Neighbourhood Watch: Harlem Still Offers the Best of Black America
Visitors can still find the pulse of African-American culture here, despite demographic changes that some fear are diluting its special character
Harlem has been the traditional landing place for newcomers to New York from West Africa and the Southern United States, to the extent that the name can stand for freedom and opportunity in those communities.
In recent years, the neighbourhood toward the north end of Manhattan has been altered by rising rents, million-dollar condos, popular new hipster venues and stroller-pushing white families, making it more diverse – and therefore, as commentators have lamented, less black – than it was during the seminal 20th century. The streets teem with people of every race, age and class.
Still, Harlem’s true heart and soul remains firmly African-American. For visitors, Harlem’s status as a leading destination for black culture is the major reason to explore the neighbourhood.
Today’s Harlem blends time-honoured cultural offerings with new, innovative ones. On the traditional side of the ledger, the neighbourhood offers visitors a taste of soul food and an earful of church gospel, and venues featuring the arts, literature and jazz in familiar guises. That’s all worth taking in. But delve deeper, and you’ll also discover the influence of relatively recent newcomers from Africa, and the fresh ideas of a younger generation of African-Americans. Live venues don’t merely showcase jazz, gospel and blues; listen for the beat of Senegalese drums and hip-hop. Look for local shops display elegant fedoras next to patterns from Ghana and high-end hoodies.
As you stroll among the historic rowhouses, cultural landmarks and stylish spots to eat and drink, here are some of Billy’s picks for the best of Harlem.
Where to begin
Get acquainted with Harlem by walking some of New York’s most elegant streets. Lined with impossibly lovely Neo-Italian and Georgian townhouses, the blocks from 138th to 139th streets between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass Boulevard are known as “Striver’s Row.” After the First World War, these dream homes were inhabited by Harlem’s professional and celebrity elite.
Courtesy Kate Glicksberg / NYC & Company
For a little cultural-historical context, the Studio Museum celebrates artists of African descent from the 19th and 20th centuries. The collection includes more than 2000 works by major artists including Kara Walker, Chris Ofili, Romare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence. Later, work up an appetite by walking through Morningside Park to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, featuring spectacular stained-glass windows, a bronze altarpiece by Keith Harin and stone sculptures representing the “Christian centuries” from St. Paul to Shakespeare and Albert Einstein. The rooftop offers stunning bird’s-eye views of the surrounding grounds and Manhattan.
Soul food: Traditional takes
Bring an appetite for soul food, the signature cuisine of black America. Rooted in African and indigenous North American ingredients and dishes, as reinvented on the plantation during slavery and then transported north to big cities during the Great Migration of the 20th century, soul food has continued to evolve in the north – for example, Harlem is reputed to be the birthplace of fried chicken and waffles.
Sylvia’s is one of Harlem’s most hallowed Southern comfort food joints. Locals and tourists alike come in droves for Sylvia Woods’s signature dishes, such as fall-off-the-bone tender barbecued ribs with a tangy-sweet sauce. Pair them with sides like collard greens and garlic mashed potatoes, along with a Sugar Hill Golden Ale from the local Harlem Brewing Company. On Sundays, a husband-and-wife duo croon at gospel brunch for a hand-clapping, foot-stomping good time. Indeed, many local establishments couple soul with spirited vocals for a “gospel brunch” on the Christian sabbath.
Courtesy Clayton Cotterell / NYC & Company
In a similar down-home, no-frills style, Amy Ruth's pays homage to black celebrities with daily specials like the Barack Obama (fried, smothered, baked or barbecued chicken), the Reverend Sharpton (chicken and waffles), and the Al Roker (boneless short ribs).
Melba’s is known for inventive twists on classic soul food. We recommend the savoury southern fried chicken and eggnog waffles(composed ofeggs, cream and nutmeg and served with strawberry butter) – a winning dish that was featured on television’s Throwdown! with Bobby Flay. Meanwhile, BLVD Bistrospecializes in “modern soul food,” with highlights including pan-fried chicken made to order; aged cheddar, shrimp and grits spiked with jalapeño peppers; and buttermilk biscuits stuffed with scrambled eggs.
Soul meets fusion
While the staples of soul food have mostly proven impervious to Manhattan’s fashionable tasting menus and small plates, newcomer establishments helmed by rising star chefs such as Joseph “JJ” Johnson at The Cecil and Marcus Samuelsson, of Red Rooster, have been creatively pushing the boundaries of comfort food, spearheading a culinary renaissance inspired by the dizzyingly international African diaspora.
One of the most emblematic interpretations of “new” Harlem is chic African brasserie The Cecil. Recently profiled in Forbes magazine’s “30 under 30” mover and shaker list, chef Johnson reimagines traditional dishes by playing with the diverse flavours of the African diaspora. Mixing African with Asian and American influences, he deliciously concocts tamarind glazed oxtail with pickled cabbage and brown rice grits, Nigerian suya with short ribs, Ghana-style lamb and rice with coconut yassa and crispy shallots, and West African prawns with peanut sauce and fried curry leaves. The bar itself is a bustling and sceny destination with equally imaginative house cocktails. The “amina” mixes bourbon with baobob (Africa’s “tree of life” superfruit), chilli pepper-infused molasses, and lime.
Some of Harlem’s best-dressed and most boisterous diners gather at Red Rooster and its downstairs 1920s-inspired speakeasy, Ginny’s Supper Club. (A casual sister spot, Streetbird, also recently opened to sling rotisserie chicken; it sports a bright 1980s décor and a sculpture of boomboxes.) At Red Rooster itself, Ethiopian-born and Swedish-raised chef Marcus Samuelsson (who served as guest chef for the Obamas’ first state dinner) fuses Southern comfort food with his African roots and Scandinavian grandmother’s recipes. Popular dishes include “Helga’s meatballs” with lingonberries and buttermilk mashed potatoes, warm cornbread with African-spiced tomato jam, and the famous thick-crusted “fried yard bird” seasoned with berbere (Ethiopian chile spices) and topped with gravy made from ground mace, bourbon and shallots.
Courtesy Kate Glicksberg / NYC & Company
Meanwhile, Mountain Bird applies a French perspective to a head-to-toe poultry-centric menu. Run by a Japanese couple, original plates feature ostrich steak in a green peppercorn sauce, black truffle chicken wings in a balsamic reduction, foie gras dumplings in a consommé, and a bite-sized sampler that comes with a chicken heart crispy roll.
Kitschy, tropical-themed LoLo’s Seafood Shack mixes Caribbean street fare with New England seaside classics. Patrons indulge on inexpensive and homey portions of salt cod conch fritters, shark sandwiches with salsa verde on fried bread, seafood boils with coconut curry, and smoked chicken wingswith achiote glaze. You can relax inside, on a beachy back-patio with pink flamingo ornaments, or take your coco-curry snow crab legs “to go” (they come with disposable blue gloves) for a picnic in Morningside Park – weather permitting.
Courtesy LoLo's Seafood Shack
And for adventurous dishes that come from the opposite African coast of Harlem’s traditional “Little Senegal,” Safari is New York’s only Somalian restaurant. Hot and smoky flavours are balanced with cream and salt, from rosemary infused ground beef, to aromatic slow-roasted goat, and chicken with mango curry sauce and goat cheese.
Boozing and carousing
Harlem is one of the few places left in Manhattan where you can drink without breaking the bank. The campyMess Hall mixes the charm of a neighbourhood dive bar (think complimentary puffed cheese balls and $4 shots) with a sophisticated variety of craft beers, bourbons and creative cocktails such as the “mess hall mash” (red wine, bourbon, lemon and orange). For a quality selection of affordable wine, the elegant Barawine serves glasses ranging from $9 to $15, accompanied by a bistro menu where mac and cheese meets French ham and black truffles. Or share a decadent lobster and shrimp version over clever cocktails and R&B soundtracks at 67 Orange Street, the original address of New York’s first black-owned bar. But if you prefer live music while you imbibe, Gin Fizz plays everything from jazz to funk and soul at its Thursday night “Harlem Sessions.”
Music venues and events
Known for its revolutionary jazz and bebop scene, Harlem is where Thelonious Monk, Kenny Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker all jammed together (sometimes one-upping each other with sax solos). The tradition of spontaneous, unpretentious, and untamed live performance rages on at old-line venues including The Cotton Club, Minton’s, Showmans Jazz Club, 449 LA Scat, and Ginny’s Supper Club.
Courtesy Kate Glicksberg / NYC & Company
Bill’s Place is reputed to be Harlem’s last remaining underground jazz club. You’ll be welcomed by accomplished saxophonist, Bill Saxton, who plays host at the BYOB jazz parlour every Friday and Saturday night in a nondescript Harlem brownstone (148 West 133rd Street). The semi-clandestine venue plays loud and lively homage to the Prohibition days when the same block was the after-hours destination for the jazz musicians themselves.
Named after the Greek god of music, the Apollo Theater is Harlem’s most iconic venue, the holy grail of jazz and soul music. The over 80 year old institution launched the careers of legends including Ella Fitzgerald (who performed here when she was 15 years old), James Brown, The Jackson Five, Dionne Warwick, and even Jimi Hendrix. For a chance to see next-generation stars make their debut, check out the Apollo’s amateur night. It has run Wednesdays since 1934.
The National Jazz Museum, which recently moved to a new storefront on West 129th street, offers a deep and interactive lesson in music history. Under the direction of bassist Christian McBride and pianist Jon Batiste (also the band leader of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert), the museum runs guided listening tours, exhibitions and performances. The Savory Collection features 70-year-old radio recordings of rare performances counting Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong. Recently added to its permanent collection are photographs spanning the entire history of jazz, right up to contemporary rapper Kendrick Lamar.
Finally, one of the most rewarding ways to be immersed in Harlem’s spirited musical culture is to join the snappily-dressed locals at Sunday church for gospel services. The Abyssinian Baptist Church is more than a century old and was New York’s first African-American Baptist Church. The 11 a.m. gospel services on Sundays are open to tourists on a first-come basis (as a backup plan, the First Corinthian Baptist Church is a few blocks away). Just respect the rules of worship – including the ban on photos during services – and be mindful that gospel churches are growing wary of the effects of tourism on the tradition. Be as respectful as possible if you choose to partake.
At the heart of Harlem's West African community, you’ll find the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market. Harlem’s quintessential market sells vibrantly colourful clothing, textiles, and handmade crafts from Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal.
On the other side of the treasure hunting spectrum, design enthusiasts literally lose themselves in Demolition Depot’s four floors (supposedly haunted) of vintage artifacts and bric-a-brac objects salvaged from New York City’s grandest hotels, theatres, skyscrapers and mansions. There’s plenty of kitschy-cool eye candy from crystal doorknobs to antique busts, monumental friezes, and gargoyles.
And housed in a brownstone where Malcolm X once called home, the Harlem Haberdashery combines the elegance of the Harlem Renaissance with the swagger of modern day trend-setting. For over 20 years, the lavishly decorated boutique has been designing its own menswear line, 5001 Flavors, for celebs including Jay Z, LeBron James and Pharrell Williams. But if you’re not looking for something to wear on the Red Carpet, you’ll find custom-made high top sneakers for $150 and hip graphic tees starting at $20 and beyond.
Don’t leave the neighbourhood without your slim-fit “I Love Harlem” T.
How to get there: To reach central Harlem from further south in Manhattan, take the 2, 3, A, B, C or D trains uptown to 125th street.