Harlem ain’t what it used to be, or what you imagine it to be. Harlem, once a mainly black ‘hood in New York, has gone through many reincarnations but the one fixed in memory is where African-American jazz era élan sparkled with rhinestones, what the hip-hop generation now calls “bling”, reigned supreme. “It don’t mean a thing, if you ain’t got that swing.” It was peopled by iconic performers and black nobility, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Waters and Josephine Baker.
125th Street, Harlem’s Main Street, never had sparkling gems except for the famed Appollo Theatre. It never was and never will be Harlem. Yesterday’s record stores, pawnshops, bodegas and liquors store have given way to fast foods joints and down scale mass merchandisers including one called the “Gem”, which is anything but, and resembles a garage sale writ cheap and large. Peddlers hawk vile smelling incense and hip-hop cd’s. Offers to braid your hair or indulge in any number sexual activities abound. “Sons of Israel” in bedraggled costumes held up by grimy red and white sashes glower at you in front of their ramshackle Temple. You have to get off that God forsaken street to experience the real Harlem, then and now.
During the heyday of the first Harlem Renaissance of the 20’s and 30’s, putting aside the literary, artistic and theatrical achievements that have filled volumes, it was the “allure of its enormous social fluidity” of this “urban free zone” that drew integrated crowds to Harlem and made things happen. Anything goes and went, so it’s said. Racism was constant but it was tolerated and benign. The block between Lenox and Seventh Avenues on 133rd Street teemed with the “densest aggregation of nightclubs and cabarets in New York.” Then it was called “Jungle Alley”, surely a derogatory racist slight, but used in an amiable and friendly way, not in the least mean, or so it seemed.
The best known were the Cotton Club, Connie’s Inn and Small’s Paradise. Obviously I wasn’t part of that original Renaissance. I am old, but not that old. I came in on the tail end, the late 50’s and the early 60’s. The Cotton Club and Connie’s Inn were long gone. One of the bars we frequented was the West End, home of the beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, on Broadway and 114th Street across from Columbia University, a hop, skip and jump away from Small’s on Seventh Avenue [now Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard] and 135th Street.
So we went. The music, the scene was exhilarating, liberating; the girls, gorgeous, easy and exotic; the pot prime, cheap and available; the food great in those all night diners under the El Train that mirrored the paintings of Edward Hopper. It wasn’t as elegant or historical as it once was but it was the next best thing around. It had more jazz and more energy than the tame by comparison coffee houses in Greenwich Village, the Café Au Go Go, Le Figaro, The Bitter End or the Fat Black Pussy Cat.
Then the music died and blight descended. In July, 1964 the shooting of a black teenager by a white police officer gave rise to the Harlem riots with looting and vandalism the immediate result. I remember walking with An African American date to the New York Central railroad station on 125th Street and Park Avenue in fear. The blackout of ‘77 sparked more violence and destruction. Back then you avoided driving through Harlem and when you did you rolled up your windows. I remember reluctantly paying the toll on the Triborough Bridge avoiding Harlem coming home from Washington, Connecticut weekends.
But the once black and bleak Harlem, now a multi colored and multi ethnic Phoenix, has risen from its ashes. The Red Rooster, a new restaurant, crows on Lenox Avenue. It’s hard by hardscrabble dingy 125th Street but a world and a continent away. It’s a down home southern bistro, decorated with mid century American collectible boasting a library of African American books, presided over by an Ethiopian born chef, adopted by and renamed by Swedes, visited by svelte Russian models and other exotic European types, and visited by people just like you and me, enjoying the food and the day. You couldn’t ask for anything more.
The Lenox Lounge, once the hangout of Billie Holliday, Miles Davis and Malcolm “X”, is but steps away. It sparkles with Art Deco neon lights and shining aluminum siding. James Baldwin [of Go Tell it On the Mountain, The Amen Corner and Blues for Mr. Charlie fame] and Langston Hughes [Tambourines to Glory, The Weary Blues] used to lunch there, while Ella Fitzgerald sang for her supper. So stop by and revel in the past and today. By the way, Sylvia’s, a landmark, is a stone throw’s away as is the Patisserie des Ambassades, would you believe, a Senegalese French pastry shop.
There are literally dozens of blocks of meticulously renovated brownstones, those uniquely New York row houses lining tree shaded streets, stoops reaching up to brass enhanced mahogany doors. The Astor Row houses built by John Jacob Astor and his grandson in 1883 with their wooden porches evoking Savannah, Georgia sparkle. Striver’s Row brownstones built in 1893 also emulate Governor Oglethorpe’s Savannah urban plan evoke luxury past.
Rising among these historic beauties are gleaming new glass and metal buildings housing apartments and museums replete with sidewalk sculptures and urban art. Makes you want to revisit Harlem.