It was a bit of late Sunday whimsy, fueled by hunger and an empty pantry, that I decided to take a jaunt into Harlem, unsure of what I might discover, but up for a trip down memory lane, as I attended City College of New York to collect both of my rather perfunctory degrees (B.A. Eng. Lit. & M.S. Special Ed.). I even lived in what is now budding SoHa for two years, on 117th And Frederick Douglass Boulevard, just before the gentrification started, a word I am not fond of. I would rather chalk it up to moving forward or progress, or any other word that doesn’t denote breaking down racial barriers as the primary reason a neighborhood of color changes. Don’t forget old Harlem, in its glory years, the cultural mecca of style, art, and music, before poverty and city economics and NYCHA were allowed to take root, wreak havoc and run amok.
Since I last resided on the cusp of Harlem environs in 2006 (I believe the borders are 110 St up to Hamilton Heights), there were significant changes. First affordable, subsidized lottery housing. Townhouses and six story buildings, with retail spaces for Duane Reades and banks serving as the base for expansion and mallification. Then Starbuck’s and Citerella (since closed). Follow along 125th street to find chain stores such as Old Navy and H & M. Close your eyes and imagine being in some other urban sprawl, Cleveland or perhaps Indianapolis, save for the intense waft of incense smoke and oils, and of course all of those colorful street denizens. Change the storefronts, but the people of Harlem still stand out, odd against the backdrop of corporate America. Buying into Red Lobster and whatever else is served up, in a concerted effort to make every neighborhood in this great city look like a homogenized mirror of itself, a reflection that any tourist can stomach, especially while on those double-decker tour buses taking photos of the Apollo theater and the Lenox Lounge (now defunct).
And what of the food that binds the soul of Harlem? What of M & G Diner? Rising rents and palate changes? Sylvia’s and Amy Ruth’s have adapted (not for the better). Old school bars like Showman’s and Londel’s are still representing as long as the owners are up to the challenge of keeping up. As I look into the vast boulevards that make Harlem so embracing during the afternoon sun, Jamaican storefonts still prosper, and new world restaurants have come in to fill the void and join the wave of fresh housing, different clientele, demanding appetites, an ever changing Harlem.
You could say that the Red Rooster anchors the movement. A comfortable setting with familiar food cooked by a star chef of color is just what the doctor ordered. Even if the food isn’t necessarily soulful, the Red Rooster is a central place where all peoples can be together enjoying a new community in a multicultural setting.
After reading a restaurant piece in GQ magazine, I hopped the A train to 145 St. The brownstones stood sturdy against the slope. The reflection against the shiny windows provided warmth. The neighborhood seemed familiar and foreign to me all at once, an antistatic state of motion and progress.
Mountain Bird has received some good write ups and justly so. A Japanese husband and wife tandem work diligently to provide a French fusion fare that is precise and tasty. With a lean towards oft tossed chicken parts and armed with a master schnitzel breading technique, I was won over by the earnest service and one man cooking. A French couple seated at the table in front of me were enjoying their duck cassoulet (I asked), and a trio of young Harlem lady professionals were excited about their chia seed garnishes to a selection of fresh fruit mimosas. After devouring a selection of fresh baked scones and muffins, the chicken schnitzel arrived with simple garnishes. It wasn’t just good. It was ethereal. I only wish the chicken horumon offered during dinner service would also be available for brunch too. The service can be spotty at times. If you arrive at an inopportune time, there can be quite a wait at this 19 seat charmer, but get to talking with the owner and your experience can elevate to the sublime, and you’ll want to become a regular.
After some earnest advice as to the most scenic route back towards the upper west side, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd painted a refreshing portrait. Bathed in sunlight and fresh open air, this clearly is the best real estate in the city. Sunday strollers and church hats of all designs. Children on scooters, teenagers on skateboards, and lovers holding hands, a scene downright Parisian.
I ducked into the first Jamaican shop I encountered for a taste of my old college standby snack of a beef pattie in coco bread. Alas, they were out of bread, and the only patties left were filled with ackee and saltfish.
A craving for coffee landed my partner Michelle and I at Yatenga, where we spotted Chef Marcus Samuelsson having a beer at the bar with a friend. We cut over to Frederick Douglass Boulevard, eschewing the hustle of MLK Blvd, and found respite and solace at a crowded tea shop called Serengeti, whose house blends served as elixirs and energy boosters. Who can resist a Levain cookie outpost on my old block (117th St.) ? Not before I peeked into Mr. Lee’s bake shop for some rugelach. He was in the process of making a fresh batch and so I settled for Levain. Then a planned visit to Harlem Shambles, a butcher shop extraordinaire, where the expertise and character of the butchers is as much on display as the locally grass fed carcasses of the just butchered. Just ask for the best cuts and your dollar will stretch a long way. With stash in hand, and needing another break, there are plenty of options for an outdoor beer at Harlem Tavern or Bier International, as well as a decent cocktail at 67 Orange Street.
The further downtown we walked the more the landscape closed in on us like a trash compactor, squeezing every ounce of real estate into a confined space. The loss of light was noticeable, a veritable chill set in, and the litter seemed like an ongoing epidemic. The promising feeling I had at the apex of my journey on 145 St. had dwindled into a metropolitan nightmare, despite the emergence of viable businesses and new housing. There was mischief and chicken bones the rest of the way home, a reminder that a fresh paint job doesn’t always reveal what’s really going on in the interior. Having taught for thirteen years in neighborhoods just like this one (South Bronx, East Harlem), I have a good idea what lurks beneath all of the “progress”.
We arrived home hungry from the long walk and shopping. The Denver cut of steak purchased from Harlem Shambles was as good as its billing; the whole chicken marinated, butterflied and thoroughly enjoyed a couple of days later.
As I think back on my Harlem Sunday, passing all of the churches and faces full of promise and despair, I hold onto my learning time at City College Campus in my distant memory, and wonder what type of Harlem I will be taking a Sunday stroll through just twenty years from today.
Saxophone simple and brass.
Neon bright Apollo, a shiny beacon at night.
Jazz June rhythm on the tip taps of tongues.
Brownstone choir gospel. Glory be.
I stroll the streets of Harlem,
Underpants and sideways caps.
Murder Muzik, shaking booty.
Corner stoop cee-lo fortunes.
Watchtower crusaders and incense gas.
Deacons preaching, driving Mercedes S class,
While homeless lay about the trash.
Whitey on the moon,
Gentrification long at last.
I stroll the streets of Harlem,
Down at my feet,
in every crack,
A hostile takeover,
A Harlem discarded.
A Harlem renewed.