Time to enjoy a Harlem renaissance

Harlem. Has any other neighbourhood had to carry a freight of symbolism quite so heavy?

In the early 20th century, this New York City community was seen as a beacon of hope, one of the first places in the United States where African-Americans could rent pristine, newly built apartments, thanks to a recession — partially created by overheated real estate development (sound familiar?) — that convinced white landlords that to turn a buck they’d have to revise their policies against renting to “negroes.” The neighbourhood became an oasis for African-Americans, considered the unofficial capital of “Black America.” The arts flourished, and Harlem became home to many of the greatest names in American literature, art and music.

Alas, throughout the decades the area fell on hard times, and by the 1970s “Harlem” was a catchword for urban decay.

Today, Harlem is on the ascent again. And while some worry that it’s become a symbol of gentrification, others celebrate the fact that once-abandoned buildings are being renovated and businesses are opening every day

Harlem also is now more accessible than ever for visitors.

In December, the first new hotel to open there in 40 years started accepting guests. An Aloft property (part of the boutique hotel chain owned by Starwood), it doesn’t have much flavour of the neighbourhood, though it certainly is cushy for the price (a good-for-New-York-City $157 per night recently), with thick duvets crowning the beds, a well-equipped gym and a lobby that aspires to be a state-of-the-art rec room, complete with pool table, full bar and rocking chairs cunningly disguised as armchairs.

Personally, for digs, I prefer the ironically named Harlem Flophouse ( www.harlemflophouse.com), a quirky, shabby-chic bed-and-breakfast set in an expertly restored brownstone, owned by a playwright who’s been known to invite guests to impromptu barbecues in the back garden. Rooms start at just $100, but are suitable only for those willing to share a bathroom (because the building is a historic one, there’s just one loo for every two rooms).

Speaking of barbecue, that’s being raised to a fine art by celeb toque Marcus Samuelsson. Fresh off his win on TV’s “Top Chef Masters, Season 2,” Samuelsson opened Red Rooster Harlem ( www.redroosterharlem.com) in December. Not only is it named for a famous Harlem Renaissance-era eatery, it also updates the soul-food traditions of the ’hood (like barbecue and fried chicken) with ingredients from all over the place. So, classic cornbread is sided by a scrumptious, chutney-like tomato jam; dirty rice with shrimp is livened by curry leaves; and meatballs are Swedish-style with lingonberries. It also is drawing guests from all corners of the planet, which means reservations are near impossible to snag (luckily, there’s a large bar area where one can dine without booking ahead). Despite Samuelsson’s pedigree, prices aren’t outrageous (dinner entrees start at $14).

For guided sightseeing, two rival organizations are garnering most of the business. Big Onion Tours ( www.bigoniontours.com) offers its “Historic Harlem” walk at least once a week, and it’s the choice for those who want to spend less ($15) and get a scholarly view of the area (most of Onion’s guides are local graduate students). A more personal, if slightly more pricey, approach ($25-$39, depending on the scope of the tour), is offered by Harlem Heritage Tours ( www.harlemheritage.com), which only employs guides raised in the neighbourhood and tours seven days a week. On a recent excursion, I was lucky enough to be shown around by the witty, extraordinarily spry 82-year-old Andi Owens (I would have guessed he was 60), who in his discussion of the civil-rights era, was able to interweave fascinating stories of marches he’d attended and ways life changed for locals, like him, in the neighbourhood throughout the decades.

Because the owner of Harlem Heritage is a deacon of Canaan Baptist Church, tourists get the best seats there on Sundays during the renowned gospel service (that’s the $39 tour, but it includes food).

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