Harlem is gritty and diverse…interesting and intriguing…there is renewal and remainders of disrepair as this neighborhood negotiates its way; and, is renegotiated into its future. Safe to walk, the streets are semi-cleaned up and still host to black culture and many African Americans. A large neighborhood in New York City borough of Manhattan, the north section, begun in the 1920s – Harlem has been known as a major black residential, cultural and business center that has suffered a serious boom, bust and now back to a boom cycle of another kind.
It still has remnants of the black renaissance….soul food restaurants, music and the Apollo still stands with its neon sign, the second neon L now not working, and offering smatterings of entertainment that sort of recall its glorious past…sort of. Today what Harlem has is mostly location, location, location. And, to the wealthy seeking something with potential and a very relative price tag (1-4 million or so for a 4 floor walk-up…many divided into 3-4 apartment units) compared to the much more expensive (much more) places mere blocks away; and, with a tax incentive to redo and refurbish the well-worn brownstones attract reinvention and renewal. The neighborhood is conveniently located to major New York City sights and culture. Many streets are lined with traditional brownstones in different states of repair, disrepair, remodeling or rebuilds. The many historic tenement buildings are prevalent further out in East Harlem. Major changes are underway centering outward from the Harlem Subway Station street 125th.
This is a neighborhood that is headed for change that will exclude original residents and possibly its African American roots and history due to the rising cost of this real estate…unfortunate; and, not an unusual American story…the less wealthy minorities displaced by the upwardly mobile…as America leans toward urbanization over the waning suburban dream that in the past so contributed to the downfall of these neighborhoods and the upkeep of these structures. Gentrification, (a process of renovation and revival of deteriorated urban neighborhoods by means of the influx of affluent residents, which results in increased property values and the displacement of lower-income families and small businesses) is well underway as the newly opening Whole Foods becomes the harbinger of a future to come. The GAP across the street from the Apollo. Ironic in so many ways. It is changing and that has consequences.
Harlem Grows is a telling and interesting identifier of this neighborhood…its trends and needs. This project started by a most interesting activist Tony Hillary is beginning to address a signifying issue…poverty and the lack of healthy food in this part of town. Harlem is a food desert – “…a food desert exists when particularly nutritious food is difficult to obtain due to availability, affordability, distance, or number of supermarkets in a given area, urban or rural. This has health and diet implications in individuals living in these areas where nutritious food is not readily available…” according to Wikipedia. Here there are blocks and blocks without access to fresh, healthy foods. Blocks and blocks of fast food and fried chicken places….soul food that promises to feed the soul; but, comes up short for feeding the body in a healthy balance.
Day One of Away: We arrived by commuter train (The New Haven Line) early Tuesday morning…a beautiful 45 minute ride from Norwalk, Connecticut – a 10 minute drive to the station from Wilton, Connecticut where my daughter lives and we were staying. Getting off at the 125th/Harlem stop, we walked to my sister’s a few blocks away as mostly young blacks, bagged garbage sitting for pick-up and a few boom-boxes blared on the streets….this was a different place…I liked its energy and feel.
Imposing limestone Gothic…Heavenly Rest Church in NYC by Central Park. With a great little restaurant in a side chapel!
We made our way to her 4th floor walk-up and settled in her rented top floor, a 800 square foot well laid-out 2 bedroom apartment renting for over $2000. Lunch entailed a city bus ride down to the area by the Guggenheim Museum on the east side of Central Park and a visit to the teeny (really tiny!) Heavenly Rest Stop Restaurant, squeezed into a side chapel of the Heavenly Rest Church. The dramatic limestone arches and Gothic architecture provide space for about 20. In the summer, the outside area adds considerable space for diners. This day it was steamy and crowded inside and quite a wait to get one of the 2 tables or about 12 stools in the place.
It was worth every minute…the AvocadoSmash should be something we all make for lunch, and if you want to – here is the recipe! We loved it from its creamy smooth texture and taste to the poached egg that drizzled down its sides when poked to provocation. The homemade bread was wonderful…the dish filling and delightful. The drizzled olive oil was fruity and puddled just right on the mound of perfectly ripe Avocado with its sprouts radishes, cherry tomatoes and feta crumbles. The chicken salad again on a toothy grain home-made bread had a hint of fennel…no fruit like the usual suspects of grape or those chunks of celery…but, it was flavorful and delicious.
Then on to The Museum of the City of New York a few blocks away a delightful museum to get a history of this city and a look at its future. A well done 20 minute film on the zig-zaggy history of the founding of New Amsterdam, now New York, will explain and leave you understanding the forethought that developed the urban/suburban planning, subway, tenements and how visions of the city and uses have changed and evolved through the years. Robert Moses cast as a protagonist and antagonist in the history of New York left behind a legacy that plays out today.
This map of Manhattan was amazing!
This is a smartly redone museum with several rooms of interest…the most outstanding was Activist New York….with its excellent photos, interactive exhibitions and timelines of the major civic action protests that brought about the vote for women, earth day and environmentalism, civil rights and gay rights and many more. This where I learned of the work of Tony Hillary, the advocate and leader for Harlem’s ascent out of being a food desert. On the way home we passed the garden site of his on-going dream to bring home grown, fresh foods to the children of Harlem, nearly all on the food stamp and free lunch program.
After a rest we headed to Street Bird, a small restaurant by Marcus Samuelson, if you’ve watched Chopped you have seen him judge, of the well-known soul food establishment Red Rooster. The décor is funky fun. The rotisserie chicken ordered by my brother-in-law and sister proved outstanding. My chicken and waffles (had to do it) and Jon’s Rice, Rice Baby were just ok (Samuelson is famous for his fusion food…Sweden, Ethiopian, soul…we did not love it)….Auntie’s Cornbread (another must try…sadly disappointing) was more like a pound cake in texture and taste…and came with a Salted Syrup Butter (buttercream frosting) to the side…it was rich. The Notti Greens were a hit with the table. An Arnold Palmer comes with very sweet tea here – no sugar in the Seattle versions, which I like better! The service was wonderful and waiters spent time talking and showing pride in their menu and interest in our travels. It was an enjoyable experience with the food so-so.
A leisurely walk home to a fun evening of Sequence a card game that is very fun mixing strategy and luck…felt great when the strategy worked not so great when the luck ran out. It makes a great gift and will stave off dementia or prove you have it! It made it under a few of the Seattle Christmas trees this year! We so loved breaking the rule of no talking between partners…we got very creative!
Day Two: The next day was sunny and a trip to the 9/11 Memorial was touching and interesting…a reminder of that fateful day when terrorism became a horrific household word in America and woke us all up to a new world of zealots so willing to murder and die for their causes. Sobering. The controversial sculptural white monument designed by Spanish architect Calatrava now holding a shopping mall and subway stations is designed to look like a winged bird rising (some say an angle). It is interesting.
One of the memorials, the new tower and the new subway station at ground zero.
We headed for Union Square for the most fabulous farmers market….the largest I have been to…with such variety and quality! Harlem needs something like this. The Christmas Market was in full swing and it was merry and bright with many, many vendors of interesting food and fare.
We headed back to Harlem and experienced one of the popular fast food spots in East Harlem Harlem Shake….every imaginable fried food and a side of thick, greasy-good fries with every order. It was packed and diners seemed unfazed by the amount of calories they were happily consuming…we amongst them.
A rest in the afternoon and off to Times Square for a discombobulating look at vast screaming neon signs and slow moving crowds. This is so New York! We made our way to the Roundabout Theater to see Love Love Love. This is a non-profit theater…really 3 in 1, a lovely small complex. Mike Bartlett (whose play Charles the III just closed at the Seattle Rep) wrote this script as well. A British author his humor and sensibilities are well…British – which added to the fun. In the end the script, in my opinion, missed its mark with me, painting baby boomers as so self-absorbed they destroy the lives of their offspring and have zero self-awareness. The play was definitely an interesting exercise in acting. The first scene having 18 year old’s of the sixties and the two subsequent scenes approximately 10-15 years apart…had the actors stretching beyond limits with detailed movements and idiosyncratic behaviors of each older age they portrayed.
We had to try the hot spiced nuts they sell on the streets- peanuts and almonds. Great with an after theater drink back at the apartment.
We missed traditional Macy Day’s balloon blow-up (a couple thousand folks did not!) and were sad about that – they close the area at 10, no exceptions. Next time!
Day Three: We packed up and headed for Connecticut on another cold but sunny day to celebrate Thanksgiving with a large group of family in the beautiful setting of Wilton, Connecticut and my daughter’s beautiful home.
We left Harlem and NYC loving what we saw and experienced. And, really, for the first time after a NYC visit I thought, I’d like to go back! Harlem takes you out of the hustle and bustle enough to relax and enjoy things escaping for a short while the often loud, frenzied; and, to me, often over-whelming pace that is – New York City!