki Sakaguchi sing the jazz and blues standards that her father (a Tokyo taxi driver) used to love. Sakaguchi, who lives in Harlem, also sings in a local gospel choir.
For the past seven months I have lived in Harlem, nine blocks down from where Eddy Harris used to live, and much of what I see is extraordinarily beautiful. In warm weather people take to the streets to gossip, play chess, watch the girls skipping rope or the boys playing hoops. Outside the corner liquor stores men stand and chat, drinking beer out of cans disguised in brown paper bags. Yes, Harlem has its sketchy stretches (mostly further north and east) but it also has a kind of faded, almost Venetian grandeur. The wide streets are lined with once opulent apartment buildings and rows of brown-stones among which the newly-restored stand out beside the derelict, like flowers growing amid stinging nettles. Prop-erties ranging from $125,000 (pounds 78,000) for a near derelict shell to $500,000 (pounds 310,000) for a well renovated four-bedroom, are snapped up, mostly by middle-class African Americans; the prices are rough-ly 10 per cent of what similar places would cost Downtown. Barks-dale also encourages white clients to buy here. "I welcome ethnic diversity," he says. "It encourages growth and better services."
With the New York crime rate dropping every year (and the second biggest drop occurring in northern Manhattan), word is that the area is gearing itself up for another Harlem Renaissance - albeit a more commercial version of the artistic original. New York Governor George Pataki announced last November: "You don't succeed in moving forward if you rebuild Wall Street and 42nd Street but ignore 125th Street," and backed a proposed $11.2m (pounds 7m) shopping and entertainment complex called Harlem USA. It will house the Gap, an HMV store and the relaunched landmark jazz venue Minton's - investors in which include Robert De Niro. A Magic Johnson movie theatre is planned further along on East 125th Street. It will be the topping off of a revitalisation programme that began a year ago when Blockbuster Video finally came to 125th Street, along with Duane Reade (a chain drug store), the Body Shop and Ben and Jerry's.
These are small but significant advances. True, there are no stores selling over-priced speciality foods in designer surroundings. But people drive from as far away as New Jersey to shop at the incredible Fairways on 12th Avenue, a wholesale-priced version of New York foodie havens Dean & DeLuca, Zabar's and Balducci's all rolled into one exotic, sawdust-floored space. The locals are thrilled. "Two years ago, you had to go a long way down town to buy decent, cheap food. Now it's right here," says Doris Leak, who grew up in the same apartment building as James Baldwin. "I love it." And although there is still only one four-diamond awarded rest-aurant (The Terrace on 119th Street), Sylvia's Soul Food Restaurant on Lenox Avenue attracts tourists from all over the world. There are several less famous places worth investigating, too, from Sister's Cuisine on Madison Avenue, to Londel's on Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Aahirah's Palace across the street from the African market held daily on the corner of 116th and Lenox.
On Sundays, the streets are busy with church-goers and the weekly influx of white tourists. "If you want to get in on Easter Sunday you have to start lining up at 6.30am," remonstrates a be-suited, white-gloved usher outside the gospel Abyssinian Baptist Church on West 138th. When we were there last week the shamefully scruffy foreign tourists were as conspicuous as beggars outside a society ball in comparison to the magnificently turned- out parishioners. Most unfamiliar faces were turned away for lack of space. But with 400 churches to choose from in Harlem - as the saying goes, there really is "a bar on every corner and a church on every block" - those who can't get in at the Abyssinian won't be stuck for somewhere else to go. Just take a cab down to the beautiful Cathedral Church of St John the Divine on Amsterdam Avenue and 112th in the genteel Morningside Heights area of Harlem.
Not that everyone is welcoming the white tourism to black gospel churches. Some call it "racial voyeurism", and a professor at Columbia University said in a New York Times article: "There's this sense of whites being on safari. All that's missing is the hats." But, visitors to Har-lem have come a long way since the Twenties and Thirties when whites travelling uptown referred to the area of clubs around 133rd Street as "The Jungle". For one thing, many of the tourists nowadays are black.
Harlem has many landmarks for music lovers. Bebop evolved at Minton's (210 West 118th Street - now an old folk's home) where Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker went to jam after-hours with house pianist Thelonius Monk. Ella Fitzgerald started her career by winning an Amateur Night contest at the Apollo Theatre on 125th Street. She'd been planning to dance but was too intimidated by the dance troupe that went on ahead of her so sang instead. Lena Horne was booed off the same stage. Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday both sang there. And this year, Tony Bennett packed the house for a "Tribute to Billie Holiday" concert.
According to David Levering Lewis's book, When Harlem Was In Vogue, "almost every out-of-work actor, singer or musician in Harlem found work after a vigil under the Tree of Hope" on Lafay-ette and Seventh, partly because that's where the news of jobs was spread. Sadly, the tree has been replaced by a steel sculpture. But when it was cut down, part of it was saved by the Apollo where it is still put out on stage on Amateur Night (every Wednesday) for the performers to rub for luck.
Another landmark venue, the Cot-ton Club, once made the likes of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Lena Horne suffer the indignities of coming in through the back entrance to perform to white-only audiences. Now black- owned, the new Cotton Club on 125th Street welcomes both black and white customers for jazz and blues in the evenings and a weekend gospel all- you-can-eat brunch. It begins with grace and ends a few hours later with everyone being exhorted by resident gospel singer, Ann Sinclair, to cup their hands and imagine filling them with their problems. "Now raise our hands up to God and say, `Hey, take `em!'" she says. "I don't just sing, I minister!"
On my last visit, the mostly black audience was in a joyful mood and one elderly woman spontaneously jumped up on stage and began dancing. It's okay by Ann. "If I can get people to feel good about themselves then they're going to leave here being a better lover, or better daughter or son. I try to get people to lose the excess baggage that weighs us down and stops us from getting our blessings," she says.
The Cotton Club is just one of many reasons to visit Harlem. "But is it safe?" guests ask me when I tell them how to get the subway to my place. Well, it is where I live but, it has to be said, Harlem does have a high unemployment rate and poverty levels that may make certain parts dangerous. At the corner of 128th and Convent there are a lot of people on the street as the photographer Maggie Steber and I stop to admire the beautiful curved frontage of some of the buildings. "Yes, they're bringing Harlem up to its original splendour," says out-of-work actor Ken Johnson who lives nearby. "But it can get hot around here at night. Even in the day sometimes," he says. "Do you ever hear guns?" I ask. "Oh baby, please!" he says, loosely slapping the air in front of him. "Popping off all the time!"
But the fact remains that most of Harlem is safe, certainly in the daytime. Maggie and I wander all over and nothing happens to us, even off the beaten path. In fact, people smile and greet us rather more than they would in SoHo or Greenwich Village. In the housing projects at Amsterdam and 134th we gossip with a garage owner about an arsonist who started a fire on the seventh floor, and resident Linda Banks submits to being photographed, as does a macho man with two tiny lapdogs. Behind the projects someone has made a rough patch of land into a garden with tubs of plastic azaleas and white bricks spelling out the word LOVE. It's a surprising touch, but then for years the area has had a bad rap - accusations of racism against whites, violence and hatred, drug addiction and gang warfare.
Of course, there's more to Harlem. There are its political heroes, who have included the escaped slave turned abolitionist Frederick Douglass; its lit-erary figures, like writers Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman and Claude McKay; its bootleggers, racketeers and entrepreneurs, including the richest self-made woman in America, Madame C J Walker, who became a millionaire on her secret formula for hair straightener. And a lot remains to justify its continuing status as a black Mecca. The elegant houses on Strivers Row and around Hamilton Heights; the Boy's Choir of Harlem; the Dance Theatre of Harlem; the Schomberg Center for Research; the Studio Museum on 125th; La Marquetta, the Spanish market on Park Avenue between 111th and 115th Streets; and - as long as you're not fearfully looking over your shoulder - the warmth of the people. Outside the Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church on West 137th Street, a sign shows a Harlem we rarely hear about. It says: "We love you and there's nothing you can do about it." !
Abyssinian Baptist Church, 132 W 138th Street, 212 862 7474. Apollo Theatre, 253 W 125th Street, 212 749 5838. Boy's Choir of Harlem, 2005 Madison Avenue, 212 289 1815. Cathedral Church, 1047 Amsterdam Avenue, 212 662 2133. Cotton Club, 656 W 125th Street, 212 663 7980. Dance Theatre of Harlem, 466 W 152 Street, 212 690 2800. Fairways, 2328 12th Avenue, 212 234 3883. Harlem Renaissance Tours, 34 Hamilton Terrace, 212 722 9534. Harlem Visitor's and Conference Association 1 W 125th Street, 212 427 7200. Harlem Your Way! Tours, 129 W 130th Street, 212 866 6997/690 1687. Lenox Lounge, 288 Lenox Avenue, 212 722 9566. Londel's Restaurant, 2620 Frederick Douglass Boulevard, 212 234 6114. Schomberg Center, 135 Malcolm X Boulevard, 212 491 2200. Sister's Cuisine, 1931 Madison Avenue, 212 410 3000. Sylvia's Soul Food Restaurant, 328 Lenox Avenue, 212 996 0660. The Terrace Restaurant, 400 W 119th Street, 212 666 9490.
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