When visitors to New York think of Harlem they usually have images in their minds from the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920's and 30's, when the neighborhood was home to over 125 entertainment establishments located between Lenox and Central Avenue. Numerous films over the past few decades, such as Shaft
, The Cotton Club
, Jungle Fever
, New Jack City
, and The Royal Tenenbaums
among others have presented this historic neighborhood in various lights (mostly unflattering) yet have helped to give Harlem world-wide iconic status.
In its early 20th-century heyday, Harlem was home to legendary jazz clubs, such the Apollo Theater
, Minton's Playhouse
, The Renaissance Ballroom, the Cotton Club, and The Savoy. Equally impressive were the performances in numerous historic theaters, such The National Black Theater, The Lafayette Theater, The Harlem Suitcase Theater, and The American Negro Theater, almost all of which have been torn down or converted to churches. When we think of Harlem from that time period we think of speakeasies, cellars, lounges, cafés, taverns, supper clubs, rib joints, dance halls, and bar and grills. The Harlem Renaissance was a time of amazing artistic production and also a time when its storied traditions were driven by poverty, crime, racism and other social ills that are now the intriguing subject material of so many movies.
The highs and lows of Harlem life, in particular many of the tougher decades following the Harlem Renaissance when very little development took place and the economy stagnated, have ironically contributed to the historic value of the neighborhood. Many of Manhattan’s finest and most elegant homes can be found in several districts of Harlem, including the Hamilton Grange
area, the Mount Morris district, and Strivers Row. In addition, the 1802 home of Alexander Hamilton at 87 Convent Avenue, between West 141st and West 142nd Streets, merits a visit. Also visit the nearby City College
campus to see the beautiful Harris Hall and Shepard Hall.
Some claim that Harlem's revival, the second Harlem Renaissance, dates back to the late 1980's and early 90's when the city removed long-unused trolley tracks from 125th Street, laid new water mains and sewers, installed new sidewalks, curbs, traffic lights, street lights, and planted trees central along its central shopping district, West 125th Street. National chains opened branches on 125th Street for the first time—The Body Shop opened a store at 125th street and Fifth Avenue and a Ben & Jerry's ice cream franchise employing formerly homeless people opened across the street. Probably the most important factor of all for the development of Harlem's "Retail Renaissance" was the introduction of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone
, which brought $300 million in development funds and $250 million in tax breaks to the neighborhood.
The revitalization of 125th street continued in the late 90's, with the construction of a Starbucks outlet in 1999, the first supermarket in Harlem in 30 years, the Harlem USA retail complex in 2000, and a new home for the Studio Museum in Harlem
in 2001. It was that same year when former president Bill Clinton moved into office space in Harlem. Despite many of the positive aspects of this urban development in Harlem of late, due to the rapid transformation of this most recent period, some small businesses as well as nearby residents are struggling to cope with massive rent increases. Local residents and community leaders have also questioned the speed and direction of this development.
No trip to Harlem would be complete without visiting its numerous museums, churches and mosques, restaurants and music venues. Some of the many highlights include the African American Wax Museum, the Black Fashion Museum, the Abyssinian Baptist Church
, Sylvia’s Soul Food
, the Lenox Lounge
, as well as the Gatehouse Theater at 135th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, which opened to much fanfare in 2006. In addition, several tour companies feature special offerings, such as gospel tours
, church visits
, and soul food and jazz outings
. Moreover, you'll want to check out the brilliant artistry of the Dance Theatre of Harlem
when they're performing in New York.
If you're hungry, two more recent additions in westernmost Harlem include the enormous Fairway Market
on 12th avenue as well as Dinosaur BBQ
on West 131st Street, both of which are worth a visit.