Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 17, 2017
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Harlem Globetrotting

Discover an uptown utopia in a once notorious neighbourhood

A few years ago, I wouldn't have relished the idea of an afternoon stroll in Harlem. Like most visitors to New York, I thought of it as a strictly no-go neighbourhood with a nasty reputation for rampant crime and urban decay. Fortunately for everyone, a lot can change in a short time.

These days, Harlem is enjoying an economic and cultural renaissance, and with it has come a renewed interest in the sights and sounds the area has to offer. Safer streets and refurbished buildings are once again welcoming curious crowds as they did during its heyday in the 1920s, when it was renowned as the capital of black culture in America. In fact, it's now the third most popular tourist destination in the city, after Times Square and Wall Street.

Amidst this revival, Harlem's history remains. It's still got the jumping jazz joints it was once famous for, some of the best soul food north of the Mason-Dixon line and genteel avenues brimming with architectural marvels. Intrigued by this blend of old world and new, I took a friend for a walk from Central Park to Columbia University, with many stops in between, and found that a collage of contrasts awaited us.

The low-down on uptown
Nowhere is central Harlem's renaissance more evident than on hustling and bustling 125th Street. African hair-braiding salons, Southern-fried chicken stands and hip hop shops nestle up against newcomers like Starbucks, the Gap and a Disney store. Bill Clinton opened his post-presidential office here amid much fanfare last summer, while basketball star Magic Johnson launched a cinema complex just a few doors away. There are even plans afoot to open a luxury hotel on the strip.

We had to arrive early to see one of the street's unique personalities: an artist who calls himself Franco the Great. His canvasses of choice are corrugated metal storefronts, so as soon as merchants open for business, his masterpieces get rolled out of sight. Franco's depictions of African American heroes -- from portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. to musicians in zoot suits -- have earned him an international following; his most recent commission was to paint a department store in Japan.

Continuing along 125th, we took in more artwork at the Studio Museum (144 West 125th Street; tel: 212-864-4500; www.studiomuseuminharlem.org). Presently being expanded, it has become a focal point for the long legacy of creativity in the community. Its exhibitions often have a political dimension, from lectures about pan-Africanism to a current multimedia show entitled Race in Digital Space.

Take the A-train
The best-known landmark on 125th Street is undoubtedly the Apollo Theatre (253 West 125th Street; box office: 212-531-5305/tours: 212-531-5337; www. apollotheatre.org). Opened in 1914, it was a key venue in Harlem's famed jazz scene, which flourished in the 1920s and '30s. Ella Fitzgerald started her career by winning an Amateur Night contest here, a tradition that continues every Wednesday evening. The Apollo has showcased big names like Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk and Gladys Knight, once booed a warbling Lena Horne offstage, and even claims to be the place where Mick Jagger got his soul. Closed for two months as part of a multi-phase revitalization program, the theatre reopens in March with the musical Harlem Song, and Amateur Night resumes in April.

Less famous than the Apollo but just as atmospheric, the Lenox Lounge (288 Malcolm X Boulevard; tel: 212-427-0253) was one of our favourite finds. Just a few steps from 125th, its chrome entryway looks much as it did in 1939, when it catered to a mostly white crowd in search of good music. Billie Holiday and Miles Davis were among the performers to grace its stage and Malcolm X once worked here. More recently, its refurbished interior has been the location for Vogue fashion shoots.

Jazz history surrounded us on every corner. Bessie Smith, Lionel Hampton and Louis Armstrong lived and played on these streets when the nightclubs were hopping. In the 1940s, bebop was born at Minton's (now a seniors home) on West 118th. Duke Ellington's famous song, Take the 'A' Train, was named for the subway line that led to his Harlem home.

Spiritual rituals
Of course, Harlem's proud musical heritage doesn't only include jazz. No trip to the neighbourhood would be complete without a taste of the real gospel experience. Its rousing spiritual services have become so popular among tourists that the best known of the area's 400 houses of worship, like Abyssinian Baptist Church (132 Odell Clark Place, formerly 132 West 138th Street; tel: 212-862-7474) where Fats Waller's father was once the minister -- are filled to overflowing on Sundays.

As we took our seats at the low-profile Kelly Temple (10 East 130th Street; tel: 212-289-9618), the choir swayed back and forth on invisible feet, their blue and white robes floating in time to the music. The singers got so worked up that they had to fan themselves continually, and a nurse in full uniform stood by in case someone was so overcome that they required medical attention. In the pew next to us, a girl in a candy-coloured dress and corn rows sat primly with her legs straight out in front of her, while her little brother raised a white-gloved hand to stifle a yawn. For first-time visitors, though, there's nothing boring about this church service. At times, the live organ and drums sounded so funky that we half-expected James Brown to appear from behind the pulpit. And when the minister asked if anyone in the house wanted to turn themselves over to Jesus, I almost found myself reaching my palms heavenward.

 

Food for the soul
For an equally religious experience, the food in Harlem is not to be missed, and many restaurants serve up Sunday brunch with live gospel performances. For a stylish outing, we went to the Cotton Club (666 West 125th Street; tel: 212- 663-7980), which pulls out all the stops for its all-you-can-eat buffet. This storied venue (reopened in the 1970s) offers delectable Southern comforts, including black-eyed peas, creamy grits, succulent fried chicken and heavenly desserts.

We also peeked in at another local institution: Sylvia's (328 Lenox Avenue; tel: 212-996-0660) on Lenox Avenue, which started as a one-room diner and is still a family-run affair. Waitresses buzz around serving chicken, ribs, greens and beans to food lovers from all walks of life, and the walls are lined with celebrity photos to prove it. Another classic eatery is the 24-hour M&G Diner (383 West 125th Street; tel: 212-864-7326), which cooks up salmon croquettes and flapjacks while a vintage jukebox cranks out the tunes.

Victorian charms
A walk through Harlem's side streets took us even further back in time. Originally settled by the Dutch in the 1600s, this hilly area consisted mostly of farmland and country estates for almost two centuries. In the 1880s, when elevated rail lines finally linked uptown to the rest of the island, real estate speculation took off. The first wave of residents was largely German, Italian and Jewish but, with the economic downturn in the early 1900s, landlords began renting overwhelmingly to blacks from lower Manhattan, the South and Caribbean countries.

One of the most charming residential enclaves is known as Sugar Hill, between 145th and 155th streets. Sugar means money, and life here was considered to be sweet and expensive. It was home to the Harlem elite, including Count Basie, W.E.B. DuBois, Sugar Ray Robinson and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Central Harlem's Victorian brownstones are breathtaking, with intricately carved bay windows, curved wrought iron gates and gabled roofs. Over the years, a lot of buildings fell into disrepair, neglected by poverty-stricken tenants and absentee landlords. A number of properties were repossessed by the city, and some replaced with towering housing projects. However, many old row houses that were once boarded shut are now being renovated. Others seem to be holding their breath, just waiting to be fixed up -- like so many aspects of the neighbourhood, they are caught on the cusp of change.

Serene sights
Just a few blocks west of Harlem in Morningside Heights, we were surprised by the sudden silence as we walked along Riverside Drive, possibly one of the most beautiful streets in New York City. This genteel block is flanked by immaculate row houses on one side and a screen of foliage on the other, through which we caught glimpses of the Hudson River.

Ahead on the horizon, carved eagles with an imposing countenance dared us to climb the stairs to a stunning marble monument that honours the 18th president of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant. Construction on Grant's Tomb (Riverside Drive at 122nd Street; tel: 212-666-1640) began in 1892, seven years after his death, and was funded by donations from 90,000 Americans -- the largest fundraising effort at the time. The interior contains a crypt where the remains of Grant and his wife repose, as well as paintings depicting the life and times of this superstitious, cigar-smoking Civil War general.

Across the street looms the bell tower of Riverside Church (Riverside Drive at 120th Street; tel: 212-870-6700). Its observation deck, 108 metres in the air, offers spectacular views of Harlem in its entirety, as well as the New Jersey shoreline to the north and lower Manhattan to the south.

Ivy League of their own
At the centre of Morningside Heights is Columbia University, where students mingle outside the impressive stone library inscribed with the names of Plato, Cicero and Virgil. Although its stately buildings look like they belong in the Italian Renaissance, the campus was built in its current location at the turn of the last century.

Just outside the university gates, Broadway is lined with open-air bistros where patrons drop glitzy shopping bags beside wicker chairs. For European ambiance, French Roast (2340 Broadway; tel: 212-799-1533) and Le Monde (2885 Broadway; tel: 212-531-3939 ) are good refuelling stops to sip lattes and watch some of New York's most moneyed and manicured pass by. After window-shopping for clothes, shoes and books, we headed to Tom's Restaurant (also called Tom's Diner) (2880 Broadway; tel: 212-864-6137) of Seinfeld fame, for some all-American fare: Yankee pot roast, cabbage rolls and egg creams to wash it all down.

A few blocks away, St. John the Divine (1047 Amsterdam Avenue; tel: 212-316-7540) is a gothic spectacle. Intended to be the largest cathedral in the world, it's been under construction since 1812 and probably won't be finished until well into this century. From beneath the scaffolding, ornate statues stared past us into the distance, while the hushed interior contains seven chapels dedicated to New York's major immigrant groups. Due to afire in late December, tours into the cathedral's towers are temporarily suspended, but tours of the ground floor and exterior architecture are ongoing.

Hasta la vista
We didn't want to leave the area without a stop in Central Park for a glimpse of the Harlem Meer. Only a few years ago, this lake was filled with garbage and old tires. Like so much of the area, it has gotten a new lease on life and is now a picturesque backdrop for jazz concerts on summer Sundays.

To the east of the park is Spanish Harlem, with its own heroes and history. Tito Puente, the sultan of salsa, was born here and former mayor Fiorello LaGuardia represented the area in Congress for many years. The heart of the district is La Marquetta, a bustling Latino market on Park Avenue and 111th Street, which recently underwent a million-dollar makeover. Another source of pride for the community is the Museo del Barrio (1230 Fifth Avenue; tel: 212-831-7272; www.elmuseo.org). This unassuming building flanking the park is dedicated to Puerto Rican, Caribbean and Latin American culture. This spring and summer, it will host works by such luminaries as Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo.

A block further south, the Museum of the City of New York (1220 Fifth Avenue; tel: 212-534-1672) was a great spot to tie our travels together. This colonial mansion is full of Gotham city lore, tracing the ups and downs the metropolis has weathered over the years. It was reminder that the spirit New York -- and Harlem with it -- has prevailed through both hardship and hope.

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