Travel: New York finds new pride in the lives of its huddled masses

The real history of a city is in how its people live, as Kate Simon discovers in a resurgent Harlem. And Jeremy Atiyah explores restored immigrants' apartments at a tenement-turned-museum

HARLEM is going upmarket. "Like him or loathe him - and there are times when I'd like to shoot him - when our congressman, Charles Rangel, heard that there was money around for urban renewal, he made sure Harlem got a slice," said our guide, Mahalia. "Do you live here?" I asked, as our gypsy cab swung into 136th Street. "No, but I'm thinking of investing in a property," she replied. "Soon it will be too expensive to buy somewhere here." Harlem is in the throes of large-scale gentrification - visit before it's too late.

Mahalia works as a guide for Harlem Spiritual Tours and has an awesome knowledge of the place they call the black capital of the world. She and her colleagues drive mini-bus loads of tourists around this famous grid of streets above Central Park. They specialise in describing Harlem's gospel and jazz traditions and the local heritage, taking in live music performances, church services and soul food restaurants. More importantly, they are trying to break down prejudices about the place and dispel the myth that this is a no-go area for visitors to New York.

Emerging from the subway on to 125th Street, Harlem's main drag, the scene is strikingly similar to the high street in Brixton: crowds of shoppers, predominantly black, passing in and out of the usual mixture of chain stores and boutiques, cash tills whirring against a thumping bassline, and too many police. It almost comes as a surprise when you glance across the street and see the Apollo theatre, and realise that this is where so many of the world's jazz, blues and soul greats got their first breaks: Sarah Vaughan, The Jacksons, Marvin Gaye were all winners of its famous "Amateur Night".

It was here that we picked up the gypsy cab, one of the unofficial taxis that cruise these streets looking for fares. Our driver seemed bemused as we negotiated a price for an hour or so of his time, but he agreed to play along and take us on our choice of tour, to see some of the landmarks of Harlem's black political history.

With Mahalia as navigator, moments later we reached our first port of call, the corner of 125th Street and Lenox Avenue. During the civil rights movement in the Sixties, this now unassuming parking lot was the place where local people would gather every day to hear political activists give speeches about black history and current issues. Malcolm X and his organisation the Nation of Islam, members of SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee, who staged many of the freedom rides in the South, and many other black radicals addressed the crowds here. "This was well known as a place where you could educate yourself," Mahalia told us. "They called it the Street Corner University."

She broke off briefly to give our driver further directions and on we went, past the Lickety Split bar, once a haunt of many rising jazz stars, and a block of lovely row houses known as Striver's Row, where, at the turn of the century, upwardly mobile black Harlemites aspired to buy a home. On another street Mahalia barely had time to rattle off all the names of the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance who lived there in the Twenties and Thirties before we reached its end.

Then we passed the place where A'Lelia Walker - daughter of Madame CJ Walker, the child of former slaves who became the first self-made female millionaire, making her fortune from black hair products - set up a literary salon, The Dark Tower. She, like her mother, used her wealth to foster the talent of many black artists and writers of the day, including "the poet laureate of Harlem", Langston Hughes.

Wealthy and poor neighbourhoods roll into each other in Harlem - not an unusual concept for British city dwellers, but apparently it foxes the Japanese visitors who take these tours. Hollywood has a lot to answer for: Harlem is not a sprawling landscape of menacing housing projects, but a regular jumble of buildings. Wide, barren avenues lined with boarded- up shop-fronts and abandoned, undistinguished semi-derelict blocks are bisected by tree-lined streets of beautiful brownstones - tall town houses made from a weird brown stone found in the plateau of Connecticut and Upper New York State which looks like it has been slapped with muddy paint.

Further north, in the middle-class enclave of Sugar Hill - home of the fluffy pioneers of rap, the Sugar Hill Gang - stand some fine turn-of- the-century mansions, and on Convent Avenue is Hamilton Grange, the grand home of Alexander Hamilton, America's first Secretary to the Treasury. Most bizarre of all is the row of elegant clapboard houses up on Sylvan Terrace, around the corner from Paul Robeson's house, which look like they should be in Louisiana, not uptown New York.

Back on the trail of Harlem's political history, Mahalia took us to see the "White House of Harlem" at 409 Edgecombe Avenue. It earned its nickname because this was once home to some of America's most prominent black political leaders of this century, in particular WEB Dubois, black political activist and founder of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Walter Wright, who went on to take over the party's leadership.

But, then, wherever you go in Harlem you are reminded of its black heroes almost every time you look at a street sign: Frederick Douglas Boulevard, named after the 19th-century abolitionist; Adam Clayton Powell Jr Boulevard, the minister of Harlem's oldest and most politically powerful church, the Abyssinian Baptist Church, who, in the 1940s, became the first African- American to represent New York in Congress; Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, Boulevard, no explanation necessary; and in memory of Harlem's most famous adopted son, Malcolm X Boulevard.

We wound up our tour at the place where Malcolm X was assassinated in February 1965, the Audubon Ballroom. The old dance hall is now the Malcolm X Memorial and the part of the ballroom where Malcolm was killed has been reconstructed. But behind the building's restored facade is the brash new Cafe X, a marketing gimmick that must have Malcolm spinning in his grave.

Few guide books to New York will tell you much, if anything, about the Audubon Ballroom, or the radical political tradition of Harlem. You'll have to go and find out for yourself about this chapter in the hidden history of ordinary people. KS

fact FILE

a beginner's guide to the city

Getting there and where to stay Kate Simon travelled courtesy of Virgin Holidays (tel: 01293 617181), which offers three-night breaks in New York from pounds 399, including return flights, transfers and accommodation at the Hotel Metro on West 35th St between Fifth and Sixth Ave. Simon O'Hagan stayed at Baisley House, 294 Hoyt St, Brooklyn, New York 11231 (tel: 001 718 935 1959). Room rates range from $85 to $205 (plus 8.25 per cent tax) per night, rising in spring and falling in mid-summer. Jeremy Atiyah paid pounds 135 plus pounds 35 tax for his flight with Continental/Virgin (tel: 0800 776 464). Non peak-season flights to New York can fall well below pounds 200. He stayed as a guest of the Roosevelt Hotel, on Madison Ave at 45th St (tel: 001 212 661 9600). Room rates start from $169 per night for a double room.

What to do Harlem Spirituals (tel: 001 212 391 0900) offers tours covering a range of interests in Harlem, Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn. Trips to places outside the city are also available. For example, the Harlem on Sunday with brunch runs from 9.30am to 2.30 pm and includes a driving and walking tour of the area, a live gospel show and a soul-food brunch. Adults $60; children $50. Or Amateur Night at the Apollo runs from 6.30pm to 11.30pm and takes in the Amateur Night competition at the famous theatre of th e same name and dinner in a soul food restaurant. Adults $75; children $75. All tours start out from the company's headquarters at 690 Eighth Ave between 43rd and 44th St. The Tenement Museum Visitor's Centre (tel: 001 212 431 0233), at 90 Orchard St, is the starting point for guided tours of the museum, which is just across the street. Open Tuesday to Friday, 12pm-5pm.

Further information The New York Convention and Visitors Bureau (tel: 0171-437 8300) is at 33-34 Carnaby St, London W1. Open Monday to Friday, 10am-4pm. To receive a free, detailed visitors' guide send an SAE with 50p worth of stamps to the above address. NYPages is another thorough guide to New York. For a copy and a NYCard, which gives access to discounts and services, write to Miss I N Smyth, NYTAB, 11 Berkeley St, London W1X 6BU, enclosing pounds 1.50 per copy for postage and packing, or call to order up to two copies of the guide (tel: 0331 405060, calls cost pounds 1.50 per minute, so no extra charge will be made for the guide). Allow four weeks for delivery.

Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick