Not the Harlem I Expected

I was expecting Harlem to be full of graffiti, garbage, homeless people, run down high rise projects and drug dealers. This is the image of modern Harlem I’ve gleaned from books and movies.  We took the Big Onion walking tour of Harlem with an excellent guide named Ted and I discovered Harlem was very different than I had imagined. It has some beautiful historic buildings.  Harlem is home to The Grange, the colonial mansion of Alexander Hamilton the first United States Secretary of the Treasury.  Hamilton, a self-made man who started life as an orphan from the West Indies, built The Grange to impress his wife Elizabeth Schuyler who was from one of New York’s richest and most influential families. This lovely building was the first public library in Harlem. It was built with money donated by Andrew Carnegie. Catherine Latimer the first black librarian hired by the New York Public Library system worked here. The library was the focal point for the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920’s and 1930’s when music, art and literature by African Americans flourished and gained international attention. In 1926 more than 5000 items related to African American culture that had been collected by Arturo Schomburg were added to the library’s holdings.  Harlem has some very stately grand homes including this one which was the location for the movie The Royal Tenenbaums. The campus of City College of New York with its eye-catching Neo Gothic buildings is located in Harlem. Ted our guide is an instructor here and according to him the college was opened as a place for the children of New York’s poor to have access to a post secondary education. Eight Nobel Prize winners are graduates, as is Colin Powell the former American Secretary of State. This historic Harlem building used to be home to the Big Apple Jazz Club. According to Ted our guide and  an article in the New York Times the club played a key role in popularizing the term “the Big Apple” —  used by jazz musicians and horse racing enthusiasts as a nickname for New York City. An eye catching sculpture by John Rhoden of a family adorns the Harlem Hospital. It was to this hospital they brought Martin Luther King in 1958 after a deranged woman stabbed him near his heart with a letter opener during a book signing event in Harlem for his book Stride to Freedom. King was rushed to Harlem Hospital where the surgeons saved his life. A series of memorial stones on 135th Avenue  commorate some of the famous people who lived and worked in Harlem, like Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes James Baldwin author of Go Tell It on The Mountain and jazz musician Ella Fitzgerald Harlem Grown is a hopeful sign in Harlem. It is an after school program for kids that gets them working in thriving organic gardens to grow produce they sell to local restaurants. Ted told us the kids who run this garden right across the street from their school sold over 6000 heads of lettuce this year. Not only are the kids working, they are learning about healthy eating and business management as well. According to Ted the program has some high profile sponsors, including actor Ed Norton.  During our time in New York we stayed in a bed and breakfast in Harlem. It’s owner bought the place over a decade ago when the city of New York began to sell abandoned properties in the area that had reverted by default back to the city. They sold the properties at bargain prices but only to middle class people with a steady income and less than a $100,000 in assets. They added property tax reductions as an incentive that would last a decade. This program encouraged many middle class people to move to Harlem and it began to slowly but surely change the entire neighborhood. We were so glad we had stayed in Harlem, where the bed and breakfast prices were reasonable and the commute to the downtown area easy. What is the very best thing about Harlem though? It would have to be soul food we enjoyed at Sylvia’s, a famous Harlem restaurant that has been frequented by the likes of Nelson Mandela and Caroline Kennedy and is Barack Obama’s favorite place to eat whenever he is in New York. Dave had collard greens, macaroni and cheese and barbeque ribs. My mouth watering plate above featured the grilled spicy cat fish, candied yams and pickled beets. Harlem Heaven!! Other posts about New York…….

Spotting the American Flag in New York

Hong Kong and New York- Same But Different

A Walk in New York City

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Filed under Culture, Food, History, New York

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