Long-established as the heart of African-American culture in New York, Harlem lies in the north of Manhattan between Central Park, Upper Manhattan and the Harlem River. While its community today reflects a more diverse ethnic composition, in the early part of the 20th century it became a predominantly black area, with African-American literature, art, music, dance and social commentary flourishing in what became known as the Harlem Renaissance.
The Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture is a good place to start exploring the neighbourhood, with changing exhibitions that highlight the African-American history of New York, while the Studio Museum of Harlem showcases the work of local, national and international artists of African descent. The neighbourhood is home to the largest church in the United States, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, but perhaps its most famous house of worship is the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the first African-American Baptist Church in New York. Visitors can attend their powerful Gospel Worship Services on Sundays, perfectly followed with a gospel brunch at legendary Sylvia’s Soul Food. The Apollo Theatre is another of Harlem’s iconic landmarks, opening in 1934 to black patrons after 20 years as a whites-only venue, and helping to launch the careers of Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown and Michael Jackson. Many of Harlem’s most famous post-World War I residents lived along West 138th and 139th streets in an area of historic townhouses dubbed “Striver’s Row”, including the likes of pianist Eubie Blake, composer WC Handy and dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, while one of Manhattan’s oldest parks, Marcus Garvey Park, is lined with late 19th century architecture and named in honour of the Jamaican Pan-African movement leader.
Harlem is easily accessed by both bus and subway, with stations scattered throughout the neighbourhood. While its sights are fairly spread out, the streets are easily manageable on foot and far friendlier than often reputed.
Harlem was named after a city in the Netherlands, Haarlem, and originally established as a Dutch village in 1658. The Great Migration at the start of the 20th century saw African-American residents stream into the area, firmly stamping their cultural mark during the 1920s and 30s.