Even before you get to Harlem, there’s music. I heard it as I waited for the A-train, immortalized in song by Duke Ellington’s orchestra. A young man belted out love ballads on the platform. Later, inside the subway car, another man performed acrobatic feats on a pole to the tune of fast paced hip-hop. I give a tip to each one. That is one of the things you learn when living in New York; you always support the artists.
It’s a sunny afternoon when I step out of the subway on 168th street to meet my friends Lorenzo Roaché and Nasri Zacharia, who have lived in Harlem 31 and 21 years respectively. Besides being longtime Harlemites, they’re also the organizers of the Harlem International Film Festival, a festival that is committed to “exemplifying the eminence that Harlem represents” and “showcasing some of the best films from all around the world.” As they greet me with a hug before showing me around their neighborhood, we laugh about the fact that, for some people, the place where we’re starting our walk isn’t actually considered to be in Harlem.
We’re standing in Upper Harlem, which different folks know by different names: Washington Heights, if you’re Dominican; Hudson Heights, if you’re a real estate agent; and Harlem Heights, if you’re reading the plaque on Morris-Jumel Mansion, where George Washington commanded 1,800 troops to victory during the Battle of Harlem Heights in the American Revolutionary war. As with any historic neighborhood, its boundaries transcend names and definitions. However, Tristan Cabello, a professor of American History and Politics at John Hopkins University, explains that “Harlem is often subdivided into several sections: Central Harlem, the heart of African American culture in the city. West Harlem, including Hamilton Heights, known for its historic architecture. East Harlem or El Barrio, traditionally a Latino community with strong Puerto Rican and Mexican presence.”
As I continue walking with my friends, we pass murals, community bookstores, and small businesses, such as tailors and local restaurants. They are a reminder of Harlem’s vibrancy and the reason that many people, including United Nations staff members, choose to make their home here. Melida Buendia, a language interpreter with DGACM, says that she loves living in Harlem because it “feels like a real neighborhood with a sense of community.”
Behind the sense of the place that makes Harlem feel special, lies a long history of liberation and civil rights struggles of Black and Latino communities. Lorenzo shares an anecdote from when he first moved to his neighborhood: “One day I decided to take a walk and find out what was going on in the neighborhood. And right next to my building, the street over, is a correctional facility!” He also tells me his building was once home to Paul Robeson, one of the seminal figures of the Harlem Renaissance and a victim of political persecution during the McCarthy years. Both revelations stun me, but my surprise withers to sadness, when I look across the street and realize that the prison in my friend’s neighborhood is right next to a park and a school.
Harlem, unfortunately, is also home to some of New York’s poorest and most marginalized minority communities, with poverty rates in some parts of it climbing over 30%. Adrian Delgado, a UN staff member who lives in El Barrio, says that “the average income for most residents in East Harlem is 53% less than the citywide average. It is one of the most economically depressed communities in Manhattan, and support from municipal authorities is often lacking.” Professor Cabello points out that, “historically, Harlem has been predominantly African American. However, in recent years, there’s been increasing diversity. East Harlem remains a center for Latino communities, and there’s been a growing presence of different ethnic groups due to gentrification and demographic shifts.”
These changes are apparent as my friends and I end our visit by walking down 125th street, one of Harlem’s main arteries. They show me the Victoria Theater, originally built in 1917 as a vaudeville house, which has now been redeveloped into a skyscraper that includes a fine dining restaurant, luxury rentals, and a Marriot Renaissance Hotel. Rooms there start at about $200 per night. Across the street, the building that formerly housed the Hotel Theresa, where the likes of Fidel Castro, Malcom X, Allen Ginsburg, and John F. Kennedy once stayed, lies mostly empty. The irony is not lost on us.
Near the theater, we run into Dr. Ademola Olugebefola, one of the board members of the Dwyer Cultural Center. Chance encounters like this are par for the course in Harlem. He invites me to stop by the Center over the weekend and check out the most recent exhibit. I take him up on the offer and, before saying goodbye to my friends, stop by one of the many vendors that line the street to buy a tub of shea butter. It smells like warm embers against the dark December twilight.
That Saturday, I head uptown again. I sit on the bus and watch as El Barrio slowly morphs into Little Senegal. As we drive by Raysol Farmacia Latina, we pass the Malcom Shabazz Market, and roll past soul food joints, Harlem reminds me that borders are a fuzzy, artificial thing. My first stop is the Schomburg Center, one of the New York Public Library’s research libraries as well as a “world-leading cultural institution devoted to the research, preservation and exhibition of materials focused on the African American, African Diasporan and African experiences.”
The Schomburg Center is named after the Afro-Puerto Rican scholar, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, who “as a child, was told by a teacher that people of African descent had no discernable history, culture, or achievements. Well, Arturo called bullshit on that,” explains docent Philip Lynn, “and he spent the rest of his life compiling a massive collection that included more than 2,900 volumes, 1,100 pamphlets, as well as many prints and manuscripts.” Today, the collection has over 11 million items that shed light on the richness of Black history and culture. Besides its public and educational programming, the Schomburg houses important works of art. Murals by Aaron Douglass adorn the library’s reading room, and a bench from the Toni Morisson Society’s Bench by the Road Project stands in the courtyard. Its lobby features the art installation Rivers, that includes a Cosmogram, underneath which lies an urn with Langston Hughes’ ashes.
My final stop is the Dwyer Cultural Center, a 7,000 square foot space “supporting Harlem’s artists and arts organizations and promoting the community’s cultural life.” The Center hosts exhibits and screenings as well as performances attended by thousands of locals and visitors alike. Anderson Pilgrim is the curator for the Center’s current exhibit, Art of Carnival, which features paintings by Weldon Ryan, an award-winning Trinidadian artist. He shows me around the facility and explains why spaces like Dwyer are necessary for the community. I ask him about the impacts of mass tourism and gentrification in Harlem and he replies that sometimes when people come as tourists or to write about the neighborhood, “it can feel like an invasion of your privacy.” The irony of this is, yet again, not lost on me. It makes me feel slightly uncomfortable, but I sit with the discomfort.
After saying goodbye to Anderson, I think about how a lot of what we love about New York, or even American culture, comes directly from the Black and Latino communities surviving, but paradoxically, also thriving in Harlem. On my way home, I see families doing some last-minute holiday shopping, a woman preaching on a street corner, and the twinkling lights of the Apollo Theater’s marquee. Music is the last thing I hear before heading down to the subway. Perhaps it’s hip hop, reggaeton, salsa or jazz, but at that moment it doesn’t matter, because that’s when it hits me: in New York City, there is no music without Harlem.