NEW YORK — Noisy, diesel-belching tour buses routinely roll uptown headed for the heart of Harlem. Some residents call them "drive-bys."
"The bus comes by. Cameras go off. Then they're gone," said Anthony Bowman, co-owner of the Harlem Gift Shop. "There's no exchange if you only roll off a bus."
The exchange, as Bowman called it, is a deeper interaction with Harlem and its people. The neighborhood, covering much of the north end of Manhattan above Central Park, isn't on the itinerary of many tourists. But it's one of New York City's most rewarding spots, a community where America's past, present and future are all dramatically represented. Walking tours--on your own or with a guide--allow you to take in a treasure trove of history while day-to-day life pulses around you.
Named by early Dutch settlers, Harlem had few black residents until a wave of white flight at the beginning of the 20th century--the product of failed real estate speculation, a growing black presence and a frustrating wait for a rail line connecting to lower Manhattan. The Great Migration of the late 19th century drew thousands of Southern blacks to New York, and black real estate agents steered clients to Harlem.
The neighborhood became the heart of the 1920s Negro Renaissance, a social movement that wed art and activism. As a center of urban black America, it was home to churches, hospitals and other important institutions.
Harlem was a mecca for black activists, intellectuals, painters and musicians. Writers Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston and political figures Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X are among those whose contributions are memorialized in buildings, parks, housing projects and street names throughout the neighborhood.
Today the area's architectural grandeur rubs elbows with scaffolding announcing gentrification, as well as boarded-up, burned-out emblems of past neglect. The arrival of Bill Clinton, who set up an office on 125th Street last year, coincided with a burst of public and private development that put Harlem in the spotlight again. A smattering of new cafes, galleries, gift shops and boutique hotels signals a percolating tourist industry.
When I was a child living in suburban Washington, D.C., Harlem was a place where I visited relatives. Faded family snapshots capture Aunts Anne and Skeeter and Uncles Bud and Ty helping me grow up back when. These same relatives put me up in 1988 when, as a Harvard graduate student, I started field research on gentrification in Harlem.
But visiting as a tourist was to be something different. This time, a high-school friend's 40th birthday party in February brought me to New York. The invitation's hotel suggestions included one that caught my eye: the Harlem Flophouse, a 11/2-year-old boutique hotel on 123rd Street. I booked myself for a weekend stay, and Demetra, a friend from Maine, joined me on her first Harlem visit.
The Harlem Flophouse is run by Rene Calvo, a writer from Massachusetts who has lived in New York for 15 years. Tucked between 7th and 8th avenues, the three-room hotel is in the heart of Harlem. The house, a four-story 1890s brownstone, was in the throes of restoration during our stay. Calvo, who is still searching for the right Victorian-era wallpaper, said he wants to restore the building's grandeur without erasing its "torrid past."
"Beautiful and rough around the edges, a little funky," is how he described the place in a conversation after my visit. A parlor with two kitschy orange sofas and a fireplace opens out to the kitchen on the spacious first floor, where guests relax, socialize and soak in Latin jazz. In a quirky nod to the brownstone's rooming-house past, a claw-footed tub occupies a corner of the parlor, showing off old jazz LPs rescued from the garbage during renovation.
Second- and third-floor guest rooms are spacious and simply furnished--radios but no TVs or telephones. The maple, oak and Peruvian walnut floors, fireplaces and alcoves with built-in cabinets add turn-of-the-century charm.
Calvo hopes that the Flophouse name--harking back to the places where jazz musicians stayed--will attract painters and other artists. He has hosted two exhibits and offers an "artist rate," $75 versus the $90 I paid for a double. But for now he receives mainly non-artists--German, Italian, French and Scandinavian tourists as well as African American couples looking for a romantic getaway.
Demetra and I started our visit by meeting a friend, Maria, for lunch at one of my old favorites, a local coffee shop called Pan Pan, where we found her at the low Formica counter swapping astrological information with a woman seated on the next stool.