“Drop me off in Harlem…”
Attending the pre-launch of the Red Rooster Harlem restaurant gave me my first chance to spend a day visiting Harlem.
I wanted to describe my first impressions of the place, but calling Harlem a place is a bit like calling the Eiffel Tower a building. Technically correct, but woefully inadequate.
It’s a name, an attitude, an emotion. A storehouse of legacy, memory, history. Cultural anchor and political third-rail. The unsanctioned, unofficial and universally recognized capital of Black America.
The least of what this place is…is a “place.”
It also may be a misnomer to call it a “neighborhood.” Harlem is home to about 119,000 people, making it more populous than at least 64 American cities.
The MTA gives you several options by bus and subway to come here from anywhere in New York City — but honestly, what option does a first-timer have but to “Take the ‘A’ Train,” the Duke Ellington classic that introduced this neighborhood to the world?
So I did, entertained along the way by jazz saxmen, gospel and rap singers on station platforms, and a three-man break-dancing crew on the train itself — while the train was in its rocking, jerking motion.
Leave the subway at 125th Street, Harlem’s commercial heart, and you come up within sight of the Apollo Theater, whose stage has launched so many stars of music, dance and comedy that it has its own sizable Hall of Fame.
People come here just to be photographed under its marquee, as if hoping some tiny bit of fame might somehow rub off on them. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, while still drawing more than a 1 million visitors a year.
And it’s still holding Amateur Night.
In a larger sense, though, all these streets are historic places.
These are the streets where Ethiopian sailors and black free men formed the Abyssinian Baptist Church as a cradle of gospel music and a cauldron of protest against racial injustice. The streets where Frederick Douglass touched the conscience of a nation reluctant to give up slavery and Malcolm X told us we’d been “hoodwinked and bamboozled.”
As you stroll the bustling boulevards that bear their names today, you scan the lean faces and sharp eyes of the young men passing by, and you wonder. Which of them might be the next Douglass, the next Malcolm, the next Marcus Garvey? Who will be next to speak the truth out loud?
Perhaps someone like the young black man I came across in a drug store, teaching his sons:
FATHER: “How old are you?”
FATHER: “And how old is your brother?”
SON: “He seven.”
FATHER: “Well, if he’s seven and you’re five, how many years older than you is he?”
FATHER: “You’re five. He’s seven. Five, then six, then seven. So the difference between five and seven is what?”
FATHER: “NOW you got it! NOW you’re in the house!”
This is not the image of a black man you typically see on the evening news or in a music video. But you’ll see it in Harlem.
Or maybe it would be the young woman sitting with her daughter in a storefront Mickey D’s, praying at length over a couple of sodas.
This community still has its struggles, not the least of which is how to lose its poverty without losing its identity. There are worries about gentrification, fears that changing demographics and rising housing values may cut off Harlem from its cultural roots.
Its black population has dropped from 98 percent in 1950 to about 69 percent today.
You know that the police officers stationed on strategic street corners are there to discourage thugs from preying on locals and visitors, but they still have the look and feel of an occupying army.
Young men who perhaps should be getting treatment in a mental facility ride the subway, ranting almost incoherently about racism. Older men with no place to live sleep at the base of the Stalinesque statue honoring one of Harlem’s most beloved political figures, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
They lie there without so much as a old blanket to ward off the cold night, face-down and motionless, as if they’d been shot.
But this is not a stagnant place. Throughout its history, up or down, Harlem never stops moving. You would expect no less from a community that created a neighborhood called Strivers Row.
In ways large, medium and small, Harlem gets its hustle on.
For every chain drug store, office supply center or fast-food stop along 125th Street, you’ve got the homegrown men’s clothier, the Mom-and-Pop soul food joint, the neighborhood club, the hole in the wall selling African fabrics.
And lining the block along with the storefronts are the street vendors, selling everything from caps for your head to scents for your skin, spices for your kitchen and hand-crafted African figures for your soul. Meanwhile, there’s the super-block of shops built around the multiplex theaters built by Magic Johnson of basketball fame.
Meanwhile, over on 116th Street, West African immigrants are creating a community within a community, a collection of businesses, cultural centers and places of worship that have come to be known as Le Petit Senegal, Little Senegal.
Then there’s Red Rooster Harlem, which is what brought me here in the first place.
Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson named this $2 million project in honor of the original Red Rooster, an old Harlem speakeasy.
That wasn’t a casual choice. By tying world-class dining to community history, Samuelsson is making a brave attempt to bring Harlem’s heritage new life in the 21st century.
A day in Harlem doesn’t make you an expert in anything, but a day is enough, more than enough, to show that there’s more here than just a name or a place. There’s a heritage worth preserving, a community that’s evolving, and a lot of folks worth knowing.
The history books describe this period or that as a Harlem Renaissance, but the reality is that from its inception as a Dutch enclave in the New World, Harlem has never stopped reinventing itself. And visitors are always welcome to come see how it’s done.