© Dustin Aksland

A village in Manhattan

  • TEXT EMILY BARTELS
  • PHOTOS DUSTIN AKSLAND

To Harlem, where the best jazz clubs are still an insider tip and soul food has a cult following. This upper Manhattan neighborhood is hot!

There could be troublemakers up there,” says the photographer. Nevertheless, we walk up to the top of the rock in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem. On the plateau, a young man looks up from his tablet computer and smiles. There’s no one else here except for three young girls in a corner, dancing, the beat blaring out tinnily from their cell phone speakers.

Troublemakers – a Harlem stereotype that is deeply embedded in some people’s minds, including those of many New Yorkers. While Harlem was still a dangerous place 40 years ago, its wide avenues witness only mock battles today: a dog sitter with an army of poodles forcing his way through a group of schoolchildren, businesspeople running an urban obstacle course, and joggers racing each other. Home prices – three million dollars here compared with typically ten million in the rest of Manhattan – have brought an affluent middle class of professors and company directors into the area. With them came Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts and H&M. Now, everybody’s talking about the Whole Foods Market branch that will be opening soon on Harlem’s main thoroughfare.

We look down on Harlem through the branches of the trees. It stretches from the top end of Central Park across most of northern Manhattan. It is bounded by the Hudson River in the west, and by the Harlem River in the east. Rows and rows of brownstones – hundreds of townhouses, all featuring the same rust-colored stone frontage and steps leading up to the front door – line its streets. The street canyons and skyscrapers typical of Lower Manhattan are far and few between. Like Malcolm X Boulevard, the avenues here tend to be wide, and most of the buildings have only four stories. Although Harlem is part of Manhattan and covers almost a third of the island, in some ways it has remained a village inside the city where few New Yorkers and tourists venture.

 

All the world’s a stage: Brianna, Alliyah and Sade in Marcus Garvey park

All the world’s a stage: Brianna, Alliyah and Sade in Marcus Garvey park

© Dustin Aksland

NYC

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 Jacqueline Orange, a former banker, moved to Harlem from Chicago 14 years ago. Within the first year of moving, she hit on the idea of introducing visitors to this underrated neighborhood. She knows many of the treasures Harlem has to offer: the cake shops that have been in the same family for generations; the rich soul food, the consumption of which makes you just want to lie down, pass out and dream of golden fields of corn. And, of course: the music! From the smallest basement dives to the best-known clubs, each establishment can tell a story or two of the famous performers who started out there. Orange, 54, is still running her Taste Harlem city tours today. Her most popular route is the Historical Food Tour, during which participants get to taste their way through restaurants and cafés.

Daniel Robinson does his daily pull-ups at the traffic light ...

Daniel Robinson does his daily pull-ups at the traffic light ...

© Dustin Aksland
... across from the Red Rooster

... across from the Red Rooster

© Dustin Aksland
Family on the corner of Malcolm X Boulevard

Family on the corner of Malcolm X Boulevard

© Dustin Aksland
Faces of Harlem: Crossing guard Hilda Garcia

Faces of Harlem: Crossing guard Hilda Garcia

© Dustin Aksland
Former banker Jacqueline Orange shows visitors around the neighborhood

Former banker Jacqueline Orange shows visitors around the neighborhood

© Dustin Aksland

 Harlem was long considered a “food desert” because only a small number of supermarkets and restaurants dared to open there. That, too, has changed. In the U.S., the arrival of a Whole Foods Market is an unmistakable sign of gentrification. “The neighborhood is developing at breakneck speed,” says Orange. Only recently, three sushi restaurants opened simultaneously, she says. “I wonder how long they will stay in business.” She often cautions visitors that Harlem is a “bedroom community”: Most of the shops are closed until lunchtime, some don’t open until the afternoon. Many residents work downtown and only return to Harlem in the evening. Orange’s friend and colleague John Reddick, 63, conducts Taste Harlem’s historical tours. The architect has lived in Harlem since the 1980s and animatedly recounts the neighborhood’s history. The most famous era is no doubt the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, which produced stars like Duke ­Ellington and Josephine Baker. At the end of the 19th century, millions of African Americans moved north from the southern states to Chicago, Detroit and New York to find work. Harlem saw an ­African-American middle-class establish itself there. It was from that movement that Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and ­other jazz greats emerged.

Today, every New Yorker has heard of two places in Harlem: Sylvia’s, a restaurant that’s been serving New York’s best soul food for over 50 years, and the Apollo Theater, which still holds a regular Amateur Night on Wednesdays, where unknowns battle it out in a musical contest. The stage behind the red velvet curtain has witnessed many musicians test their effect on an audience. Hardly anyone had heard of Jimi Hendrix or the Jackson Five, for instance, until they appeared at Amateur Night. “Harlem is a better known brand than Chanel,” Reddick is fond of saying “Ask who you like, everyone’s heard of Harlem.”

Avant-garde: Elizabeth Dee moved her gallery to Harlem

Avant-garde: Elizabeth Dee moved her gallery to Harlem

© Dustin Aksland

 It was also creatives who spotted Harlem’s current potential and started a trend. “I was looking for a neighborhood with more diversity,” she Elizabeth Dee, 42, the petite blonde owner of The Elizabeth Dee Gallery, which like so many others, used to be in Chelsea. Just over four years ago, she left the established microcosm behind and set herself up in the 1000-square-meter loft of a former high-rise hotel at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 126th Street. The large windows on both floors are still blacked out, graffiti covers the interior walls, and there’s a neat pile of debris in the middle of the large ground floor. Even the New York Times deemed the established gallery’s move to the north of Manhattan worth mentioning. “I received many excited phone calls from clients and colleagues,” says Dee. In fact, she knows of 30 other galleries that are now also looking for suitable premises in Harlem.

Harlem is a better known brand than Chanel!

John Reddick, architect

Harlem residents regard the new arrivals with some skepticism. Those who move here for the comparatively low rents cannot really afford to eat at many of the new restaurants, Orange suspects. The increase in demand is also reflected in rising rents. “The new businesses will only be a good thing for us if they let the locals share in their success,” she says. Marcus Samuelsson, 46, agrees. He has two restaurants in Harlem and started a local food festival. In 2010, he opened the Red Rooster restaurant on Malcolm X Boulevard, two blocks away from the Apollo Theater. The celebrity chef has become something of an ambassador for Harlem in the media. He, too, was attracted by the neighborhood’s intimate atmosphere: “I wanted to be part of a community. Harlem has always been a place where people chat on the street, where everyone feels like they belong.” Now Samuelsson is also trying to support the community, by employing local people, for example. You can never get away from change, he says. But he believes that with the energy and resourcefulness of the people who live here, Harlem can turn this inevitable change into something positive.


Inside Harlem

Bill’s Place

This small basement room was a speakeasy (an illicit bar selling alcohol) during the Prohibition era. Today, it hosts jazz concerts on Fridays and Saturdays.

billsplaceharlem.com

 

Sugar Hill Market

Local artisans and designers sell their wares – including African-inspired pottery and fashions – at Sugar Hill Market in the La Maison d’Art gallery.

sugarhillmarket.com

Studio Museum

The Studio, which opened in 1968, was the first museum in the United States to showcase mostly the work of Afro-American artists – and still does.

studiomuseum.org

 

The Marmara Manhattan

Good location: Spend the night at the Marmara and you’re only four subway stops away from the center of Harlem. In New York, that’s right around the corner.

manhattan.marmaranyc.com