Being a zone 4 born and bred Londoner, I’m used to going off the beaten track (Overground trains and trams are my thing). I believe that you learn a lot more about a destination if you venture out of the typical areas and I did so much of this when I lived in New York. I went to Flushing for authentic Chinese food, Crown Heights for my relaxers and the MOMA in Queens for a spot of culture.
One of my biggest regrets was never making it to Harlem. None of my friends were willing to take the 6 train uptown just for fried chicken and I was a little apprehensive about visiting by myself. Over the years I’ve done a more research about the history and it’s a really fascinating part of New York. To give you the extremely condensed version, Harlem became a ‘black mecca’ in the early 1900s due to African Americans fleeing the South after the Civil War. The Harlem Renaissance in the 20s helped establish a new black cultural identity and provided source material for plenty of literary players and musicians. Like Brixton in South London, it’s an area that’s had highs and lows and there’s now a bit of a gentrification situation (we spied a Whole Foods being built). Apparently estate agents even wanted to rebrand it to ‘SoHa’ (South Harlem) to try and make it seem more appealing.
Seven years later, I finally made it up to 125th street and immediately felt charmed by the beautiful brownstones and streets named after Civil Rights leaders. This post is only a little introduction, as Supal and I only spent a few hours here (prioritising fried chicken as per usual) but I’m sure that I’ll be back. I can only hope that it doesn’t get taken over by chains and unaffordable new apartments in the meantime.
How we spent an afternoon in Harlem…
In terms of sustenance, Sylvia’s seemed to be a recurring recommendation (Obama’s eaten there so it was a no brainer). You’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to soul food in the area, but this place has a bit of an inspiring story. Founder Sylvia Woods dreamed of opening up a restaurant in New York after growing up on a farm in segregated South Carolina. She built her namesake eatery into a bit of an empire before her death in 2012, gaining worldwide acclaim and launching a catering company, line of hot sauces and cookbooks. There’s an array of Southern dishes on the menu and the mac n’ cheese is pretty special.
Unfortunately we didn’t have time for any tours but quickly popped into the Apollo theatre, which helped establish the careers of Ella Fitzgerald and Jimi Hendrix. The Studio Museum is also nearby and promotes works by those of African descent through various exhibitions. We also stopped by the Harlem EatUp! food festival and fell in love with the candles at Nilu boutique. I’ve bookmarked this post for my next visit, as well as the recommendations from Supal’s director friend Pulkit, who lives a stone’ throw away from Central Park. It seems like there’s a real creative community, where people never want to leave.
My plan for next time…
Catch my last post from NYC if you need any tips for your first trip!