Hello, Harlem

On Thursday evening, after work, I went for a stroll from my apartment over to the West side of Harlem, by St John the Divine. It was a beautiful walk. Starting out on the extreme East of Manhattan, I walked through projects and along streets filled with dilapidated old tenements, dollar stores and fast food restaurants. These streets could be viewed as unpleasant and seedy, but the architecture, admittedly a little grimy, sometimes boarded up, and often obscured by multicoloured signs, is still incredible. Beautiful Victorian brickwork, stone carvings and iron fretwork are everywhere you look, and when you consider that this area was never home to the rich, it is heartening to see that attention to detail was always paid to the aesthetics of Manhattan from its early days, regardless of which class of people would be walking its streets. There are plenty of parks and open spaces for children and teenagers to play sports up here too, which adds to the feeling of it being a real local neighbourhood.

At 110th street and 5th avenue I hit Central Park North, the topmost point of Central Park. Here there is Harlem Meer, amazing geological formations that remind you of what New York was originally made of, a skating rink/open air pool, beautiful trees and flowers, and stunning views of the skyline. I should think that the vast majority of tourists never make it up quite this far, and I certainly hadn’t before, so I was delighted to see a little bit of the truly local Central Park, filled with children playing after school, people walking their dogs, sitting and chatting, jogging, skateboarding, cycling and others just simply taking a shortcut through on their way home from work.

It’s truly amazing what a difference a few streets make. Coming out on the other side of the park, the atmosphere, buildings, types of shops and restaurants, and residents are totally different. This is largely because Columbia University is based at the West side of Harlem, and as such this side of the park is much more gentrified and has a more studenty, young, slightly alternative vibe. There are bistros and bars, boutiques and delis; a world away from what is on offer in East Harlem. As I walked over from the park, I saw the huge mass of St John the Divine rise to greet me; I’d only ever seen it from the train before, and I gasped out loud as I saw the beautiful, gothic architecture of the cathedral and its surrounding buildings in front of me. It looks so out of place in modern Manhattan, as its Roman Catholic predecessor, St Patrick’s,  in midtown, also does; but its incongruousness only serves to make it more awe inspiring. I felt like I’d stumbled into the courtyard of an Oxford college, dropped down in the middle of New York.

Once I reached the cathedral, I’d made it to my destination, a lovely little bistro, for a dinner with an equally lovely friend! So there you have it; my first proper walk through Harlem. There will be many more to come!


  1. How fun to get a glimpse of your new neighbourhood! One of my closest friends from University is currently working (though, according to her, ‘working’ is a loose term) on her PhD at Columbia so I was particularly interested to hear about that area. Yes, she has it hard, getting to play at being a student for the next seven years (on full scholarship no less) while living it up in New York! Can’t wait to see/hear more as you continue to discover Harlem!

  2. I love your descriptions of Harlem, of that section of Central Park where it is actually a park and of Columbia. You make me want to live there, Rachel. Enjoy discovering your new home.

    Read Jazz by Toni Morrison or Fall on Your Knees by Ann Marie MacDonald, which is partly set in Harlem. Of course, you must learn all about the Harlem Renaissance too.

    1. Thanks, Claire! It is a lovely place to live – perhaps one day you’ll get the chance to live here too!

      I’ve read Fall on Your Knees but I don’t remember the Harlem part! And yes I must actually – I need to head to the library!

      1. The last section, dealing with the youngest daughter whose name I can’t remember who goes to NYC to pursue music/track down family member, is set in Harlem, I think. It’s been years since I read it though so perhaps I’m misremembering.

  3. A lovely guidedtour. I felt like I was almost there.

    I visited St John’s back in 1999 and was amazed. I have been to lots of large churches and cathedrals in the UK and Europe but this was something else. Beautiful! x

    1. Thank you Pink Cat! I haven’t been inside St John’s yet but its sheer size blew me away – it’s amazingly huge considering its surroundings! I can’t wait to go in now you’ve told me that!

  4. The image I have of Harlem is of children playing in the massive gush of water spilling from fire hydrants on hot summer days.

    You must be having such a wonderful time exploring new places and making friends along the way. I would be remiss in not mentioning though that your shot of the cathedral reminds me of England!

    1. Oooh that will be fun when the 100 degree summer comes, Darlene! I can legitimately cavort in the street!! 😉

      I am! It is so much fun and has made me really open my eyes to the world around me, which is a wonderful thing!

      Yes, it really reminded me of Oxford – trust you to say that! 🙂

  5. Every time you do a post on NYC, you make me think I should give it a second chance. I’m loving getting to know the city better through your pictures and experiences. Thanks so much for sharing with us.

    1. I’m glad I have that effect, Susan! I hope that you might come back…I’m so pleased you are enjoying my posts on the city even if you don’t love New York that much yourself!

  6. This reminds me so much of our own University of Chicago and Hyde Park and the surrounding environs, Rachel. What a wonderful walk you took and what an amazing ambassador you are for NYC! Your time here is an awakening for many who have always lived here. Thank you.

    Did you get into St. John the Divine?

    1. Oh Penny, how I long to visit Chicago! I hope I will make it up. Thank you – you are far too kind! I haven’t made it inside yet, no – I meant to go there on Sunday morning for the 11am service but a rather late night on Saturday made such an ‘early’ start impossible! So perhaps next Sunday!

  7. My daughter got married in City Hall on 5th April last year.John and I spent the remainder of that week exploring your fascinating city. Your blog about walking through New York brought all the happy memories back.The weather was unseasonably hot which only added to the mystique of the visit.We had a wonderful hungarian pastry in the pastry shop accross the road from St John the Divine.We walked the High Line, did the whole Staten Isalnd Ferry thing,visited the wonderous Zabars,Bleeker Street and spent hours in Central Park.

    I am reading Good Evening Mrs Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes from the Perephone Classics .I intend to order One Fine Day by the same author.I have just completed reading Testament of Youth and Letters from a Lost Generation.Very sad but wonderful reading.

    I am writing this from Tomatin a village in the Highlands of Scotland.

    1. How lovely, Marybel! I bet that was a gorgeous wedding, and what a wonderful chance you had to explore. Sounds like you really made the most of your time and got around much more than most!

      We have reading tastes in common! One Fine Day is breathtaking and one of my favourite books. Testament of Youth is also awe inspiring. Glad you are having such a fantastic reading run!

      Hello to you in Scotland! Isn’t it wonderful how blogging brings people together from truly all over the world?!

      1. Thank you for your prompt reply. Today I have picked up the photo of Gemma and Chipp on their wedding day taken beside city hall with a blossom tree behind them.Funny the connections we can make.

        Further wonderful reading recently has been Willaim Maxwell’s So Long See you Tomorrow as well as They Came like Swallows and John Fante’s Wait for Spring Bandini both inspirational american authors.

        Indeed these book blogs are great at setting me off on a new author, new to me anyway as the discovery of The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder (another american author I believe) of which I ended up buying four copies to send to friends. In Britain we have three very decent radio programmes on Radio 4 which can spark interest and fury in equal measure.

      2. How lovely! I have So Long See You Tomorrow on the pile of books by my bed, so again, we match!

        I am actually English and temporarily in New York – just for a year – for work reasons, and I have to say, I do miss my Sunday afternoons in the kitchen with Radio 4! Hard to believe I’m 24 sometimes…I was born 90 and I have been getting older ever since!

  8. I’m really enjoying your Harlem posts and photographs. I’ve never been to New York but it’s definately a place I’d like to visit and your posts on Harlem have added to the allure. The buildings are indeed beautiful and it must feel quite wonderful to come across similarities that take you back to England. Quite awe-inspiring! Thank you for sharing 🙂

    1. Thank you, Cristina – I’m so happy to hear that. You must come and visit – it’s a beautiful city, and has something for everyone. It’s a feast for the eyes and the heart! 🙂

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