The Harlem re-shuffle: The New York neighbourhood has been rejuvenated
It was once a no-go area, but now it attracts tourists for the right reasons.
It's a sultry summer night and my cab drops me outside a Manhattan hotel. I thread my way through a gaggle of leggy, uptown girls to the lobby. Inside, I pass a wall of sound flooding down from the adjoining bar area and hit the reception desk. A super-chilled, dressed-down staff member greets me with a nonchalant: "Whazzup?" and before I have time to whip out my credit card, I'm rapping with Flavor Flav of Public Enemy. Where am I? Some achingly trendy new design hotel in TriBeCa or the Meat Packing District?
No, I'm in Harlem, at the newly opened Aloft Hotel. Over the years, Hollywood has done its best to cook up Harlem as a modern Dante's Hell, simmering in a ready-made sauce of 2D ghetto stereotypes. Live and Let Die, Carlito's Way and string of 1970s "Blaxploitation" movies such as Shaft, Across 110th Street and Black Caesar helped to seal the neighbourhood's fate as a no-go area. There were no hotels in Harlem, just a few tired B&Bs and dubious boarding houses. I stayed in one such hostelry in the 1980s which, judging by the clientele, was more brothel than hotel. For years, curious tourists have come uptown on safari; often no more than whistle-stop "gawk at the locals" trips, rather than being attempts to engage with the community.
However, Harlem was declared an Economic Redevelopment Zone in 1996. When President Clinton located his offices on 125th St in 2001, the so-called "second Harlem Renaissance" gained momentum; now the opening of the Aloft gives another boost to the area.
The hotel's super-cool bar is rapidly becoming a Saturday night fixture, attracting downtown hipsters and uptown locals. The rooms are bigger than in many new $400-a-night downtown boutique hotels, with plenty of hanging space, a large shower and a media hub to dock your pod, pad, phone and other devices. The real selling point, though, is that Aloft gives its visitors the opportunity to experience Harlem's vibrant culture first-hand.
The hotel is located one block south of the neighbourhood's pulsating main artery, 125th Street, where the sidewalk overflows with food stalls, street performers and hawkers of everything from voodoo dolls to bibles, comic books to shades.
This frenetic thoroughfare is also home to Harlem's most famos landmark, the Apollo Theater. Over the years, stars such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Holiday, James Brown, Diana Ross, The Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder launched their careers here. The theatre's amateur night has been going since 1933 and is still held on Wednesday evenings. One of 1965's winners was a young man named Jimi Hendrix.
Across the street and a block west is the Studio Museum, where African-American art has been promoted for over 30 years. The museum's director and chief curator, Thelma Golden, tells me: "Harlem is home to a number of fantastic works of public art celebrating both the neighbourhood's rich artistic heritage and pioneering African-Americans," and points me in the direction of some of Harlem's most interesting examples.
I zigzagged through the not-so-mean streets to see Elizabeth Catlett's Invisible Man: A Memorial to Ralph Ellison near the writer's former home.
At the north-east corner of Central Park, where the new Museum of African Art will open next year, is New York's first sculpture to be dedicated to an African American, Robert Graham's 30ft bronze entitled Duke Ellington. Here the Duke, suited and booted, stands imperially next to his grand piano, atop a raised plinth, held up by a bevy of naked, voluptuous nymphets.
One of the best ways to experience Harlem is a walking tour led by a local. I've joined jazz, rap, hip-hop and even a Black Panther tour over the years. Harlem Heritage Tourism & Cultural Center offers an array of options.
Although Harlem is best known as a focal point of African-American life and culture, it is also home to a large and exuberant Latino population, particularly in East Harlem, also known as Spanish Harlem or El Barrio.
El Museo del Barrio is a few blocks south of the Duke Ellington sculpture on Fifth Ave at 104th Street and displays an eclectic collection of Hispanic and Caribbean art. There is also a pleasant courtyard café in which I kick back for a while, before strolling across the road to Central Park.
"There's a bar on every corner and a church on every block," goes the old Harlem saying. Gospel is the name of the game here. The better-known Sunday "Gospel" services at churches like the Abyssinian Baptist Church and the Mother African Methodist Zion Church attract many downtown tour groups, but the Aloft staff will happily point you in the direction of some less touristy services.
If you really want to rock your pew then head for one of the Thursday night hip-hop services at churches like Greater Hood Memorial AME Zion Church, where the gospel beat meets the street.
Eating is the other great obsession of Harlem. Once again, Thelma proved invaluable here, directing me to some of Harlem's wonderful culinary experiences. She tells me that the Senegalese capital Dakar is among her favourite cities. A good substitute for being there is Les Ambassades, on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, a restaurant in the heart of one of New York's most vibrant West African communities. It offers an eclectic range of French and African dishes from the largely Senegalese kitchen.
Thelma also sends me to "the best velvet cupcakes in the city" at the charming Make My Cake on the corner of St Nicholas Avenue at 166th Street. These are voluptuous cupcakes for those with a passionate disregard for their girth, not the prissy little things you get in Greenwich Village on your Sex and the City tour.
If 125th St is the traditional Harlem, then Lennox Avenue between 125th and 126th is very much the emerging "New Harlem", with an arty vibe and "Village" sidewalk culture. There is also a cluster of superb restaurants.
Marcus Samuelsson's new place, Red Rooster, wouldn't look out of place in Greenwich Village. Next door is another superb restaurant, Chez Lucienne, where I attack a mind-altering burger on their sidewalk terrace while watching Harlem go by.
On the same block is Harlem's best-known restaurant Sylvia's, which has a roaring gospel brunch going on a Sunday afternoon.
When the Clintons first moved to Harlem, the talk-show host Craig Kilborn quipped: "Clinton says he feels safe in Harlem. It's the only place in the state that Hillary is scared to look for him after dark."
Nowadays, even Hillary feels safe in Harlem, so maybe that's why Bill has moved his office downtown.
For more of Chris Coplans' Harlem images go to www.coplans.co.uk
You can fly on a wide range of airlines from Heathrow to New York (both JFK and Newark), with additional services from Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Belfast to Newark on Continental Airlines and on American Airlines from Manchester to JFK.
Harlem is easily accessible from Manhattan; on the West Side, the A train (8th Avenue Express) takes six minutes to reach 125th Street from Columbus Circle. On the East Side, the 4 and 5 (Lexington Express) from Grand Central (42nd St) take 10 minutes.
America As You Like It (020-8872 8299; www.americaasyoulikeit.com) offers a four-night stay at the Aloft Hotel (001 212 749 4000; aloft.starwoodhotels.com) from £590 per person, including Virgin Atlantic flights.
Harlem Heritage Tours (001 212 280 7888; www.harlemheritage.com). The Studio Museum (001 212 864 4500; www.studiomuseum.org). Apollo Theater (001 212 531 5300; www.apollotheater.org).
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