Travel guide to Harlem, New York City: The capital of 'Black America' is rapidly changing

Though New York is a city addicted to change, Harlem has changed more than most neighbourhoods. Famed globally as the capital of "Black America", this area of northern Manhattan has seen entire demographic shifts, urban decay, urban renewal, and even its own artistic Renaissance in the 1930s. Harlem is, some people like to say, "a state of mind" - confident, brash, fragile, insecure. In other words, a complicated soul.

The first people to live here were the Manhatta and Lenape people, semi-nomadic Native American tribes. Then there were Dutch farmers—"Harlem" is named for Haarlem, in the Netherlands - though the British chased them out around the time of the American Revolution. In the late-1800s, when railways connected Harlem with lower Manhattan, Jewish and Italian immigrants began to build beautiful townhouses here along the city's new grid layout. Then there was the Great Migration: a flood of African-American citizens escaping oppressive southern states and looking for sanctuary in big, anonymous cities like New York. By 1930, a census of Harlem showed the neighbourhood had become more than 70 per cent black. Other ethnicities, succumbing to ugly prejudices, left the hood, allowing it to accrue the formidable legend it has today.

Recently, gentrification has begun to shift the emphasis yet again. And like anywhere this is happening, conflict has ensued. Who owns Harlem? Who gets to dictate Harlem's identity? Who has the right to live here? Since I moved here myself - a white, middle-class Australian - this complicated conversation has been going on around me on building stoops and in the opinion section of The New York Times. There are no easy answers.

But for a traveller, what this conversation means is a vibrant, disorientating cultural hodgepodge, a place in open dialogue with itself about what it wants to be. At a time when much of New York has been bleached into a homogeneous, nondescript shopping mall, that is a fascinating prospect.

Harlem is perfect for walking. It is both sprawling enough to take up an entire day if you want it to, and yet concentrated around several main thoroughfares that operate as nodes of interest, so you can pick and choose your path.

The best place to begin is 110th Street, a street so famous it has its own theme song, by Bobby Womack. Harlem properly begins a little lower than this on the East side of Manhattan, but 110th is the neighbourhood's symbolic boundary, being the northernmost edge of Central Park (centralparknyc.org).

Less visited than the park's southern reaches, the north has its own charms. Harlem Meer is a small lake with a rambling promenade and a tiny sand beach. In December, park employees install a Christmas tree on a floating island, and the adjacent swimming pool becomes the Lasker Rink (laskerrink.com), good for ice-skating. Also adjacent to the Meer, the North Woods replicate some of the wild forest of the Adirondack Mountains, far upstate. Winding walking trails make this one of the most serene and private areas in the entire city. Not long ago, a coyote tried to take up residence here, but the killjoy police chased it away.

From the wide roundabout on the northwest corner of the park, turn north onto Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Douglass was a leader of the abolitionist movement to end slavery, and he's still widely adored today. His namesake, however, is more divisive, being the epicentre of Harlem's gentrifying food scene.

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This street shows just how diverse things have become. First on the right is 67 Orange Street (67orangestreet.com), a terrific, tiny cocktail bar owned by a local luminary named Karl Franz Williams. The name is Williams' tribute to a 19th-century black-owned speakeasy that was once located down in Five Points, near modern-day SoHo.

On the next block, is a popular Ethiopian restaurant named Zoma (zomanyc.com), and a gay-friendly burger joint named Harlem Food Bar (hfbnyc.com), which has good vibes to offset the overpriced food. It only continues to get more schizophrenic from there, too: French patisseries, a Taekwando studio, Caribbean food, pizzerias, artisan butchers, a sprawling beer garden, a hip-hop chicken rotisserie (the rooster on the logo is wearing sneakers), and one of the best bakeries in the entire country, Levain (levainbakery.com), where a warm chocolate-chip cookie will send you into an instantaneous sugar coma, making you forget it cost $5.

My pick of the row, however, is Vinateria (vinaterianyc.com). The cocktails are fierce—"Uptown Bellhop," with red bell peppers, is particularly good—and the American-Italian fare is delicious and amiably priced. Ask for an outside table if it's a fine evening, so you can people-watch.

Much of Frederick Douglass Boulevard is notable for how "Brooklyn" it feels—white and hipster. There is even a coffee shop filled with students on laptops called Double Dutch Espresso. But within a two-block radius of "FDB" is Minton's (mintonsharlem.com) and Billie's Black (billiesblack.com), both famed for their soul food and live jazz. Everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Billie Holiday has graced the stage at Minton's, and an attached restaurant, The Cecil, has a killer happy hour deal.

Eventually Frederick Douglass Boulevard will bring you up to 125th Street, otherwise known as Dr Martin Luther King Boulevard. This is the neighbourhood's beating heart, a crazy bazaar of wig shops and suiting suppliers, factory outlet stores and tattoo parlours. It is crowded, overwhelming, a daily spectacle of hawkers and protesters. Expect to be stunned.

Heading west from here will take you towards Riverside Park and the high citadel of Columbia University. Years ago, real estate developers, scared of what the word "Harlem" stood for to many people, began calling that entire area "Morningside Heights," in an act of eye-roll-worthy rebranding. There is nothing much to see there.

Heading east, on the other hand, will bring you immediately to the legendary Apollo Theater (apollotheater.org). Any performer of note has performed here sometime during their career. For something truly memorable, visit one of the much-loved Amateur Nights, when young hopefuls grace the stage looking for audience approval. Tickets are cheap and the atmosphere is delirious.

Indeed, 125th Street is something of a cultural parade. Further east is an open plaza housing a striking monument to Adam Clayton Powell, the first New Yorker of African-American descent to be elected to Congress. He strides up a plinth with his coat streaming behind in a permanent wind.

Just opposite him are two landmarks worth appreciating. The first is the old Hotel Theresa, a gracious white building that was one of the first integrated hotels in New York, favoured by everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Josephine Baker. At a time when African Americans couldn't access many of the properties downtown, Theresa was their Waldorf. It is now offices, but it retains its stunning facade.

The other landmark is the Studio Museum (studiomuseum.org), which is dedicated to artists of African descent. Besides its terrific permanent collection, the Studio maintains a roster of rotating exhibitions that are often challenging and never less than worthwhile. A summer series also sees DJs and wine in the courtyard on Fridays. The Studio Museum has just announced an ambitious expansion project, too, so there will soon be more of it.

Continuing east, cross the crazed intersection at Lennox Avenue and keep going until you reach the Mount Morris Park Historic District (mmpcia.org). Much has been written about the beautiful townhouses down in the West Village. They pale next to this area, though, with its Gilded Age brownstones so stately it's impossible to see them and not feel acquisitive—particularly in October, when the Halloween pumpkins are out in full force. The best examples are on 120th Street, between Lenox and Mount Morris Park West; Maya Angelou lived here until she died in 2014. One can be yours for just US$5 million or so.

Mount Morris Park doesn't exist anymore; it is now called Marcus Garvey Park, after the famous politician and journalist. Once dilapidated and known for drugs, it has recently been rejuvenated into a green playground of baseball games, old men playing chess, and public stagings of Shakespeare plays in an open-air amphitheatre. The reason the park exists at all is a quirk of geography: A giant pile of schist proved too difficult to remove, so city planners built Fifth Avenue around it.

You can climb the rocky outcropping today using a lovely twisting staircase. Until last January, there was a building on the top—an old fire watchtower that was once used to monitor the city. It was removed for restoration and will eventually be returned, but the plateau is still worth a visit in the meantime. In fact, it is worth ending a walk here, because it offers one of the highest views in the whole neighbourhood, showing off Harlem in all its haphazard, muddled splendour.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

www.nycgo.com

STAYING THERE

Harlem has one terrific hotel, the Aloft Harlem, which offers comfortable, affordable rooms that make it a good base for any New York visit. Rooms start from US$199 a night. See www.aloftharlem.com

GETTING AROUND

Harlem is well-serviced by the New York subway, including the 1/2/3, A/C/D and 4/5 lines. New York's popular Citi Bikes don't appear this high on Manhattan. One option is to hire from Bike and Roll in Central Park and take a leisurely ride north. www.bikenewyorkcity.com

FIVE MORE THINGS TO SEE IN HARLEM

Music lovers cannot visit Harlem without paying their respects at Shrine, where reggae, jazz and indie rock take to the stage every single night. This is one of the city's most beloved and rambunctious venues, and the attached restaurant, Yatenga, isn't half-bad either. See www.shrinenyc.com

Red Rooster Harlem is very famous, overpriced, and underwhelming. Skip it. But do not skip what is underneath, Ginny's Supper Club, where people come out in their Sunday finest to dance. And I mean dance. See www.ginnyssupperclub.com

Walking into one of the many Harlem churches to watch gospel singers can be an awkward undertaking; not everybody appreciates their worship being reduced to tourist show. If you do go, be respectful, sit up the back, and make a donation. Or just join a dedicated tour and save yourself the fuss. www.harlemspirituals.com

Alexander Hamilton may have hit the news again because of Hamilton, the Tony-winning Broadway musical, but his house is here: the Hamilton Grange, in St. Nicholas Park. Guided and self-guided tours are available through the gorgeous homestead, and entry is free. See www.nps.gov/hagr

Did I mention that the entire east side of Harlem is largely Hispanic, and known as Spanish Harlem? El Museo del Barrio will fill you in; it offers art exhibitions and cultural history. Check it out and then go searching for some tacos. See www.elmuseo.org

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