History, culture, religion are flourishing in Harlem New York: Reminders of the past are still present, along with charm and warmth, especially on Sundays, when gospel music fills the air

Short Hop: New York

September 13, 1998|By Janet Groene | Janet Groene,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It is Sunday morning in New York and we are in church, not as worshipers this time but as wide-eyed tourists having the time of our lives. The place is Harlem. The music is gospel that rattles the rafters. The welcome is as warm as a tropical breeze.

Harlem, too often feared by tourists because of its reputation for crime and drugs, is actually one of New York's zestiest tourism hot spots. By night, tourists flock to clubs that were once the spawning ground for such artists as Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters, Count Basie and Cab Calloway. By day there are soul-food restaurants, historic sites, time-warp neighborhoods and, on Sunday, rousing church services that sing on for hours. If you've been too timid to venture north of Central Park, you've been missing one of the tangiest bites of the Big Apple.

When wealthy Dutch settlers began feeling crowded in lower Manhattan, they moved to verdant farmlands north of the city and called the area Harlem after the original in Holland. As Manhattan continued to bulge with new waves of settlers, the Dutch moved on, and upwardly mobile Jewish families moved into Harlem. They, in turn, gave way to a growing population of blacks who were fleeing the segregationist South. Even before World War I, Harlem was beginning to bounce to an African beat. Wooden homes were razed to build rowhouses, many of which were bulldozed to make room for high-rise apartments and teeming tenements.

By the 1920s, black Harlem's jazz clubs and speakeasies were a refuge for whites who came here for good music, dance and bootleg gin. The Apollo Theater on 125th Street has been, since 1913, the birthplace of countless careers in jazz, blues, dance, voice and comedy. It still has Amateur Night each Wednesday. Across the street sat the stately Theresa Hotel, now an office building, where jazz musicians stayed. In the 1960s, Fidel Castro slept here as a symbol of his disdain for fancier places in midtown.

The safest, most convenient, and frankly the best way to discover Harlem is on a tour led by a local guide who provides narration and insights. Our hotel is the Beverly on the Upper East Side, just across Lexington from the Waldorf-Astoria and a favorite with United Nations delegates. Rooms and suites are supersize, the staff attentive and security excellent. From here it's a 20-minute walk cross-town to where tour buses begin the trip to Harlem.

On your tour, see Wadleigh Junior High School in a palatial French chateau design, the 115th Street Branch Library with its limestone grandeur and the grand Graham Court Apartments where author Zora Neale Thurston once lived. Minton's Playhouse is the birthplace of bebop. One of the city's last remaining wooden houses, built in 1864, is on East 128th Street.

Museums include the Black Fashion Museum on West 126th Street, where displays include a dress made by Rosa Parks. There's also the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on Lenox Avenue, and the Studio Museum on West 125th Street, housing works of black artists. Mainstream museums in Harlem include those at Audubon Terrace, Broadway at 155th Street: Hispanic Society of America, American Numismatic Society and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Also of interest is Aunt Len's Doll and Toy Museum, Hamilton Terrace at West 141st Street.

Discover old neighborhoods such as Strivers' Row, where brownstone townhouses were once home to W.C. Handy, Eubie Blake and other black notables. The venerable houses, still elegant, remain prime real estate. Walk the grounds of Hamilton Grange on Sugar Hill, the one-time estate of Alexander Hamilton, who lived here the two years before his deadly duel with Aaron Burr.

One of Harlem's most impressive Romanesque mansions is the Bailey House on St. Nicholas Place. Now a funeral home, it was once owned by the Bailey of Barnum & Bailey fame. Along Sylvan Terrace in the Jumel Terrace Historic District, you'll roam a movie set of old New York, its exquisite rowhouses unchanged by the centuries.

For Harlem cuisine, try the chicken or ribs at Snooky's on West 137th Street, corn bread and fried chicken at Londel's of Strivers' Row on Frederick Douglass Boulevard between 139th and 140th, or the famous Sylvia's on Lenox Avenue between 126th and 127th, where a gospel brunch is offered on Sundays. For dinner and music, try Perks on Manhattan Avenue at 123rd or Wells on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard at 132nd. The boulevard, which is the center of any Harlem tour, is named for a fiery minister who left Congress in disgrace in 1967 but is still a hero to many Harlemites. The Rev. Powell's church, Abyssinian Baptist Church, still stands.

Our tour guide was a bright young black businessman who devotes his Sunday mornings to making friends for his community and his congregation. Our group was ushered to the balcony of a Baptist church where services had begun thundering an hour earlier and would go on for hours after we left. Our host led us discreetly to our seats during one Gospel rendering. More songs, readings, sermonettes and introductions followed, and we quietly filed out under cover of a Gospel uproar. We were surprised to find that half a dozen church elders had slipped out of the sanctuary to meet us in the foyer and send us on our way with handshakes and heartfelt thanks.

When you go

Information: Call 800-NYC-VISIT, an automated line that allows you the option of making reservations, requesting material or talking to a tourism information specialist.

Harlem tours: Harlem, Your Way!, 212-690-1687; Harlem Spirituals, 212-757-0425, which offers Harlem Gospel tours in five languages.

Pub Date: 9/13/98

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