Historic Harlem

One of the most picturesque and historic neighborhoods in New York, Harlem is a vibrant area currently undergoing a massive real estate transformation. Although the classic brownstones and historic buildings of Mount Morris and Hamilton Heights are a... more

One of the most picturesque and historic neighborhoods in New York, Harlem is a vibrant area currently undergoing a massive real estate transformation. Although the classic brownstones and historic buildings of Mount Morris and Hamilton Heights are an integral part of this tour, we also include highlights of 125th Street, the main east-west thoroughfare. The tour also includes optional restaurant visits as well as self-catering options. This route is easily reversed, and can be split into two parts with a lunch break in the middle. We begin on West 110th Street, the northern end of Central Park, after a ride on the 2 or 3 subway train. Most visitors to Central Park never see its northern reaches, which is a pity. Some of the most interesting and challenging terrain can be found here, and a bike ride around the area is well worth the time. Begin by walking north on Lenox Avenue, renamed Malcolm X Boulevard after one of Harlem's most famous sons. A bit of background: Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch governor, created Nieuw Haarlem in 1658 in this northern area of Manhattan, and East 125th Street was where the first settlers built their village. Farming was the main source of economic ... more

One of the most picturesque and historic neighborhoods in New York, Harlem is a vibrant area currently undergoing a massive real estate transformation. Although the classic brownstones and historic buildings of Mount Morris and Hamilton Heights are an integral part of this tour, we also include highlights of 125th Street, the main east-west thoroughfare. The tour also includes optional restaurant visits as well as self-catering options. This route is easily reversed, and can be split into two parts with a lunch break in the middle.


We begin on West 110th Street, the northern end of Central Park, after a ride on the 2 or 3 subway train. Most visitors to Central Park never see its northern reaches, which is a pity. Some of the most interesting and challenging terrain can be found here, and a bike ride around the area is well worth the time. Begin by walking north on Lenox Avenue, renamed Malcolm X Boulevard after one of Harlem's most famous sons.


A bit of background: Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch governor, created Nieuw Haarlem in 1658 in this northern area of Manhattan, and East 125th Street was where the first settlers built their village. Farming was the main source of economic activity, and later we will head to the Hamilton Grange, once the homestead of Alexander Hamilton, author of the Federalist Papers and architect of much of the early years of the American republic until his untimely death during a duel with Aaron Burr in Weehawken (NJ) in 1804. A largely Irish shantytown grew in western Harlem in the late 19th century, and this sparsely-inhabited area began to grow once the elevated railroads began serving the area after 1880. Extraordinary development began in the ensuing years up to the turn of the 20th century, and the famous architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White had their hands in building both some phenomenal houses in the West 130's as well as the new campus of Columbia University east of Broadway around West 116th Street. But it was the Interborough Rapid Transit Company's subway along Lenox Avenue, where you now stand, that brought massive speculation after 1900.


As construction boomed, hundreds of new buildings sprouted up in this area, and while development slowed down tremendously 20 years later, it was at this time the Harlem Renaissance began, an extraordinary blossoming of culture that left a lasting legacy on American history. By now you will reach West 120th Street, and our tour continues up Malcolm X Boulevard to West 123rd Street. Turn right on West 123rd Street, and examine some of the spectacular buildings on this block: the Harlem Club at number 34 is a phenomenal example of Queen Anne-style architecture. Next door, the former Harlem Library, which is now the Bethel A.M.E. Church. (The library moved in 1909 to a McKim, Mead & White building at 9-11 West 124th Street, also a splendid edifice.) Bethel A.M.E. has a long and fascinating history, and is worth a visit inside. At 28-30 West 123rd Street, stop to admire these very narrow homes, before you continue down the block to Mount Morris Park West. The remaining houses on this block are remarkably different!


Cross Mount Morris Park West for a look at Marcus Garvey Park, along with its ancient fire watch tower. Then return to the west side of the street and head south back down to West 121 Street, pausing to admire the Harlem Presbyterian Church as well as the two spectacular buildings on the north and south side of West 121 Street. Our tour continues west on West 121 Street, then make a right back on Malcolm X Boulevard. This time, you will go left on West 122 Street, stopping at these truly extraordinary row houses along the block, which are widely considered among the best in all of New York City. Continue to the end of the block to reach Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard, and make a right. You will now walk north to 125th Street. This completes part one of the tour.


While the great buildings of Mount Morris are among New York's finest, it is West 125th Street that Harlem's vibrancy and cultural life are everywhere visible.


The current real-estate boom has been acutely felt in Harlem, particularly as lower-rent tenants feel the pressure to vacate their apartments to make way for speculators. Housing prices have soared, and while there were some tremendous values in the 1990s, those abandoned buildings have largely become renovated townhouses renting at high prices. Meanwhile, the commercial real estate market has mostly thrived on and surrounding 125th Street, and major national chain stores and outlets like Starbucks have moved in. While some old-timers bemoan the quick pace of change, new upscale stores and restaurants appear to be doing quite well. Former President Bill Clinton moved his offices to 55 West 125th Street, just east of Malcolm X Boulevard, after leaving the White House. As you reach 125th Street, you might consider pausing for a lunch break. What better place than at Sylvia's, the self-declared Queen of Soul Food? Just walk back to Malcolm X Boulevard, cross 125th Street and head north—you can't miss Sylvia's! However, on a Sunday after church services, be prepared to wait, possibly for a long time!


We now continue west on 125th Street, making our way to St. Nicholas Avenue. If you're tired, it might be a good time to pause for lunch. Or consider taking a taxi to our next destination, St. Nicholas Avenue and West 141 Street. If you're still walking, you'll pass a few fried chicken joints on the way as well as other reasonably-priced dining options, but if northern-style BBQ is what you crave, consider walking further west—all the way west—on 126th Street (which becomes 129th Street) to 12th Avenue, then a block north to Dinosaur BBQ, located just south of the massive Fairway Market (think self-catering) and north of the famous Cotton Club. This isn't southern cooking; it's Upstate New York imported to Harlem. But it sure is popular.


If you didn't make the detour, walk north on St. Nicholas Avenue to West 141 Street, the St. Nicholas Park will be to your left the whole way. We now walk west on 141 Street, following the St. Nicholas Park. You might want to have a look at the park; its geological features are quite interesting. Continue on to St. Luke's Episcopal Church at the corner of Convent Avenue, where we begin part two of our tour.


If the church is not open, definitely stop at the next building to the north, the Hamilton Grange, begun in 1798. Now cross Convent Avenue to admire the beautiful row houses. If you're interested in seeing the City College campus, a tour unto itself, walk south across 140th Street and take your time to admire the campus. We now continue up to West 144 Street, where we see marvelous examples of Queen Anne-style architecture at 330-336 Convent Avenue. Indeed this area is one of the most spectacular in all of New York City, and you should take the time to explore the block of 144 Street to your west and to your east, before continuing up to the Baptist Church at the corner of 145 Street. Depending on your energy level, you can opt to end here at the nearby subway station, or continue on a loop as follows: walk north to 150th Street (the west side of the street is more spectacular), then east back to St. Nicholas Avenue. Continue south on St. Nicholas Avenue back to West 145 Street, and head to the subway or take a detour to the City College campus if you did not do so earlier.


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Harlem Description

Historic Harlem is located in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan. Like any neighborhood in New York, Harlem's boundaries are often contested. For our purposes—and we should know—Harlem extends north from 110th Street (the northern edge of Central Park) to 155th Street and from the East River west to the Hudson River, with the notable exception of Morningside Heights, the bubble around Columbia University that carves out a considerable and beautiful portion of Harlem to the west of Morningside Avenue and south of 125th Street. Many consider Fifth Avenue the dividing line between Harlem and Spanish Harlem, but much like the West Village is simply a division of Greenwich Village, we will not make the distinction here.

While many of New York City's neighborhoods have histories that reach back to the settlement of the East Coast, Harlem is perhaps the neighborhood that best encapsulates the 20th century, a dynamic place with ever-changing demographics, always moving with—or a step ahead of—the country's cultural and sociopolitical pulse. Visitors to New York may have a vision in their heads of Harlem as it was during the 1920s and '30s, a vibrant era known as the Harlem Renaissance, when jazz and bebop took a torch to the rulebook of mainstream music and paved the way for the Beat Generation. Like Greenwich Village in the '60s and the Lower East Side in the '70s, that period may be Harlem's best profile, but it's far from the only one.

In its heyday, when over 125 venues vied to entertain those between Lenox and Central Avenues, Harlem was the undisputed home of jazz, with legendary clubs and lounges like The Apollo Theater, The Cotton Club, the original Lenox Lounge, Minton's Playhouse, and the long-gone Savoy holding complete sway over the music scene. The neighborhood was also a hotbed of poetry and theater, with figures like Langston Hughes and production companies like the National Black Theater, the Harlem Suitcase Theater, and the American Negro Theater staging the best in African American plays.

The highs and lows of Harlem life, particularly tougher decades following the Harlem Renaissance, when very little development took place and the aforementioned theaters were all razed or turned into churches, still managed to contribute 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. It's worth visiting the nearby City College campus to see the beautiful Harris and Shepard Halls, not to mention the spectacular views from the escarpment of St. Nicholas Park.

During the late 1980s and early '90s, Harlem underwent another renaissance—perhaps more a Harlem Revival than anything else—when the city removed long-unused trolley tracks, laid new water mains and sewers, installed new sidewalks, curbs, traffic lights, street lights, and planted trees along its central shopping district, West 125th Street. National chains opened branches on the main drag for the first time; The Body Shop, for example, opened a store at Fifth Avenue and Ben & Jerry's opened a franchise across the street that employed formerly homeless people. The revitalization of 125th street continued apace in the late '90s—and has only sped up in the two decades since—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 2001. That was that same year that former president Bill Clinton moved into office space in Harlem, raising the neighborhood's profile as an up-and-coming part of Manhattan, a rare thing for anything above 110th Street. Of course, the inevitable downside of gentrification has been the creeping homogenization of the neighborhood, with local businesses and residents facing rising rents and potentially being priced out of their own neighborhoods, although the further east you are in the Harlem, the lesser the effects seem to be, and if anything good can be said of Harlem's rapid development, it's that it has returned Harlem to the dynamic, mixed neighborhood it was during its greatest eras, albeit with a few too many coffee shops.

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, 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, and soul food and jazz outings.

Speaking of soul food, Harlem's most famous cuisine, the legendary Sylvia’s Soul Food is still kicking in Harlem, alongside local favorite pizza parlor Patsy's and the impossible-to-get-a-reservation sauce joint Rao's, where regulars own their tables like timeshares. Since Dinosaur Bar-B-Que first came to Harlem over a decade ago, many new chefs have brought their culinary visions to the neighborhood, and now modern foodie havens like ABV, The Cecil, and Red Rooster have become the rule rather than the exception.

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