Tuesday, March 17, 2009

NYC09: Twenty Minutes in Harlem

Having finished the last walk of the day, I began to think back on when the last time I ate was. It had been nearly twenty four hours, and while I didn't feel I needed to eat quite yet, I was sure that that was my body's way of overcompensating for the fact that it knows I am a cheap cheap person. If it doesn't expect food, why cause itself undue harm?

But – I did not know where any restaurants in this city were. Still, hadn't I found one just the other day by wandering aimlessly? Surely that could work again. What could possibly go wrong? So off I headed for the A train. It sped me up beyond 79th, beyond 110th, and it just kept sailing through 116th where I hoped to get off. Eventually though, it did stop.

Something was different about this area. Something was different about the people waking around. There was a lot more hostility, and feelings of acceptance towards those accepted – leading towards heightened barriers for outsiders.

As I glanced at a map, I realized that I was no longer in Manhattan. I had headed north, to Harlem. My initial response, I'm almost ashamed to say, was to head back on the train and travel south. I'd watched enough 1980s movies to know what happened here. But I needed to see it for myself.

New York is like a hyperbole of itself (if such a thing were to be possible.) Everything you expect to find, is exactly as you'd been led to believe it – for better or worse. My very first sight in this part of town? Popeye's Chicken. Fine – I could handle that. But, as I popped into a convenience store, I noticed they had only two types of juice for sale: watermelon, and grape. I cringed at this, and returned to the street once more.

There, in front of me, was the famous Apollo theatre. But between my body and that establishment was even more of what makes Harlem Harlem.

Run down building's have been spray painted with half-hearted tags, nothing compared to that which is visible at 5pointz. Discount clothing shops offer shoes, two pair for five dollars. Strange salves in refilled glass bottles line the curbside shops. Even now, I have no idea what substance was trapped within.

Harlem is every bit what I expected it to be – and that's part of how it should be. Still, as the sun was setting, and I had no cultural knowledge, or awareness of the area, I eventually re-boarded the subway and headed back down town. At 108th street, I enjoyed delicious Thai food, and some Patty's day beer. The angry louts here, I could deal with. This was my element. This I understood.

I recognize that I had preconceived notions about the area, heading into it. And they undoubtedly shaped my perception. Still, it was what it was – and the facts can not be altered. The only real disappointment? I do not have a guide to show me the other – inviting, and accepting – side of this northern neighbourhood. It is my hope to educate myself, and revisit Harlem in the future.


  1. yes, harlem is quite different than manhattan but it has a charm all it's own. i totally understand how preconceived notions can get the best of someone ad how you can feel outside of your element (i must admit the very first time i went there i was a bit...nervous?...and i'm black if that makes a difference...because i've seen the movies too) but i think you should give it another chance. perhaps with a group tour so you can see the sites that harlem is so known for in a group setting that may make you more comfortable.

    oh and you must eat at amy ruth's - the best soul food!

    oh, and in those vials are oils and such for your skin. most are natural products with no chemicals.

  2. I would love to go back to Harlem. But just like any trip, it will require research - learning where to go, what to see, etc.

    What streets would you recommend taking a tour down?

  3. Nice article but slight correction: Harlem is actually in Manhattan and isn't a separate borough.


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