New York

A Small Guide to West Harlem

by Alyssa James  |  Published June 4, 2019

Even young Harlemites will tell you they still remember a time when the 3-train cleared out after 96th street. While Harlem has changed before their eyes, the neighbourhood’s history is more resonant than ever. Today you can feast at some of Manhattan’s best restaurants, sip craft beer and cocktails, and learn about the best of Black culture and history. Even in a short visit it’s easy to see why they call it Harlem World.

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While the street names have changed, locals still refer to them as 125th and Lenox (Photo: Alyssa James for TravelMag)

Harlem is more than just historic buildings and landmarks. The neighbourhood has always been enriched by the relationships and connections between people. One of the most distinct things about Harlem is that people greet each other on the street. Residents still place a premium on daily politesse—whether it’s saying “Good morning” or helping our neighbours, people always acknowledge each other. This conviviality is hard to find elsewhere in Manhattan and some attribute it to the neighbourhood’s deep Southern roots.

Starting in 1890, hundreds of thousands of African Americans relocated from the rural South to cities in the North in what came to be known as the Great Migration. This movement of people sparked an intellectual and artistic movement that reverberated throughout America and the world: the Harlem Renaissance. That period in the 1920s solidified Harlem as the heart and soul of Black culture, particularly in the realms of intellectual discourse, music, and fashion. The association with celebrated figures like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, and W.E.B. DuBois continues to inspire Harlemites and draws visitors from around the world today.

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Swing Low: A Harriet Tubman memorial by Alison Saar (Photo: Devin A. Hill for TravelMag)

A tradition that persists from the time of the Harlem Renaissance is the hosting of salons where neighbours get together around food, art, and erudite conversation—usually in someone’s lovely brownstone. Visitors will have to score an invite to one of these intimate occasions of the sort Langston Hughes and James Baldwin used to attend on their own; however, jazz pianist Marjorie Eliot carries on the golden age tradition with free public jazz concerts in her parlor (555 Edgecombe Ave., # 3F) every week. For more than 25 years, she’s been hosting lineups of talented musicians every Sunday at 3:30PM for the Harlem public.

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“I fell in love with Harlem before I ever got here.” – Neon sign at Harlem Hops (Photo: Devin A. Hill for TravelMag)

Learn more about Harlem’s intellectual and literary history at Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (515 Malcolm X Blvd.). This branch of the New York Public Library opened in 1935 and became dedicated to Black culture when writer, historian, and activist Arturo Schomburg donated his collection of thousands of books, manuscripts, etchings, and paintings. Today, the Schomburg hosts rotating exhibitions of art, rare books, and performances that showcase Black culture.

The Studio Museum in Harlem (temporarily 429 W. 127th St.) is another neighbourhood institution dedicated to the work of Black artists. Founded in 1968, the gallery features paintings, drawings, sculptures, and mixed-media installations by African American and African diaspora artists. The museum’s collection represents the work of 400 artists spanning 200 years of history, including the work of famous collagist Romare Bearden and renowned Harlem Renaissance photographer James Van Der Zee.

While Alexander Hamilton may have made his way back into popular consciousness because of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, he has long been a fixture in West Harlem. Get to know more about the founding father himself at Hamilton Grange National Memorial (414 W. 141st St.) in St. Nicholas Park where he built his New York home. The two-storey mansion was designed in the Federal style and was completed in 1802; since then, the house has been relocated twice. The current location is closer to the original and hosts a historical exhibit with free admission and a tour of the first floor.

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Hamilton Grange was named after Hamilton’s grandfather’s estate in Scotland (Photo: Liz Waytkus via Flickr)

For more of Harlem’s architectural heritage, head to the St. Nicholas Historic District, two blocks of Harlem on 138th St. to 139th between Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Adam Clayton Powell Jr Boulevard. The row houses built by David H. King demonstrate three different architectural styles: Georgian Revival, Colonial Revival, and Italian Renaissance Revival. The district has been home to famous residents like preacher and congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., heavyweight boxer Harry Wills, and entertainer Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. Celebrities, community leaders, and the upwardly mobile were often the only Black people able to afford these homes when they were finally made available to African Americans—hence the nickname ‘Strivers’ Row’.

Entertainment is a legacy of Harlem: the syncopated rhythms of jazz can be felt in the bars, restaurants, and music venues throughout the neighbourhood. Head to the Apollo Theater (253 W. 125th St.), the famous music hall where “stars are born and legends are made.” The Apollo isn’t just singing its own praises—artists like Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, and Lauryn Hill got their start on this stage. For a legendary introduction to the Apollo, check out Amateur Night, the 85-year old show that has launched the careers of many from Billie Holiday to Machine Gun Kelly.

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Day time at the Apollo (Photo: Alyssa James for TravelMag)

For a ballet featuring a diverse cast and a company full of history and artistry, head to the Dance Theatre of Harlem (466 W. 152nd St.). This professional ballet company was founded by Arthur Mitchell (a protégé of George Balanchine) and Karel Shook during the Civil Rights Movement. As the first Black classical ballet company, the theatre serves as a beacon for Black dancers. The company puts on classic performances like Balanchine’s Agon to pieces like their most famous work, Creole Giselle.

While the roots of contemporary Harlem may lie in the South, that’s not the neighbourhood’s only cultural influence. West Harlem is home to people from all over the world, including the Caribbean and Africa. Little Senegal, the area around 116th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard/Lenox Avenue, is a social and commercial centre for Harlem’s West African immigrants. Listen out for the diversity of languages like French and Wolof while savouring the tastes of West Africa at local restaurants and bakeries. The area is also home to the Malcolm Shabazz Market (52 W.  116th St.) where shoppers will find fabulous traditional African crafts, textiles, and art.

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Women’s Health Community Mural near the monument to Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. on 125th Street (Photo: Alyssa James for TravelMag)

Do it for the culture every year in September at the African American Day Parade. The parade was founded in 1968 to highlight African American culture and promote heritage and unity. In 2019, the parade celebrates 50 years in Harlem and will feature local leaders and community organizations along with marching bands and sororities and fraternities from Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Every July, Harlemites and Harlem-lovers celebrate the community during Harlem Week, the festival that features the rich flavours, history, culture, and entertain the neighbourhood has to offer. It’s a week of outdoor concerts, open houses, street food, a local artisan village, as well as dance and block parties that continue into the wee hours of the morning.

Accommodation

Harlem is a vibrant residential and cultural centre that features beautiful brownstones, incredible food, and historic buildings. Visitors won’t find big chain hotels in Harlem, so every stay is a memorably local experience.

Aloft Harlem (2296 Frederick Douglass Blvd.) is among the first higher-end hotels in Harlem. The design-led, environmentally-friendly hotel offers 124 rooms, each decked out with a plush bed, flat screen TVs, and an oversized shower stocked with Bliss Spa products. The hotel only has an onsite bar and café, but that’s all you need. The hotel is a short walk to Sylvia’s (328 Malcolm X Blvd.), a Harlem institution, and the iconic Red Rooster (310 Malcolm X Blvd. – see below).

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Stylish concierge desk at Aloft Hotel in Harlem (Photo: courtesy of Aloft Harlem)

Tucked away in central Harlem is 255West Guesthouse (255 W. 132nd St.), a four-room guesthouse located in a 130-year old brownstone. The four rooms (each named after the owners’ dogs!) feature beautiful furniture, exposed brick, and a private bathroom. The lounge offers complimentary tea and coffee, but it’s just blocks away from Harlem’s ever-growing selection of restaurants, bars, and cafés.

Have Central Park as your backyard at the Jazz on the Park Hostel (36 W. 106th St.). It’s a great launch pad into Harlem at an affordable price. They have a quirky coffee bar, weekly pub crawls, and host BBQs in the summer. The hostel offers 4-, 6-, and 8-bed mixed and single-sex dorms, as well as double rooms with shared and private bathrooms.

Eat & Drink

Harlem is all about improvisation, so you’ll find new places are always popping up and old spots are regularly switching things up. Harlemites have a lot of local pride and every restaurant, bar, and café is a community treasure for the nearby residents, so this list is certainly incomplete depending on who you ask!

The cozy Double Dutch Espresso (2194 Frederick Douglass Blvd.) is a great place to start your day. It’s all exposed brick, vintage fixtures, and handcrafted caffeinated beverages. Enjoy drinks from espresso to pour-overs, and breakfast items like acai bowls, pastries, and bagels. A bit further north, try Lenox Coffee Roasters (60 W. 129th St.). This spot serves up speciality coffee with freshly roasted beans out of Red Hook in Brooklyn, as well as breakfast and brunch options. Both locations stay true to Harlem’s creative history as the cafés are constantly buzzing with freelancers, artists, and students.

Melba’s Restaurant (300 W. 114th St.) has been open for nearly 15 years and people keep coming back because the food is just that good. Melba, the owner and restaurant’s namesake, may have been “born, bred, and buttered” in Harlem, but her roots are in the South. Whether it’s mac’n’cheese, chicken and waffles, or meatloaf, Melba’s offers downhome Southern comfort food done well. On any given night, you’ll find people from out of town and locals stopping by for happy hour—especially on Tuesday evenings when the restaurant plays host to a live music show.

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Fried Catfish Strips with Chipotle Mayo and a side of Trés Mac & Cheese at Melba’s (Photo: Devin A. Hill for TravelMag)

If there’s one place that should not be missed, it’s Red Rooster (310 Malcolm X Blvd.). People have said that when we’re talking about Harlem twenty years from now, we’ll be talking about Red Rooster. Chef Marcus Samuelsson brought his passion for food and the roots of American culture to 125th and Lenox in December 2010 and the place has been a hit ever since. The restaurant, bar, and night club combine the modern and the Renaissance, giving it a Roaring Twenties feel with contemporary takes on classic American food.

Head to Manhattanville for Caribbean-style food, drinks, and warmth at Solomon & Kuff Rum Hall (2331 12th Ave.). Owner and mixologist Karl Franz Williams hails from St. Vincent and the Grenadines and wanted to combine that Caribbean heritage with his love for mixology to show how rum could be made an upscale cocktail spirit. Enter Solomon & Kuff, featuring avant-garde cocktails, authentic pan-Caribbean food, and rare aged rum and rhum Agricole. Get ready to turn up the temperature and the party with a live DJ on weekends at dinner and Saturday brunch.

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Mom’s Banana Bread Waffles with Fried Fish and ‘Sorrel is All You Can Say’ cocktail at Solomon & Kuff (Photo: Devin A. Hill for TravelMag)

For somewhere a bit quieter with an extensive wine selection, check out Barawine (200 Malcolm X Blvd.) in the Mount Morris Historic District. The modern bistro is French with a twist and features 200 bottles with 25 wines by the glass. The décor is classy, with white tile, brass, and a long banquette bar for communal seating. The menu offers a variety of dishes, from the classically French croque monsieur sandwich to braised lamb shank served with creamy polenta, and vegan Thai pasta.

Good craft beer is all about freshness and that’s what the owners at the neighbourhood hangout Harlem Hops (2268 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd.) are dedicated to. Co-owners Kevin Bradford, Kim Harris , and Stacey Lee keep new beers coming in weekly to ensure there’s something there for everyone, from the curious beer beginner to the confirmed connoisseur. Of the 16 taps, most of the beers are local, one offers wine, another cider, and tap number 12 always features a Black- or woman-owned brewer.

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The drink selection on 16 taps at Harlem Hops (Photo: Devin A. Hill for TravelMag)

Silvana (300 W. 116th St.) is a hip café by day and speakeasy-style restaurant and live music space by night. Nestled among the bars and restaurants along Frederick Douglass Boulevard (also known as “Restaurant Row”), Silvana offers light Mediterranean fare and fresh-baked pastries, fair trade organic French press coffee and espresso, and loose-leaf teas. At street level, you’ll find an eclectic mix of families, students, and freelancers sitting around chatting and working. In the evenings, descend the steep stairs to share cocktails and hookah to the sound of eclectic musical acts.

The Edge Café (101 Edgecombe Ave.) is that Harlem spot where it feels like everyone knows your name. Walking in, a little wood block says ‘We come here for the magic’ – and magical it is. The location has a compelling history: during the Harlem Renaissance, Schomburg librarians lived in the building and hosted salons with the likes of Langston Hughes and W.E.B. DuBois. Sisters and co-owners Justine and Juliet Masters wanted to keep this familiar and creative feeling alive, so The Edge feels like an extension of your living room: warm and cozy with fresh flowers and mixed-and-matched antique tableware. The menu offers a fusion of New York, English, and Jamaican cuisine—the sisters’ heritage—but it’s the bottles of Grace’s scotch bonnet pepper sauce on the tables that are a dead giveaway that this place is legit.

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Jerk Chicken Wings with Festival and The Edge’s signature cocktail, The 580 (Photo: Devin A. Hill for TravelMag)

Shopping

In response to discriminatory lending practices, Jim Crow laws, and segregation, Harlem was home to one of American’s biggest historical booms in Black entrepreneurship. Many of the businesses are remnants of, or inspired by, this legacy. These are some shops that add colour and flavour to the Harlem neighbourhood.

NiLu Gift Store (191 Malcolm X Blvd.) is the Harlem lifestyle boutique. Owned and operated by husband and wife team Mark and Katrina Parris, the shop emerged from their earlier floral business in the same location. The shop is filled with books, greeting cards, art, home wares, candles, and more from local Harlem artisans and authors. The shop is also a community hub: on weeknights they might host a book launch party for a local writer, and on weekends a pop-up shop. The vibe is all jazz, soul, Harlem Renaissance—that is, BLK AF 365.

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It’s all Harlem all day at NiLu Gift Store (Photo: Devin A. Hill for TravelMag)

Thirty-year Harlem residents and co-owners Pascal and Dani Lewis opened the Harlem Wine Gallery (2067 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd.) in 2017 to offer something new and educational to the community. They carry mostly natural, biodynamic, and organic wines from the United States and around the world, curated together with their partner and sommelier Federico. Every Friday evening, they host a free wine tasting event in their warm, colourful, chic space.

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A large wine selection at Harlem Wine Gallery (Photo: Devin A. Hill for TravelMag)

Another Harlem favourite is Pompette Wines & Spirits (420 Malcolm X Blvd.), where you’ll walk in looking for wine but leave with so much more. The young entrepreneur Mozel Watson is a 4th generation Harlem local and offers a selection that features small vintners. Drop by for a wine and liquor tasting event, or just to check out the charming bespoke interiors that feels like an Old World cave à vin.

The Harlem Chocolate Factory (2363 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd.) is a new addition to Harlem’s artisanal shop repertoire. Located in the heart of Strivers’ Row, founder and head chocolatier Jessica Spaulding’s story epitomizes the essence of the historic district: what started as a pop-up shop at markets finally has a permanent fixture. With names like Sugarhill and Bodega Dreams, Harlem Chocolate Factory’s classic chocolate bars and signature truffles tell the story of Harlem through chocolate.

When you think of Harlem, you undoubtedly think of a particular style and swagger. For a dapper addition to your closet, head to Flamekeepers Hat Club (273 W. 121st St.) where owner Marc Williamson’s inspiration is simply “Things done well.” Williamson is known as Harlem’s Mad Hatter and his designs having been filling the Harlem soul for five years, harnessing the local energy and returning it in his designs. This year, he plans to add regular events to the store—he promises they’ll be conceptual and emotional, but prefers to keep the details under his hat, so to speak.

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From fedoras to gondoliers, it’s hats galore at Flamekeepers Hat Club (Photo: Devin A. Hill for TravelMag)