The Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem is the epicenter of the Harlem Gospel tradition.
If you’ve traveled to New York at least once, you’re probably familiar with all of the regular attractions: Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street, and Central Park. But as a visitor to NYC, you probably haven’t ventured above 96th street to the area known as Harlem. Harlem is a largely residential neighborhood and has a different atmosphere than downtown and midtown Manhattan. You’ll enjoy the break from the hustle-and-bustle of the typical tourist traps.
Harlem was the site of the famous “Harlem Renaissance” in the 1920s and 30s. There was an outpouring of artistic and professional works from the black community that resided in the area. Intellectuals, poets, visual artists, musicians and writers all made a major impact during this time period. Novels such as Claude Mckay’s Home to Harlem and Langston Hughes’ Not Without Laughter were published during the Renaissance. Even though the Renaissance is over, Harlem is still home to countless artists and intellectuals. Former President Bill Clinton even has an office on 125th street. While Harlem is largely residential, there are countless attractions that will make your trip uptown worthwhile.
One of the most famous places in Harlem is the Apollo Theatre (253 W. 125th st). The original Apollo Hall was founded in the mid-1860s by former Civil War general Edward Ferrero as a dance hall and ballroom. Since then, it has transformed into arguably the most popular tourist attraction in Harlem. The theater is currently being renovated. The total renovation is going to cost an estimated $25 million, making it the most expensive renovation of a landmark theater in America’s history.
While you’re on 125th street, check out the Studio Museum (144 W 125 st). The Studio features a wealth of African-American art and culture that you can’t find anywhere else. You’ll especially want to visit the Studio this summer, when the outdoor patio turns into a dance floor. Hip locals and artists from all over come to enjoy the atmosphere. You’ll hear all kinds of different music from many different time periods.
If you’re into architecture, you’ll want to see the Abyssinian Baptist Church (132 Odell Clark Place). The church traces its root to 1808, when parishioners left the First Baptist Church in the City of New York in protest of the racially segregated seating. The church is the epicenter of the Harlem gospel tradition.
One of the most notable restaurants in Harlem is Sylvia’s Restaurant (328 Malcolm X Boulevard). Sylvia’s is the kind of establishment that brings international tourists to Harlem. Locals walk by the restaurant unfazed, but tourist are mesmerized by Sylvia’s. If you’re only into quiet dinners, this is not the place for you. There is live gospel music in the main dining room. With all of the performances and flamboyant atmosphere, you would think this restaurant was in Times Square, not in the middle of the otherwise quiet Harlem. The highlight of the week is the gospel brunch service. Make sure you come early in the morning as the place gets packed by the afternoon. The menu is very affordable, but you’d be willing to pay the price of the food just for the entertainment provided. The walls are lined with pictures of celebrity visitors. While I didn’t spot any celebrities on my visit, the dozens of celebrities that have visited can’t be wrong. Sylvia’s is the one restaurant you must visit on your trip to Harlem.
Harlem is only a few minutes away from Times Square by subway, but it feels like it is a while different world. If you feel like you are always doing the same things in NYC, try visiting Harlem for something new.