Making the move to Harlem was one of the best decisions I’ve made. It’s a relaxing relief to escape the hustle of downtown life and come home to a spacious apartment. With historic attractions, a diverse array of cuisine, the ever-evolving 125th Street and convenient transportation, there’s nothing downtown offers that uptown can’t match. At the end of the day, it’s nice to know that my kitchen isn’t in my bedroom; I have an office, plus some extra cash in my pocket.
In the 1600s the Dutch settled into New York and established “Haarlem”, as a suburb within the city. Characterized by tree-lined blocks, wide avenues, row houses and brownstones, Harlem is a comfortable place to live. “You get the biggest bang for your buck; there is no place in Manhattan where you can get this kind of space at such reasonable rates,” says licensed real estate broker Ajuba Gamble. She says an average one- bedroom in Harlem rents for $1,300, a two-bedroom for $1,600, and a three bedroom runs from $2,000-$2,500. According to Gamble, “Harlem is becoming Downtown, Uptown.”
The cultural scene in Harlem also continues to thrive; searching the history of this place will yield vast amounts of information as well as historians and librarians who will gladly help. Michael Adams, author of Harlem Lost and Found: 1765-1916, welcomed me into his
living room and took me on a journey back in time. It was the 1920s and the Harlem Renaissance fostered a spirit of free and progressive intellectualism, unapologetic artistic expression and a self-sustaining entrepreneurial spirit where men and women achieved middle- and even upper-class status in an era haunted by Jim Crow segregation. Even more interesting is Adams’ passion for the history of homosexuals in Harlem. Every year during Black Pride, Adams gives his Homo Harlem Tour. He took me on an armchair version of this tour, through the beautiful and often tumultuous love between Olivia Windom, English aristocrat, and Edna Thomas, an African-American woman employed as secretary and tutor for Madame C.J. Walker (the first African-American millionaire). To hear this tale yourself, you’ll have to schedule your own private or group tour by calling 212-426-5757.
The largest resource for research in black culture in America, and possibly the world, sits on Malcolm X Boulevard at 135th Street. In 1891, bibliophile and rare book dealer Arthur A. Schomberg dedicated his life to collecting African-American books. Because New York has a massive print culture, there are thousands of documents in his collection that can’t be found anywhere else. The Schomberg Center has a host of fascinating exhibitions, programs and performances. Through March 30, view The Art of African Women: Empowering Traditions, by acclaimed photojournalist Margaret Courtney-Clarke. Born and raised in Namibia, Courtney-Clarke presents a dynamic survey of artistic traditions passed down from mother to daughter over centuries.
One of Harlem’s most popular cultural icons is the place “where stars are born and legends are made,” the Apollo Theater at 253 West 125th Street between Lenox Avenue and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. The Apollo’s world-famous amateur night—the syndicated TV show Showtime at the Apollo—is notably the country’s most difficult audience. A performer’s worst nightmare, the theater is jam-packed with spectators whose sole enjoyment is to boo until a hunched old-timer dressed as a janitor sweeps the would-be star off the stage with an oversized push-broom. If in fact the performer is good, the crowd has no choice but to applaud.
With saxophone in hand, many joked that 42nd President William Jefferson Clinton was the first black president. It is only appropriate, then, that his office is now in Harlem at 55 West 125th Street. Though I have yet to personally spot President Clinton (his office is not open to the public), it seems that Bill has not deprived any of Harlem’s businesses of his personal patronage. In almost every business on 125th Street hangs a photograph of Clinton smiling with proud business owners.
You know things are “movin’ on up” when a Starbucks pops up in your neighborhood. It’s a 125th Street favorite of old men who sit and play chess, so if that’s your game, they gladly welcome gutsy opponents. If you just need your morning coffee and biscotti, Settepani is a comfortable space for “the city girl.” This quiet, quaint and well-lit café at 196 Lenox Avenue is ideal for studying or a brief business meeting. In addition to its expansive selection of coffee blends, Settepani offers many Italian breads and irresistible confections.
The Brownstone on Fifth Avenue at 125th Street is the ultimate haven for any goddess. Four floors of shopping and primping include clothing designer Gretta, a fine jewelry designer, a full-service salon and The Tea Salon. “The idea behind the Brownstone,” says proprietor Jazz Fenton, “is that women spend so much time and energy taking care of others, we created a place where women pamper each other.” Jazz is owner and chef at the Tea Salon, an intimate and quaint dining room where she dishes up tasty and wholesome eats. The scents of lavender, sage, and frankincense bring a calm and peaceful air to the room. If you make a reservation, Jazz will cater to any diet, from vegan to diabetic. Each day there’s a different menu. During my visit, she served almond- and herb-crusted tilapia, apple-glazed chicken and curried tofu. The Jazz Salad, a rejuvenating and colorful blend of romaine, red kale, red chard, dandelion leaves, mint and calypso nuts, is a popular accompaniment to her meals. Characterized by spontaneity and improvisation, at The Tea Salon you may not know what you’re going to get, but it will certainly nourish body as well as spirit.
If you’re craving an afternoon salad of mesclun greens, you’ll find your fix at Orbit. Minnie, co-owner of Henrietta’s, and a handful of other women investors like LoverGirl NYC’s Sophina, bring you an East Harlem Cheers where the owners, staff and customers are truly family. “From old Italian, Hispanic, and black natives to a more recent influx of new artists…everyone is helping each other, learning from each other, and having a good time,” said Minnie. Part-owner and bartender Dee makes a mean Espresso Martini, a nice midday pick-me-up to lay me down kind of drink. For a starter, the roasted duck rolls are truly delicious. Fine strips of duck dripping with Hoisin sauce fall out of a soft flour tortilla and melt in your mouth. It’s a bit of a messy eat, but you won’t miss a bite even if you have to use your fingers. On Thursday nights Orbit features an open mic piano cabaret. Don’t miss comedienne Susan Jeremy on Valentine’s Day, and Michelle Balan is expected to make a February appearance.
There are a plethora of soul food restaurants in Harlem, but none as legendary as Sylvia’s. Spike Lee shot a scene here with Queen Latifah as a waitress in his 1991 hit Jungle Fever, featuring Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra. Located at 328 Lenox Avenue, Sylvia’s opened in 1962 with a seating capacity of 35, and has since expanded to almost the length of a city block, accommodating 450. Sylvia’s offers a nationally distributed product line of her world-famous all-purpose sauces, pre-seasoned vegetables, spices, syrup, and cornbread and pancake mixes. Although there are many places to chuck your diet and engage in Southern comfort food, Sylvia’s is a place every New Yorker should experience at least once.
If you’re not toppling over in your stilettos after all that good food, squeeze into a Karaz original. Edwing D’Angelo creates urban haute couture with his boutique Karaz at 3183 Broadway on Harlem’s Wes ide. Born into a family of seamstresses from Buena Ventura,
Columbia, D’Angelo’s style is what he calls “urban centric with a Latin flair.” From silk chiffon to burlap, D’Angelo’s designs are marked with a fluidity that allows for a certain intimacy between body and garment. His summer gowns in particular create a sexy and sometimes bashful feeling of nudity. Treat yourself or your lover to a custom design at Karaz. In one of Edwing’s pieces you can be assured that all eyes are on you. If you’re a crunchy granola kind of girl for whom “urban haute couture” indubitably clashes with Birkenstocks, The Third Day thrift shop at 410 Lenox Avenue will satiate your shopping urge without blowing your budget. The goods are well-organized and the prices worthy of the title “thrift”—unlike downtown’s so-called vintage shops.
Unless any of you budding promoters want to get the party started, Harlem lacks an out gay social scene. You won’t find a gang of girls doing the Harlem Shake at Jimmy’s Uptown or Perks. But hopefully as more of us settle in and truly carve out a space for lesbians, the new renaissance will carry the torch of the old in our visible contributions to Harlem’s comfort, culture and style.