Harlem On My Mind

Black America's cultural capital is thriving again

You've already visited the Metropolitan Museum, seen a Broadway show, and caught a game at Yankee Stadium. But New York's truest glory is the breathtaking diversity of its people and their communities. So on your next business trip to the Big Apple, spend some of your down time in one of its most storied neighborhoods: Harlem. In the past decade, the historic capital of Black America has blossomed. As gentrification has taken hold, the crime rate has plummeted, brownstone homes now sport million-dollar price tags, and the streets and avenues are filling with new shops and restaurants.

The heart of the community is the bustling section of 125th Street between Eighth Avenue, also known as Frederick Douglass Boulevard, and Fifth Avenue. Make your first stop The Studio Museum in Harlem at 144 W. 125th St., a jewel box of a showcase for works by artists of African descent. Some of them are in the museum's artist-in-residence program, so you'll get first crack at viewing original pieces. But with its public seminars and programs, the museum's offerings regularly go beyond the visual arts. This summer, for example, you could have taken a walking architectural tour of Harlem, listened to a program of new orchestral music by composers under the age of 30, or explored the history and culture of tap dancing. Check out the museum's Web site, studiomuseum.org, for a complete schedule of programs.

No one who visits Harlem should miss the Apollo Theater at 253 W. 125th St., which helped launch stars such as Ella Fitzgerald and Lauryn Hill. On Amateur Night every Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., new hopefuls try to wow the Apollo's legendarily tough audiences -- who make American Idol's Simon Cowell look downright demure. A single admission is $18 to $39 depending on the performance. Or you can see the theater by calling ahead for a backstage tour (212 531-5337). They're offered only for groups, but you can easily join one already scheduled.


After a theater tour, stroll east on 125th Street through street vendor territory with table after table of books, posters, incense, and CDs. You'll pass the building at No. 55 West where former President Bill Clinton has his office. On the same block you can stop and grab a quick snack from Wimps Southern Style Bakery at No. 29 West. Its peach cobbler, banana pudding, and sweet potato pies, among other favorites, will smite whatever carb-cutting impulses you have.

Your sweet tooth satisfied, meander over for some shopping at one of Harlem's most interesting boutiques, The Brownstone, at 2032 Fifth Ave., just north of 125th Street. Operating from three floors in one of the typical narrow city dwellings that line so many streets in New York, The Brownstone is a stylish emporium of delights. You can order custom-made dresses and wedding gowns, but moderately priced ready-to-wear women's apparel is also for sale. Some men's shirts and pants are available as well. The owner describes the offerings as contemporary Afro-ethnic. You can complete that uptown look from a selection of jewelry, accessories, and cosmetics. One floor here also offers a hair salon and manicure services, and in mid-September, a café is slated to begin serving. The Brownstone is open Wednesdays through Sundays.

Eating in Harlem is an experience unto itself. At Malcolm X Boulevard (also called Lenox Avenue) and 127th Street is the venerable Sylvia's, perhaps the city's best-known soul food restaurant. Twenty years ago it was a sliver of a place where locals munched on ribs and greens at its long narrow counter and listened to the juke box, while peddlers wandered in selling everything from new shoes to floor-waxing machines. Today the joint has expanded and the peddlers are gone, but the Southern menu has mostly remained the same. A gospel brunch on Sundays at 12:30 p.m. is also a big draw. Get there early: No reservations are taken.

A bit further south, at 113 W. 116th St., is Amy Ruth's Home Style Southern Cuisine, which some think is giving Sylvia's a serious run for the money. For something different, try the honey-fried chicken. What makes it unique is that the honey doesn't come from a jar but from beehives on the restaurant's roof. Many of the dishes are named after local African-American notables. Chicken and waffles, for instance, is called the Reverend Al Sharpton because that specialty is a favorite of the well-known activist. Amy Ruth's is also open all night on Fridays and Saturdays. There is a nonculinary attraction here too: The photos, paintings, and sculptures displayed in the two-story eatery are for sale at prices generally ranging from $200 to $3,000.

After dark catch some jazz at one of the classiest Art Deco locales in Manhattan, the Lenox Lounge on Malcolm X Boulevard between 124th and 125th. First opened at the tail end of the Depression, it once showcased the likes of Billie Holiday and Miles Davis. The much-photographed classic interior has been restored, and the scene in the Zebra Room in the back, with its animal-print walls, still swings. Check lenoxlounge.com for a list of who's playing. On weekends, when bigger names perform, there is a $15 per person cover charge with a one-drink minimum. Altogether, it's a great place to wind down after your uptown foray.

By Robert McNatt

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