We found ourselves beat but thrilled after our day’s activities. It was a treat for the soul, a punishment for the feet, and a banquet for the palate and the stomach. We deserved a restful night after those delightful assaults to the senses. We thank our Australian lucky stars for the great hotel we found. Actually, we thank the reviews that led us to Aloft Harlem. We wanted to soak in as much of Harlem as possible; that included soaking sleep. Besides, great accommodations in Harlem are more fairly priced than hotels of equivalent amenities in midtown Manhattan.
Aloft Harlem is a relatively new hotel that opened late in 2010. That’s barely 3 years ago. But it is also the earliest hotel to invest in Harlem after the last hotels were put up in the 1960s. Tourists and regular visitors doing business in Harlem prefer the Aloft for its modish ambiance and architecture. Its lobby, bar, business and recreation areas are lively, even way into the wee hours. When you wake up in the middle of the night and realize that you are not that tired, after all, you can check out the goings-on at the pub, the fitness facility, or the fresh food on the 24/7 food shop.
The décor and design are mainly contemporary and eclectic in Aloft, with a spattering of Harlem and retro accents here and there, all done in good taste. The minimalist design is best reflected inside the guest rooms. The ceilings are high, the bed was simply huge, and the walk-in bath with rain shower had enough elbow room – my Australian free spirit never felt claustrophobic for a single minute. I had the most luxurious sleep. I woke up refreshed, walked into the bath and allowed the rain shower to just do its pitter-patter on my face and body.
The staff was one of the friendliest I have ever experienced. The check in and check out details were facilitated quickly, you didn’t have too much time to tap your fingers. I had my hot coffee and warm muffin, breathed in Harlem, and looked around for my last glimpse of the Manhattan district. Aloft is a great hotel and definitely worth another stay.
We took the A train uptown and that sure was a quick way of getting to Harlem, no wonder it got itself to a song made famous by Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. We are foodies on the prowl and whenever we are on a holiday, we pick a distinctive cuisine to introduce to our mod-Oz palate – something that we’d remember our trip by back in Australia. We decided that Manhattan fare won’t stand out that much in our memory. Then, we realized that up north Manhattan is where the classic soul gastronomic feast can be found. So we headed off to Harlem.
From the subway on 125th Street, the home of Harlem Renaissance, we headed to the Studio Museum. It was a compact gallery of art pieces and photography which delved into African, Afro-American, and Caribbean culture and history. But weren’t we in Harlem for food? Yes, but we were preparing and contextualizing ourselves before indulging. We had to immerse in the locality first, to be able to delight in the Harlem gourmet fare later. We walked past more brownstone houses, outdoor murals, and Renaissance era architecture.
We pounded the streets some more and headed for atmosNYC for sneakers, still at 125th Street. The constant walking reminded us of the sad fate of our footwear. There were quaint shops and boutiques, and we browsed for accessories and souvenirs. Columbia University was also on our itinerary. From there, we made several turns to 110th Street. We sat at Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread for a refreshing snack of banana bread pudding and peach cobbler. There was a flurry of people, mostly students, and their exuberance was infectious. Then we went to Lenox Avenue, which was the soul food avenue – our reward for all the walking.
Sylvia’s was first on the list, the restaurant with 50 years of serving authentic soul food. The place was named after Sylvia Woods, Harlem’s “Queen of Soul Food.” The restaurant had been in a movie and had been constantly visited by celebrities – their posters filled the walls. Then we punished ourselves with gusto – smothered pork chops, unforgettable Harlem-style fried chicken and waffles, garlic mashed potatoes, cornmeal-dusted fried catfish, veggie platter, and strawberry bread pudding with bourbon sauce downed with traditional mojito. Who could eat after that?
I was visiting New York with two other friends and didn’t want to leave without going to Harlem. I’ve been studying how culture impacts on politics, and it is my belief that Harlem made its own mark as a seat of African-American jazz culture and politics. Since we only had a day before we were scheduled to fly back to Australia, we decided that the Harlem Heritage Walking Tour was a great way to explore rich history and culture that side of Manhattan. Neal Shoemaker, the lead tour guide and owner, and Joe captivated us all with the professional competence they have conducted the tour, yet very personal way of attending to us. The guys are simply treasure troves of information and gave all the information from an insider’s perspective. The tour highlighted Harlem’s history, Renaissance landmarks, gospel, civil rights, and music.
We all met up at the Harlem Heritage Tourism and Cultural Center. We had a good mix of cultures – three of us Aussies, there were some Brits, three German blokes, two Texans, and a few others. We had time to use the restroom and leave some of our heavy luggage. We only had a light backpack and important gadgets for the walk. The walkers’ spirits were high, we felt like new kids being shown to the neighborhood by the local boys. The itinerary started with the walk to Harlem’s historically significant churches. It must be pointed out that gospel and spirituality are so tightly interwoven into all aspects of Harlem. Even the food is called soul food!
We walked through gorgeous 19th century buildings and museums, and to the location of the renowned Savoy Ballroom. Some elderly locals even stopped by to chat with us, reminiscing how it was in the old days when Ella Fitzgerald performed there regularly. They listened in to Billie Holiday with us and you could see they were enjoying it as much as we did. That was totally spontaneous and not orchestrated by the tour at all. It made the whole tour walk a real-life and fun way of learning. The day’s finale came at the historic Apollo Theatre. A few from the group went to the stage to perform, I preferred to sit and take everything in.
There were other itineraries to choose from, depending on your interest and schedule. The walk could focus on soul food, politics, or jazz music. I heard the Jazz Night Tours are awesome. I look forward to another holiday spending a jazz night tour with none other but the enthusiastic and fun guides, Neal and Joe. Harlem tourism is certainly a great way to highlight culture and preserve history, and the walking tour is the best way to observe and learn those things from the ground level.
From preachers to hip-hoppers, Harlem musicians have been setting the pace for more than a century. It’s still showtime at the Apollo Theatre (253 West 125th Street, +1 212 531 5305), an old vaudeville house that has, since 1934, given over Wednesday nights to amateurs looking for their big break – among them Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown. Afterwards, drop by Minton’s (206-210 West 118th Street, +1 212 864 8346), where bebop was developed in the 40s. Other survivors are the Lenox Lounge (288 Lenox Avenue, +1 212 427 0253) – the booth on the left as you enter used to be reserved each week for Billie Holiday – and St Nick’s Pub (773 St Nicholas Ave, +1 212 283 9728). For a more intimate Harlem jazz experience, catch a jam session at the Col. Charles Young American Legion Post (248 West 132nd St, +1 212 283 9701), but bear in mind that if you play an instrument, you will be asked to perform. The spirit of the Harlem Renaissance – the African-American intellectual movement of the 20s and 30s – is alive at the Sunday salon hosted by Marjorie Eliot at 555 Edgecombe Ave, a building that was once home to legends including Lena Horne and Paul Robeson (+1 212 781 6595). Finally there is the Jazz Mobile, a jazz-club stage mounted on a flatbed truck that comes to Marcus Garvey Park on Friday evenings in summer (+1 212 866 3616).
Harlem is synonymous with jazz, but don’t miss the Afro-Cuban sounds of Bobby Sanabria’s big band on Wednesday nights at FB Lounge (172 East 106th Street, +1 212 348 3929).
Visitors searching for gospel music are welcomed in Harlem’s churches on Sunday mornings. At the famed Abyssinian Baptist Church (132 Odell Clark Place, +1 212 862 7474), tourists have their own entrance. Not surprisingly, the music is more authentic at Mount Moriah Baptist Church (2050 Fifth Ave, +1 212 289 9488). Call for service times and dress appropriately (no T-shirts or shorts).
Change has always been Harlem’s watchword, from its start as a Dutch village to the time, at the beginning of the 20th century, when it was the mecca of the new generation of black artists and politicians who came here in the years before the first world war and called themselves the New Negroes, to the dark days of the 70s and 80s, when taxis refused to take passengers uptown. Pricey tours offered by companies such as Harlem Heritage Tours and Big Onion Walking Tours (+1 212 439 1090) cover it all, but it’s more fun to make like a New Yorker and visit the historic homes and gardens of Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill during an event organised by local homeowners (6 June; +1 212 281 4442). Or glimpse the inside of some of the magnificent residences surrounding Marcus Garvey Park in an event hosted by the neighbourhood’s Community Improvement Association (13 June; +1 212 369 4241).
A good book for visitors who want to take things at their own pace is Touring Historic Harlem: Four Walks in Northern Manhattan (New York Landmarks Conservancy). This and many other guides are available at the Hue-Man Bookstore (2319 Frederick Douglass Blvd, +1 212 665 7400).
Get an overview by climbing the steps to the summit of Marcus Garvey Park. From the top, all Harlem’s neighbourhoods are on display in what amounts to an introductory course on the history of New York architecture, made possible by decades of benign neglect. The elegant brownstone blocks to the south and west, once Jewish – Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein all lived there – are now dominated by immigrants from west Africa. The tenement neighbourhoods to the east, once Italian, are now “Nuyorican” (New York Puerto Rican). To the north, the public housing projects that went up in the 50s and 60s, swallowing up the site of the prohibition-era Cotton Club and the Polo Grounds baseball stadium, can’t quite obscure the fancy neighbourhoods of Sugar Hill and Hamilton Heights. You may even catch a glimpse of the oldest house on the island, the Morris-Jumel Mansion, George Washington’s headquarters during the early days of the American Revolution (65 Jumel Terrace, +1 212 923 8008).
For those looking for more information about the Harlem Renaissance, what it is, when it took place and important facts and information about it, the following description may provide some useful background reading.
The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned the 1920s. At the time, it was known as the “New Negro Movement”, named after the 1925 anthology by Alain Locke. The Movement also encompassed the new African-American cultural expressions across the urban areas in the Northeast and Midwest United States effected by the Great Migration (African American), of which Harlem was the largest. Though it was centered in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, in addition, many French-speaking black writers from African and Caribbean colonies who lived in Paris were also influenced by the Harlem Renaissance.
The Harlem Renaissance is generally considered to have spanned from about 1919 until the early or mid-1930s. Many of its ideas lived on much longer. The zenith of this “flowering of Negro literature”, as James Weldon Johnson preferred to call the Harlem Renaissance, was placed between 1924 (the year that Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life hosted a party for black writers where many white publishers were in attendance) and 1929 (the year of the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression).
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