Why Harlem is New York's most culturally rich neighbourhood

​Known for its civil rights history, soul food and thriving music scene, Harlem is attracting a new wave of travellers keen to appreciate the community and culture of New York’s most influential Black neighbourhood.

This article was adapted from National Geographic Traveller (UK).

“I started running errands here after school and on weekends in 1965,” reminisces Billy Mitchell, as he swings open the auditorium doors. “And before I knew it, I’m meeting all these wonderful people. The Temptations. The Supremes. James Brown and Marvin Gaye took a real liking to me — especially Mr Brown. He’d ask how my schoolwork was going.”

It’s a 30C morning in mid-June, but we’ve escaped the oppressive heat in the cool embrace of the Apollo Theater. Empty red seats cascade around us; lights illuminate the stage, set for tonight’s show. It’s a scene Billy, an Apollo veteran and ambassador of nearly 60 years, has seen many times. But as a rookie, I’m entranced by the storied space, and by Billy’s genuine charm; he’s met everyone in the music business and yet talks about it with the same kind of casual ease that I might discuss lunch plans. Though he is, after all, a local celebrity in his own right. He’s Mr Apollo. 

“I’ve never called myself that you know,” Billy continues, “but the village of Harlem has chosen to call me that. I’m very grateful, of course. The theatre has always been a beacon of pride for this neighbourhood.”

Harlem, a 45-block stretch from Central Park to 155th Street — clipped by Fifth Avenue to the east and the Hudson River to the west — isn’t somewhere many first-time New York City visitors see. Or even second-time visitors. But of those who finally do put in the effort to come to this distinctive uptown pocket, most wonder what took them so long. 

Even if you know nothing else about Harlem, you’re bound to have heard of the Apollo on W125th Street. Everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Mariah Carey has performed here. Its legendary Amateur Night has long been a springboard for new talent, where names like Ella Fitzgerald and Lauryn Hill were discovered. When Michael Jackson and Prince died, huge crowds gathered in front of the Apollo to celebrate their lives. When the body of James Brown lay in repose here in 2006, people queued for blocks to pay their respects to the Godfather of Soul. 

“Back in the 1930s, this was the only theatre in Harlem that was open to African Americans,” explains Billy as he takes me through the history of the Harlem Renaissance, the early 20th-century artistic explosion that made this neighbourhood famous as a centre for Black culture.

“The guys running it were smart. They knew there was going to be a huge migration of African Americans coming to Harlem from the South to escape racism and lynchings, and to find jobs, too. When they did move, the theatre gave them a place to be as well as somewhere to perform. Even today, we give African Americans the opportunity and space to grow, experiment, succeed — and, if they aren’t good enough, to fail. The Apollo isn’t only a place for entertainment.”

Billy means that the Apollo is about community. So, evidently, is Harlem. An hour after saying goodbye to him, I’m wandering down a tranquil street, with wide pavements, mature trees and soaring brownstone townhouses, not quite believing that I’m still in one of the most densely populated cities on the planet. Parks studded with benches, waterfalls and barbecue areas are filled with dog walkers; little cafes buzz with locals sipping lattes. It’s a far cry from the dense urbanity outsiders might imagine.

The good looks are, as is often the case, down to history. In the late 19th and early 20th century, as lower Manhattan development crept northwards, Harlem farmland was transformed into desirable real estate for white middle-class families. But a housing crash meant Black working class families were able to move in instead, close to Downtown and its booming labour market. The Harlem Renaissance followed, led by literary figures including Langston Hughes and artists like Aaron Douglas. Jazz music flourished too, drawing white Manhattanites to the area’s many clubs during Prohibition. Even today, New York’s best jazz venues are in Harlem, with some — such as the intimate Bill’s Place — tucked furtively away in the stately brownstones.

Wandering further up towards the area’s northern reaches, I encounter another unexpected sight: Hamilton Grange. This butter-hued clapboard manor, cloaked in greenery, was the home of American founding father Alexander Hamilton, built in 1802 on what was then his 30-acre country estate — now present-day Harlem. Stepping in from the heavy outdoor heat, I’m jolted back 200 years in a haze of wooden sideboards, sculpted busts and polished silverware. The air is stifling, and next to me a woman is fanning herself incessantly, firing pointed questions to the guide about Hamilton. Not the man, but the musical; apparently, visitor numbers to the Grange have seen a dramatic boost ever since the hit Broadway show, inspired by his life, premiered in 2015. 

As I head outside again, turning back south through St Nicholas Park, I ask another of the guides how many Hamilton fans she thinks stick around to explore the rest of Harlem. “Not enough,” she responds with a sigh.

Changing Harlem

Just 20 minutes later, the park is a leafy memory and I feel the city pressing in. I’m down on sun-baked W125th Street, and despite the pulsating summer heat, the pavement is heaving. Street vendors hawk sunglasses and phone cases. Enticing aromas from street food stalls curl through the air. Ahead, cloaked in scaffolding, is the Victoria Theater — a sister project to the Apollo, under renovation to become an arts facility. It’s just one of many new cultural projects currently underway in Harlem; 2024 will also see the launch of the area’s reimagined Studio Museum, a celebration of Black artists.

That’s not all I see. As I push through the crowds to Malcolm X Boulevard, I pass adverts for glossy new condos and spot a branch of Whole Foods Market. Harlem property prices are skyrocketing, new people are moving in and — as is so often the case — locals are being squeezed out. Billy was measured in his comments about the change, noting that Harlem has always been diverse and that it was Dutch, Italian and Jewish before it was African American. But not everyone is as restrained. Passing a church a few blocks south, I pause to take in the words on the large letter board sign: Stop The Gentrifiers.

Gentrification in Harlem is a complicated, multifaceted issue. It’s tricky to pinpoint the biggest threat to the established local identity: as the area becomes more affluent, is the real concern Harlem’s changing class or its changing colour?

It’s a fact that Harlem’s getting whiter. But in turn, there’s also a growth in new-wave Black-owned businesses that celebrate Harlem’s unique identity, promoting its culture and keeping money in local pockets. Chic and millennial-friendly, these businesses are turning the area trendy. Ethiopian-Swedish celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson changed the landscape when he opened his Red Rooster restaurant here in 2010. He believes in the neighbourhood and its culture, and employs locals. His menu of soul food classics — cornbread, chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits — riffs off the staples served at more retro neighbourhood joints, like Sylvia’s, a few doors down.

Curled up in one of Red Rooster’s restaurant booths, I devour devilled eggs topped with ‘po’boy’ hummus, crisp pan-fried catfish with black-eyed peas, and, best of all, juicy fried chicken (‘yardbird’, in the restaurant’s lingo), drizzled in sticky honey.

Many smaller businesses shout loud and proud about their Harlem connections. I sink an afternoon pint at Manhattan’s first 100% African American-owned craft beer bar, Harlem Hops. At Sugar Hill Creamery, I try delicious honey and lavender ice cream — crafted by long-time locals Petrushka Bazin Larsen and Nick Larsen.

But my favourite discovery comes from a tip I receive from Maya, a member of staff at the Apollo: an artisan coffee shop called I Like It Black, a few minutes’ walk west from the theatre. Standing outside in the heat sipping a gloriously frosty Southern Brew — Brazilian dark roast, chicory, cane sugar, milk and plenty of ice — I catch owner Aliyyah Baylor loading her van with boxes.

That’s my bakery next door, too,” she tells me, as I realise those boxes are full of freshly baked cakes, “and that’s my daughter running the counter.” I spy the thick wedges of red velvet and vanilla buttercream in the display cabinet from here and can already feel my stomach growling again. “I’ve been making my Southern-style bakes for 25 years in Harlem, but the coffeeshop is new,” she tells me with a goodbye wink, before disappearing into the driver’s seat. Tomorrow marks the start of Juneteenth long weekend, and she’s busy with deliveries. 

Juneteenth, the American federal holiday that marks the emancipation of enslaved African Americans, is understandably a big deal in Harlem. Taking a final stroll in the late afternoon, I can already feel the fizzing excitement. Released from school, kids dart through the leafy parks, spraying each other with water bottles. Music pours from speakers perched on brownstone stoops. Friends call out to each other in the streets. Tents are erected and aluminium buffet trays line folding tables in anticipation of tomorrow’s parade — where Billy Mitchell himself will 
act as marshal.

As I contemplate the contrast between these friendly boulevards and the anonymity and skyscrapers synonymous with central NYC, I find myself wondering once more if I’m really still in Manhattan. But maybe that’s just it: despite what the maps say, perhaps Harlem isn’t really Manhattan. Harlem is Harlem.

Insider tips

Harlem is awash with markets. Visit the daily Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market, selling clothing, instruments and other wares sourced from across Africa. On Saturdays, there’s a farmers’ market in rambling Morningside Park. Or, on the second Thursday of the month (April to November), visit the Uptown Night Market, a trendy food event in West Harlem with more than 50 vendors. 

Want to see jazz the way Harlem locals do? Besides established spots like Minton’s Playhouse and Bill’s Place, check out the roaming Jazzmobile, which puts on pop-up events throughout the area. 

Red Rooster, Sylvia’s and Charles Pan-Fried Chicken are the names that get the most attention, but Harlem residents also rate Famous Fish Market — a family-owned business set on St Nicholas Avenue since 1974. It does exactly what it says on the tin: fried fish sandwiches, crispy prawns and chips. 

Getting there & around

Aer Lingus, American Airlines, British Airways, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue and Virgin Atlantic fly direct to New York’s JFK from UK terminals including Edinburgh, Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester.             

Average flight time: 8h.

Harlem is simple to navigate on foot. It’s easily reached from other parts of Manhattan using the subway network, which you can pay for using a contactless bank card. If travelling from Downtown, express trains stop at 125th Street and 145th Street. 

When to go

There’s no bad season to visit New York, but from late spring to early autumn you’ll see Harlem really come to life — its parks are lush and there’s plenty of al fresco dining and outdoor festivities (especially over Juneteenth, celebrated on 19 June). July and August can get very hot in the city, with temperatures averaging 26C, which can make exploring a bit taxing, while during winter, temperatures can drop below freezing.

Where to stay

Aloft Harlem. From £128, B&B. 

The Harlem Flophouse. From £209 for two nights, room only. 

More info

NYC The Official Guide. nycgo.com 

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead. RRP: £16.99

How to do it

America As You Like It has seven nights at the Aloft Harlem, B&B, from £1,653 per person, including return flights. 

Published in the October 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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