New York Neighbourhood Guide: Harlem
A neighbourhood on the verge provides some amazing spots to explore.
“Harlem is on the verge.” So said chef Marcus Samuelsson in an opinion piece he wrote for the New York Times last year. What it’s on the verge of he stopped short of saying, probably because no one is quite sure. As travellers come to realize that there’s more to Harlem than historic churches and the Apollo Theater, and as large swaths of the district are gentrified by reno’d apartments, pour-over coffee shops and wine bars, longtime residents are keeping a watchful eye. No one wants Harlem to lose its complexity and depth, and so far that hasn’t happened. Go now.
The Mount Morris Park Historic District, a 16-block section of Harlem known for its unaltered late 19th-century streetscapes, was designated a historic district in 1971. You can join a walking tour or go it alone, and admire homes from the sidewalks. The district’s boundaries are West 124th and West 118th streets, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard (Seventh Avenue) and Fifth Avenue. In the next few years, the Studio Museum in Harlem will be moved into a larger, purpose-built space; touring its small-but-daring exhibits illustrates why expansion was inevitable. The museum’s prestigious artist-in-residence program has provided studio space for breakout stars like Kerry James Marshall and Julie Mehretu. Strikingly composed portraits of Harlemites by James VanDerZee, legendary photographer of the 1930s Harlem Renaissance, are part of the permanent collection.
Salvagers of architectural ornaments from New York and beyond, the Demolition Depot and Irreplaceable Artifacts sells items you might want to construct false memories around. On four floors and in its massive (by New York standards) backyard, you’ll find antique street signs, weathered park benches, ornate subway lanterns, tile mosaics and wood-framed school blackboards—all put out to pasture.
Two former buyers for Pottery Barn quit their day jobs to open the tiny new shop Harlem Heirloom when they noticed bushels of newly bought sofas being lugged uptown into a district lacking in gift or home shops. The quirky collection is well edited—get your peeled-banana vase or “Sanitary Inspection Grade A” tea towel.
A 20-minute walk from Marcus Samuelsson’s more established, finer-dining Red Rooster Harlem, Streetbird is the much-loved chef’s casual hangout. As the name implies, its menu revolves around chicken, the juicy rotisserie kind. Try it with sweet hot pink waffles and sample one of Samuelsson’s characteristic Ethiopian-Swedish fusion dishes, like Swediopian. The colourful, if kitschy, design makes use of iconic Harlem artifacts like old-school sneakers and track suit jackets.