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 Here there is Harlem Meer, amazing geological formations that remind you of what New York was originally made of, a skating rink/open air pool, beautiful trees and flowers, and stunning views of the skyline.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!