Harlem is officially classed as anywhere above 96th street in Manhattan, and it extends to the Bronx. 96th street up to about 125th street on the East side is called ‘El Barrio’, or Spanish Harlem, and this area is heavily populated by Puerto Ricans. Above 125th street is now the ‘true’ Harlem you read about as being a bit dodgy and dangerous; below that and you’re fine, especially on the West side, as the presence of St John the Divine, New York’s Episcopalian cathedral, and Columbia University, have triggered mass gentrification. The West and Central sections of Harlem were historically Black neighbourhoods, and here you’ll still find plenty of Soul Food restaurants, Gospel churches and specialist shops, as well as several nods to Black historical figures, such as the name of 6th Avenue, which changes to Malcolm X Boulevard above Central Park North.
Harlem has some stunningly beautiful architecture, and as one of the first settled places on Manhattan island, when it was called Haarlem after a Dutch town, it has some incredibly old buildings that remain from an almost unimaginable time when Harlem was the countryside. There are houses dating back to the 17th century, but the majority of the Harlem you see today was built in the 19th century, and it is largely made up of old tenement buildings, beautiful rows of time mellowed Brownstones, Gothic and Roccoco revival churches and elaborately decorated, Parisian looking apartment buildings.
Above Central Park there are two beautiful stretches of parkland, which exploit the rocky, hilly nature of upper Manhattan and provide fantastic views across the city; Morningside Park on the West Side, and Mount Morris Park (now officially called Marcus Garvey Park, but no one calls it that, just like no one calls the Robert F Kennedy bridge anything other than the Triborough), which is in the centre of the Mount Morris Historical District, in the middle of Harlem, and known for its blocks of elaborate late Victorian architecture.
Harlem is a fascinating place; just as beautiful as the Upper East or Upper West sides architecturally, it has, in many ways, been abandoned and unappreciated due to its largely poor and immigrant population. While the middle classes and young professionals are heading up here, and you can’t buy an apartment on Central Park North for less than $1 million, once you pass 125th street, I am always struck by the general air of decay, despite the grandeur of the architecture on display. It makes me sad that more investment hasn’t been made into preserving these buildings, and into promoting Harlem as a place of such rich and diverse cultural, historical and architectural value. Whenever I say I live in Harlem to other New Yorkers, they recoil in horror. I know Harlem can be dangerous in certain parts, but so can Manhattan and Brooklyn; if you’re sensible and do your research, you’ll be fine, and Harlem has got just as much to see and do as other parts of Manhattan. If you’re visiting New York, and you want to see a bit of real life, then make the trip. Climb to the top of Mount Morris Park and look across to the spires of St John the Divine and see the bridges spanning the rivers; go and see the turtles in Morningside Park; have a wander through the streets of East Harlem and see the beautiful Brownstones and amazing churches; go to the Conservatory Gardens in Central Park at 105th street and visit the Museum of the City of New York at 103rd street; visit Columbia University campus; marvel at the colossal beauty of St John the Divine; walk along the river and see the shimmering blue of the Hudson as it heads up into the Bronx. Harlem is wonderful; don’t let its treasures pass you by.