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
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.