The Wonders of Harlem

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.

10 comments

  1. Oh the stories those gorgeous buildings could tell! Hopefully the economy picks up sooner rather than later and money is available for projects to keep up and restore the architecture.

    Do you know if Bill Clinton’s office is still in Harlem, Rachel?

    1. I know, I would love to be able to see what those walls have seen! Yes, I very much hope so too – if anywhere needs regenerating, it’s Harlem.

      I don’t, but I have heard talk about it so perhaps it is!

  2. How wonderful Harlem is to see through your eyes, Rachel. This architecture is amazing, isn’t it? I would love to see the inside of these buildings and homes. I have always been fascinated by Harlem, first the Haarlem I read about as a young schoolgirl studying American history.
    You must read The Delany Sisters; Having Our Say, a memoir of two octo(or was in nono) generarians and their lives first growing up in the south, daughters of a ministry, granddaughters of slaves, their education, their family lives and their life in Harlem so many years ago. It’s a short read, their voices come off loud and clear, it was made into a play and a movie, all of which were wonderful

  3. Well put. I don’t know NYC at all, other than what one can read; I’ve been once but it was a whirlwind trip in high school, in other words worthless for getting to know a city. But! I’m familiar with the concept of your argument. In the big city where I live (Houston), there are many unique pockets – it’s a diverse city, and changes block by block – of different racial, immigration status, cultural, and socioeconomic conditions (not to mention architecture, etc.). People are so quick to make assumptions that the supposedly sketchier neighborhoods are uniformly sketchy. I’ve lived in several in my life, and we live now in a “marginal” neighborhood, and have found a number of these much-maligned pockets to be delightful. Just different. Who wants to live in River Oaks, anyway?🙂 So I appreciate your discussion here. I would be glad to see Harlem.

    1. Thanks Julia! I’ve never been to Houston and you make it sound fascinating! Assumptions are such dangerous things and they prevent many people from having wonderful experiences, such as visiting places they assume aren’t worth going to. They couldn’t be more wrong when it comes to Harlem! I hope you get the chance to come and see it for yourself one day.

  4. I loved this post. I’ve been to NY several times and have visited this area twice, because I’m an Episcopalian and have been to see St. John the Divine. (Madeleine L’Engle was a writer in residence there for some time, and one of her books is set there.) You absolutely make the neighborhood come alive.

    1. Thanks Jenny, glad to hear that! St John the Divine is one of my favourite New York places – I didn’t know that about Madeleine L’Engle, how interesting!

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