1 Society Coffee Lounge, where everybody knows your name
I’m on the prowl for caffeine on Frederick Douglass Boulevard when the big-box stores give way to a bleached-wood bookstore, a vintage vintner, a boulangerie – and Society Coffee Lounge. I slide into a banquette and order a latte. The exposed brick café is bustling with mothers cooing at babies, old-timers playing chess and twentysomethings affixed to MacBooks. No, I’m not in Brooklyn, but these days Harlem does feel like Williamsburg redux.
The name is no mistake: Society defines this section of South Harlem (or SoHa, as the locals inevitably call it), with art exhibitions, live music nights and poetry readings, not to mention its nouveau soul food and extensive wine list. I put in an order for red-velvet waffles (a delicious play on that old Harlem specialty, the red-velvet cake) and watch the owner, Karl Franz Williams, on his daily schmooze-a-thon. “There’s this new creative class of people here who are used to the downtown experience,” the dreadlocked former model says of the Manhattan trend for migrating north.
When it opened five years ago, Society was the only commercial evidence that South Harlem was gentrifying. Emboldened by his success, Williams expanded with 67 Orange Street, named for the old address downtown where another Williams (Pete) ran one of New York’s first black-owned bars. And so I find myself at this latest venture – already famous for its Emancipation cocktail and a snack menu of posh ribs and wings that has even won over the Zagats – nursing a bison-grass vodka and champagne concoction. This is New Harlem, after all.
2 Jazz – especially at American Legion Post 398
Guests need only sign the book when they walk into basement jazz club American Legion Post 398 to be welcomed like regulars.
It’s 8 p.m. at American Legion Post 398, a hole in the wall on nondescript 132nd Street. Veterans in flat caps should be playing pinochle and comparing ailments, but tonight the lights are too dim for cards. The linoleum vibrates and the bridge tables groan with revellers – leaving me wedged, self-consciously, between the door and the behind of a rotund waitress. A jazz free-for-all is underway on the “stage,” really a segment of floor crammed with drum kit and amps, and the buzz is palpable (though perhaps that’s just the neon beer signs on the wall).
At the centre of it all is Seleno Clarke, a veteran organist who started this Sunday night jam session by accident, so the story goes, while getting carried away on his new organ after church a decade ago. Word got around and members started coming to the hall expressly to see him. Today, Clarke is a local legend – partly for his funky organ riffs but also for bringing together jazz buffs: lithe guitarists in skinny ties, retired session musicians in sweats, fans who knock over chairs while dancing. I squeeze past a few after I’m waved into the room, which is dense with the smell of fried fish (served on Styrofoam, naturally), and order a Bud.
Of course, I could have gotten my jazz fix elsewhere: Minton’s Playhouse, Lenox Lounge and the storied Cotton Club have been around for the better part of a century. But Clarke’s grassroots show has a refreshingly low production quality – some joiners have just introduced themselves at intermission, so it’s clear they’ve never played with him before. And the audience eats it up as if they were backing John Coltrane. It’s no wonder there are no cards on the tables reminding customers to be quiet during the show. Who would comply?
3 Religious experiences, any day of the week
On this particular Sunday I’m sitting in a pew at one of Harlem’s 400 churches watching half as many devout Baptists in paroxysms. Members of the choir are swaying in red robes, eyes squeezed shut. When they manage to get a grip on their rapture, churchgoers clasp my hands in welcome. “Hallelujah!” they cry. I’m speechless.
Greater Highway Deliverance Temple isn’t one of Harlem’s bigger congregations, but it’s one of 40 or so churches that invite non-congregants to its Sunday morning roaring-gospel “praise and worship.” “Some people I bring here are completely transformed by it,” says Sheila Evans, a guide with Harlem Spirituals, which runs a Sunday morning church tour. Evans takes me past Abyssinian Baptist, with its queue so far along 138th Street I can’t spot the end; this is the Apollo Theater of churches, with a full electric orchestra backing up multiple choirs.
Here in Harlem, religion is booming and churches operate practically around the clock: breakfast and lunchtime prayers; bible studies; soup kitchens; and events with catchy names like WOW (Worship on Wednesdays). During choir rehearsals (check the marquee outside for a timetable), you can stand in doorways for your own private concert – as I did at Canaan Baptist on West 116th Street one warm Monday evening last spring, and then again the next evening at Mount Neboh Baptist, a former synagogue on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. “But,” says Evans, “the rule is, if you go in, you have to stay for the sermon.”
4 Soul food (it's the way to your heart)
On the waitress’ second trip to my table, I knew I’d made a mistake. Still full from breakfast, I’d come to Miss Maude’s Spoonbread Too to escape a downpour and ordered the Miss Maude’s Sampler – a light nibble, I imagined. Instead, it was the meal that kept on giving: barbecued quarter chicken, fried whiting, slab of ribs, a mountain range of green beans, candied yams and macaroni plus a Big Gulp-size juice – all served without irony, while my fellow patrons gorged assiduously on gumbo and collard greens. I can’t say I blamed them; I may have ruined myself for supper, but I cleared my plate.
For many Harlemites, soul food is a nostalgic return to the South of their ancestors (Miss Maude’s purports to be “like going back home”), and nowhere north of the Mason-Dixon Line is there such a fine concentration of soul food spots as in SoHa. Some of the oldest and cheapest joints have been pushed out by rising rents, but dozens survive, from chains like Manna’s to one-off legends like Amy Ruth’s (harsh lighting, fabulous fried catfish) and Sylvia’s, a popular stop on bus tours and campaign trails (though if you get there early you can enjoy a quiet waffle breakfast with the regulars at the counter).
While its traditional peers opt for Arborite and fluorescent lighting, Melba’s is all ebony and candlelight: Greenwich Village as imagined by a southern belle, with a warm welcome to match (even the willowy hostess bucked the Manhattan trend for front-of-house snobbery). Melba’s was packed on a Wednesday with women in close-cut Afros and wrap dresses, and men wearing nearly as much jewellery. And contrary to the heads-down devouring of Maude’s, the house was full of whooping laughter and at least one diner gushing over her turkey meatloaf to the background soundtrack of – what else? – neo-soul.
5 A night with Thelonious Monk
I wake in the night under my vintage quilt, A Rage in Harlem on my chest and the fringed lampshade by my bed still glowing onto the tin ceiling. I’d be in heaven if I didn’t have to use the bathroom. And if the bathroom – albeit shanty-chic – weren’t down the communal hallway.
But that’s something I’m willing to let slide. Roughing it is part of the experience here at the Harlem Flophouse, an 1890s former rooming house rescued by musician René Calvo, who preserved its patina so faithfully, even TVs are non-existent. There’s a new Aloft hotel opening around the corner, but that Gen-Y boutique-hotel chain doesn’t offer the same sense of adventure as this cozy brownstone in the “lower 120s.” Europeans have been holidaying in Harlem for decades (over latte in his basement suite, Calvo tells me a French girlfriend first dragged him up here 20 years ago). But these are still early days for Americans. The Flophouse is for those who think sleeping in the manner of Billie Holiday and Langston Hughes is more “New York” than tea at the Plaza. “The name just stuck,” says Calvo.
Calvo’s continually on the prowl for souvenirs to decorate the four large bedrooms. Mine, named after novelist Chester Himes (the “Thelonious Monk” and “Cozy Cole” were booked), has minstrel figures on the mantel, antique postcards taped to the mirror and enough Himes mysteries to keep me going till morning. But the soft mattress is having none of that, and soon I’m fast asleep.
6 The spirit of Old Harlem
“Tennessee Williams, W.H. Auden, James Baldwin, Arthur Ashe, Dizzy Gillespie...” Sheila Evans is reciting the long list of heavy hitters memorialized at Saint John the Divine cathedral, the Gothic masterpiece that towers over west Harlem from its perch on Amsterdam Avenue in Morningside Heights. She trails off as our coach approaches another landmark: Sylvan Terrace, a gaslit block of wooden homes built in the late 19th century. Evans is midway into a speech about Philip Payton Jr., the entrepreneur who lured the first African-Americans to this enclave a century ago, when she stops herself and points westward along 122nd Street: Grant’s Tomb.
Evans is zealous when it comes to the history of her ’hood. We stop at nearly every block: at Morningside Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1880s; City College – “the poor man’s Harvard,” she calls it; Alexander Hamilton’s colonial “Grange” on 141st; even Count Basie’s former apartment at 555 Edgecombe Avenue. Then we double back to 125th Street, Harlem’s commercial thoroughfare, to see the Apollo.
When we finally make it to Bethel Holy Church at Saint Nicholas and 157th, one of our group remarks on the crowd standing outside. “Oh, those aren’t churchgoers,” says Evans. “They’re taking pictures of the house across the street, where Duke Ellington lived.”
7 125th Street, a living museum
The street that spawned the Apollo doesn’t sleep any longer than the rest of the Big Apple, making nighttime the right time to see 125th. The glow from this great neon way they call Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard lights the murals of Franco the Great, who painted on locked-down metal grates in the 1970s when storefronts were forced to shutter at night. Thanks to campaigners who, bless them, saved the bulk of his art, the only difference today is the booming retail landscape that keeps it out of view 10 hours a day.
By day, the street is filled with juice stands and the hollers of vendors hawking “Harlem is the new Black” T-shirts and black fiction with titles like A Street Girl Named Desire. The next morning I pay $30 for a pair of “I Heart Harlem” shirts with winking afroed ladies in place of the “I” (get it?) and head for the Studio Museum.
I can have my art for free all over 125th – kitschy signage, folky mosaics, sidewalk-chalk sermons, a flamboyant bronze of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. – but the frosted-glass Studio Museum puts it all into context. At the exhibit Harlem Postcards I gravitate toward a photograph of a pimped-up bike by local hero Xenobia Bailey, then take in the permanent collection of paintings and prints by artists of African descent.
Back outside I follow the road east: destination Spanish Harlem and a snack of fried plantains. But first I hit Fifth Avenue, the, well, Fifth Avenue of Harlem, with pristine brownstones and million-dollar views of Marcus Garvey Park. I pass a man wearing a lavender silk suit and oversized specs carrying a diamond-studded cane. And at this point, I don’t even bat an eye.
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Where to Stay
A few blocks from each other you’ll find the brand new Aloft hotel (slated to open this month) and the Harlem Flophouse, a neighbourhood mainstay. For every antique fireplace and sign of timeworn charm in the Flophouse (the rooms are furnished with owner René Calvo’s retro finds) you’ll find polished surfaces and flat-screen TVs in Aloft, so which one you pick depends on how you like your brogues: spit-shined or rough around the edges?
Harlem Flophouse 242 W. 123rd St., 212-662-0678, harlemflophouse.com
Where to Eat
Among the rethought classics at Karl Franz Williams’ stylish Society Coffee Lounge you’ll find his take on stuffed French toast: It involves mascarpone, banana purée, chopped strawberries, blueberries and maple syrup. Or head next door to his new joint, 67 Orange Street, for an Emancipation cocktail with a side of molasses-glazed short ribs – or how about the fried-oyster po’ boy?
Society Coffee Lounge 2104 Frederick Douglass Blvd., 212-222-3323, societycoffee.com
67 Orange Street 2082 Frederick Douglass Blvd., 212-662-2030, 67orangestreet.com
Chef David Santos picked up where founding chef Ryan Skeen left off at the glass-fronted 5 & Diamond. We suggest you wash down the prawns and crispy pork belly with papaya, baby bok choy and dark soy with a Replenish cocktail: ginger beer, coconut water and so much more.
2072 Frederick Douglass Blvd., 646-684-4662
SoHa is the land of plenty when it comes to Southern-inspired fried catfish and grits. There are soul food chains like Manna’s, or chic takes on the theme like Melba’s, and some other sure bets in between.
Amy Ruth’s 113 W. 116th St., 212-280-8779, amyruthsharlem.com
Manna’s Four locations, 212-749-9084, soulfood.com
Melba’s 300 W. 114th St., 212-864-7777, melbasrestaurant.com
Miss Maude’s Spoonbread Too 547 Lenox Ave., 212-690-3100, spoonbreadinc.com
Sylvia’s 328 Lenox Ave., 212-996-0660, sylviassoulfood.com
What to Do
Take in a jazz session or two at these fine institutions.
American Legion Post 398 248 W. 132nd St., 212-283-9701
Cotton Club 656 W. 125th St., 212-663-7980, cottonclub-newyork.com
Lenox Lounge 288 Lenox Ave., 212-427-0253, lenoxlounge.com
Minton’s Playhouse 206-210 W. 118th St., 212-864-8346
Get an inside look at Harlem with a tour tailored by Sheila Evans.
Check out one of the six exhibitions on right now at the Studio Museum: Until October 24, see photography by South African artist Zwelethu Mthethwa, works by local high school students or a multimedia show about the construction of history and memory, among others.
144 W. 125th St., 212-864-4500, studiomuseum.org