Friday, May 6, 2011

Historic Harlem

We set out for central Harlem today, catching the train up to Penn Station and then changing to the express line 2 to take us right up to W125th Street in the heart of Harlem. A lovely interlude along the way was this little impromptu drumming session from these two dudes. They pass the hat around after their performance and then move on to another carriage at the next stop.

Our first stop was to pay our respects to the Apollo Theatre at 253 W 125th Street. The theatre started being marketed to the growing African American community of Harlem from 1934, the year that Amateur Night at the Apollo first started. Ella Fitzgerald was one of the first Amateur Night winners as a 15 year old girl. Amateur Night also launched Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, James Brown and many, many others.

But our second goal was to have lunch at the famous Sylvia's Soul Food Cafe at 328 Lenox Avenue (Malcolm X Boulevard). Sylvia's was founded in 1962 by Sylvia, a poor young woman originally from Louisiana. By now, Sylvia's is a Harlem institution and the celebrity photos on the wall are of Nelson Mandela, Barak Obama, Bill Clinton etc, who've all dined there. Every Sunday Sylvia's has a live music session over lunch (gospel singing). Liza Minnelli and Beyonce came in one recent Sunday for the gospel lunch session! Even without Beyonce the Sunday sessions attract huge crowds and queues around the block.

We enjoyed our lunch in the company of our black brothers and sisters in the warm, friendly, homely atmosphere of Sylvia's. I tackled the collard greens and okra and tomato gumbo served with delicious corn bread.

..and the locally brewed beer, at Sugar Hill.

.......and we finally learnt what proper Southern red velvet cake should taste like - not like those pale imitations at the NY cupcake bakeries. It's the chemical reaction of the buttermilk with cocoa that causes the cake to turn red (no, not food colouring!!)

Suitably stoked we walked up Malcolm X Boulevard to meet our Big Onion walking tour group. The streets in this part of Harlem are laid back, clean and friendly. It's an African American community for the most part although the demographics have been changing in other parts of Harlem over the last decade or so as gentrification increasingly takes effect. We're more in the centre of Harlem than we were in our 1994 visit with Josh. We were quite a few blocks South then - more in the area around Columbia University, but even there, in those days, it seemed a lot more dodgy.

We meet up with Lovell, our Harlem guide, at 2.00pm. He's a PhD student in African-American literature He provides us with an outline of the boom and bust cycles that have caused Harlem to be the focus of African American culture and politics in the US since the early nineteen hundreds, why there was the cultural Renaissance in the 20s-30s, the population peak in the 50s, the reasons for the socio-economic decline in the community's fortunes in the 70s & 80s and why demographics are changing now.

That gentleman in the pale green hat & sunnies, to the left of Lovell's shoulder, is another ex Canberra principal. I knew him very well as we taught together at Canberra High School. We see each other at the Gym every now and again - and now in Harlem NY!

This apartment block in W 135 St was the first apartment block in Harlem to be completely tenanted by African Americans who suffered great disadvantage, overcrowding & overcharging by their landlords. The Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem now owns the whole block and it is being redeveloped.

Striver's Row, up on W 138 St was one of the streets where more well off African Americans lived. The townhouses are architect designed, and are still very desirable and expensive even after all the decades of bad times for Harlem.

We came upon a "situation" in gentle W 138th Street. A queue of FDNY trucks, NYPD cars, ambulance vehicles, all lights flashing. We think it was a massive reaction to a "gas leak situation".

It gave us a chance to get a shot of the little "in memorium" on this FDNY truck. We've seen similar on just about all the FDNY trucks. The force lost nearly 400 members on 9/11.

This is the famous Abyssinian Baptist Church in W 138th Street, the largest and most wealthy of Harlem's 400 or so churches. In fact it has the largest Protestant congregation in the whole of the US. It's most famous for its gospel singing tradition and there are queues a mile long on Sundays of people wanting to come to the services. In 1989 the church founded the Abyssinian Development Corporation. It currently has a half billion dollars invested in Harlem redevelopment projects, including its first new high school.

There are churches everywhere you look in Harlem, very big solid, long standing ones.

......and little shop front style ones with tiny congregations to match. They all do good work for the people of Harlem. We observed that many of the shops on W125th Street stock "going to church" type clothing: colourful, cheap suits for the men, hats and matronly coats for the women. The other shops that predominate on W 25th Street are those devoted to sports trainers (colourful 80s styles) and tops and caps for the street bro's. The two contrasting clothing cultures of Harlem.

The streets look vaguely familiar to us from seeing movies in the past set in Harlem, but now they are clean, free of rubbish and the condemned buildings have all been demolished and the remaining ones have been washed clean. We hear that crime rates have plummetted in Harlem over the past decade. A big impetus to the redevelopment push came when Bill Clinton established his office in W 125th Street in Harlem in 2001.

We finish our walking tour back at W 125th Street and enjoy hearing the story behind Theresa Towers, the tallest building in Harlem up until the mid seventies. Until 1973 it was the Theresa Hotel, Harlem's Waldorf Astoria. Every African American who was anybody stayed there: Louis Armstrong, Mohammad Ali, Josephine Baker, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, have all stayed or lived there (they were often banned from staying at hotels downtown because of their colour). Malcolm X had his office here too. Fidel Castro even stayed here in 1960, causing much controversy, as everyone presumed he was demonstrating his support for the African American civil rights cause.

The hotel closed in 1967 as Harlem's fortunes really started to decline. It has since been bought by nearby Columbia University and is used as an auxiliary campus for Teacher Education.

By 4.00pm the kids are all out of school and W 125th Street is really buzzing, with lots of street vendors and a bit of pan handling. It has a great atmosphere. After the tour we head back up to W 135th Street to the Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture on Malcolm X Boulevard. We enjoy a couple of their exhibitions about Harlem's rich cultural and political life. The Schomburg Centre is a part of the NY Public Library System, which has to be the gem of NYs public services.

We catch the number 2 train back to Penn Station and decide to walk back down 7th Avenue to W23rd Street. We've learnt today that 20 blocks is around one mile's distance in NYC. So Penn Station (34th Street) is only 11 blocks from W23rd Street, so we know now that we've only walked a bit over half a mile home.


Maxine said...

So much to see. Another great blog Judy. I loved that (Chagall?) painting that you photographed in MoMa.

Have a wonderful time during the last few days of your trip and safe journey home.

Jack and William's Mum said...

Just had to comment here Judy. I am loving the travel blog and I'm so jealous of your adventures. Isn't it a great way to share and document the adventure!? I hope you print it out when you come home. There is a fantastic company.

I get my blog printed every year in hard cover too. It's beautiful. Eddie is such a gorgeous baby too. What a wonderful time you've had.