Apollo Theater, which dates to the 1930s and gave
Ella Fitzgerald her start, is a fixture on 125th
Street in Harlem.
YORK — Take a walk on 125th Street. Check out the Apollo
Theater marquee, the latest exhibit at the Studio Museum,
the patio dinner crowd on Lenox Avenue, the high-priced
brownstones, the locals of all hues striding past
Afrocentric sidewalk stalls while a drum circle grooves
across the street.
several years into a burst of new prosperity, is rolling
like an uptown train with a full head of steam.
the Starbucks harbors surprises. On the afternoon I ducked
in, model Nia Fields, preparing for a photo shoot, had
just put on the headgear of a neo-Egyptian queen. The
results were so dramatic, I thought some customers might
drop their drinks and start building her a pyramid.
doing a modernized Nefertiti," said Melanie Gonzalez,
her Nikon-bearing friend and director.
projects, new diversity, new buzz and creeping anxiety —
this is what a first-time tourist finds in Harlem. And the
newcomers don’t come any newer than me.
been to Manhattan many times. But it was only in May,
after several years of reading about Harlem’s
multiplying restaurants, falling crime rate and rising
rents, that I made my first journey on foot above 110th
set aside a day and a night. I booked a room at the Aloft
Hotel, which, when it opened in 2010 at Frederick Douglass
Boulevard and West 124th Street, became Harlem’s first
new hotel in more than 40 years.
of my itinerary was new attractions. I was visiting
midweek, so there would be no gospel brunches or Sunday
up was a Crispy Bird sandwich for lunch at Red Rooster
Harlem, where the menu is dressed-up comfort food, the
service is courtly and the diners come in all ages and
came a lively stroll on 125th Street, where I encountered
jazz bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding doing a sound
check for an outdoor show. I should have realized then
that this was going to be a good-luck trip.
dinner: the Cecil, a trendy minimalist dining room on West
118th Street known for its Asian-African fusion cuisine. I
had the pan-roasted cod with sorghum and coconut collard
AND JAZZ JOINTS
it was time for entertainment.
started with Amateur Night at the Apollo, a Wednesday
tradition of many decades that has evolved into a show
mostly for tourists. There’s a DJ, a house band, a
comedian host, a video tribute to remind you that Ella
Fitzgerald got her start here in 1934, a kid segment (no
booing allowed), a diverse roster of amateurs and plenty
of audience participation, including a tap-dancing
"executioner" who leads adult performers
offstage when the boos get too intense.
I booed a few acts. The amateur comedian all but demanded
it, and the Apollo credo, after all, is "be good or
be gone." But the two-hour show was kinder, gentler
and kid-friendlier than I had expected, not unlike a night
of cruise ship entertainment.
a seventh-row orchestra seat I paid $33 — pocket change,
compared with Broadway prices.
that was good, because after the Apollo, I still had a
jazz diva to meet and two bars to hit.
diva was Amanda Humes, an aspiring singer, Harlem resident
and guide for Big Apple Jazz Tours. We met atop the steps
to Gin Fizz Harlem, a throwback speakeasy above the
well-regarded French bistro Chez Lucienne.
upstairs room’s tin ceilings and velvet banquettes set a
nice ‘20s tone, ideal for the revue in previews called
"Black Pearls & White Diamonds in Harlem."
was tap-dancing. Torch songs. Sassy duets. Unfortunately,
it was a packed house with no discernible
air-conditioning. At what temperature, I wondered, do
black pearls and white diamonds melt?
the well-seasoned troupe — many longtime Harlem
performers in their 60s and beyond — clung to their boas
and fedoras and clearly loved having their way with such
standards as "Satin Doll," "Mood
Indigo" and "Darktown Strutters’ Ball."
Humes and I headed down Lenox Avenue toward the next
joint. As we walked, she sneaked in some history.
instance, those Stars of David on the facade of Mount
Olivet Baptist Church. The building began life as a
synagogue in 1907. In those days, Humes said, Harlem was
mostly Jewish, German and Italian. Harry Houdini lived on
West 113th Street; Milton Berle was born on West 118th.
But that world was about to change.
1910 and 1950, a wave of African-American arrivals — and
an undertow of European American departures —
transformed the population of central Harlem from 10
percent black to 98 percent.
the way came the writers, musicians and artists of the
Harlem Renaissance, followed by a long, deep decline that
began to reverse about 25 years ago.
here’s a revised Harlem, awash in new money and new
people. And that too is easy to see on the street. Just
look, Humes said, at the restaurants that have opened
since 2013 in the old brownstones on Lenox Avenue.
pointed out Chaiwali, offering Indian fusion food and
fancy teas near 124th Street, Cheri (French, near 122nd
Street) and BLVD Bistro (soul food, at 122nd). We might
have missed Barawine (wine bar and bistro near 120th
Street), but you get the idea.
hearing how taxi drivers wouldn’t go to Harlem?
days, "we get yellow cabs, we get green cabs, we get
black cars, we get Ubers, we get Lyft, and there are
policemen everywhere. That did not used to be," said
Humes, who has lived in Harlem for about 20 years.
"there’s uncertainty that comes when you see new
people coming into the neighborhood, people who don’t
understand the holy ground they’re standing on."
fact, we had just passed one of the saddest Harlem stories
of recent years, the Lenox Lounge.
lounge, opened in 1939, was an Art Deco landmark and a
jazz mainstay for decades, a place where Dizzy Gillespie
and John Coltrane played, James Baldwin and Langston
Hughes drank and Billie Holiday had her own booth.
a dispute between the club owner and the building’s
owner in late 2012, the Lenox Lounge didn’t just go
dark; its iconic sign, bright red paneling and furnishings
were spirited away.
we passed its impoverished facade, we could just make out
the ghostly outlines on the sign where the letters used to
that, it was a pleasure to arrive at the night’s last
and the livin’ is easy," sang Johnny Lovesong,
flanking tenor sax man Les Goodson on the tiny stage of
Paris Blues on 7th Avenue. There was room for about 50
people, many of them musicians waiting their chance to sit
in. Wednesday is jam session night.
pointed out owner Sam Hargress Jr., who opened the bar in
1969, bought the building and moved in upstairs.
Forty-seven years later, with no rent hikes to worry
about, Hargress has his own piece of Harlem’s new
doesn’t bother me — it helps me," he told me. But
he’s not flaunting anything. Just about everything in
the club looks as though it’s been here since 1969. Or
come in and you’re immediately at home," Humes
went to Columbia, but this was my life university."
this night, a bunch of regulars had gathered to celebrate
the birthday of Goodson, who leads the Wednesday night
jams. The crowd was about half African-American, half
everybody else, not unlike the rest of central Harlem’s
demographics these days.
next morning, I tagged along with Neal Shoemaker of Harlem
Heritage Tours. He was leading a mostly white group of
students and teachers from Woodland Regional High School
in Beacon Falls, Conn. Many were seeing Manhattan for the
of the kids are nervous," American lit teacher
Michele Papa said. "That’s OK. It’s good to take
them out of their comfort zone."
discomfort multiplied when a young black cyclist at Lenox
Avenue and 136th Street yelled at us: "Hey, crackers!
Get … out of here!"
everyone heard it, but Shoemaker was undaunted. First he
shouted "Shut up!" as the cyclist disappeared
into traffic, then he marched us to the site of the old
Savoy Ballroom at 141st Street (now a housing complex),
where a couple of older men from the neighborhood greeted
the tree-shaded 1890s brownstones of Striver’s Row, the
aristocratic blocks of West 138th and 139th streets where
Eubie Blake, W.C. Handy, Fletcher Henderson and Bill
"Bojangles" Robinson once lived, Shoemaker
greeted another longtime local, who welcomed the teens to
we walked, Shoemaker pointed out the new businesses and
the new residents. Crime "has dropped like you would
never believe," he said. But every time he hears of
another million-dollar townhouse sale, he worries about
how long his aunt will be able to pay $600 a month for her
apartment near 138th Street.
think about that tension between community character and
new money for a while. But I’ll also remember the way we
closed down Paris Blues.
room was full of people and birthday balloons. Jennifer
Jade Ledesna stepped up to sing and scat
"Caravan." Humes offered "Honeysuckle
Rose." Young talents such as trombonist Corey Wilcox
and sax player Erena Terakubo traded fierce solos with the
veteran Goodson and a parade of others.
out came a cake, and somebody lighted a sparkler. The
players and listeners crowded into a big, loud circle: two
trombones, two saxophones, a flute and a guitar, along
with a pianist, a bassist and a drummer, swinging hard.
has challenges, but on that night in Manhattan, I’m not
sure there was any place happier than that little club on
West 121st Street.
Harlem, 2296 Frederick Douglass Blvd. at 124th Street;
(212) 749-4000 or (866) 716-8143, www.aloftharlem.com.
Opened in December 2010 with 124 rooms. Rooms for two from
Rooster Harlem, 310 Lenox Ave.; (212) 792-9001,
www.redroosterharlem.com. Chef Marcus Samuelsson offers
sophisticated comfort food for lunch and dinner. Main
dishes $18-$39. Also on site: The Nook, a "pocket
within Red Rooster" with sandwiches and snacks for
less than $8, and Ginny’s Supper Club.
Cecil, 210 W. 118th St.; (212) 866-1262,
www.thececilharlem.com. Executive chef Joseph Johnson’s
menu emphasizes the African diaspora, but it has plenty of
Asian elements too. Dinner only, main dishes $18-$32.
Social, 321 Lenox Ave.; (212) 510-8552,
www.cornersocialnyc.com. Eclectic menu includes empanadas,
grits and ravioli. Main dishes $17-$39.
Theater, 253 W. 125th St.; (212) 531-5305,
www.apollotheater.org and www.amateurnight.org.
Programming varies widely (pop music, comedy, ballet,
more), but Wednesdays are amateur night. Amateur night
tickets usually $21-$33.
Blues, 2021 7th Ave.; (917) 257-7831 or (212) 222-9878,
www.parisbluesharlem.com. Owner Sam Hargress Jr. opened
this welcoming, bare-bones "live jazz dive" in
1969. No cover charge.
Apple Jazz Tours, (917) 863-7854, bigapplejazz.com
Heritage Tours, (212) 280-7888, www.harlemheritage.com
York City tourism, nycgo.com