When I was in NYC back in September I signed up for two tours with Free Tours by Foot. The first one on Saturday was the Brooklyn Bridge and Brooklyn Height Tour. The tour exceeded all my expectations. Our tour guide, Onel, was top-notch and I ended up meeting a cool solo female travel who explored parts of lower Manhattan with me. When I told her I had signed up for the Harlem tour the following day she mentioned that she did that one a couple of days ago and her guide, Bill, was not good at all. She ended up ditching the tour halfway through the 2 hours. Needless to say, I was a wee bit nervous about the Harlem tour. Would it suck? Would we have a monotone boring tour guide? Would it be awesome?
When I got off the Red Line at 135th Street, I was nervous. Harlem was an area of NYC that I’ve always been intrigued with. The area is practically oozing out history, music, and culture. But, Harlem historically has a bad rep. For generations its people have lived in a high crime and poverty-ridden area, but in the recent decade the large neighborhood has become gentrified. They are even getting a Whole Foods!
I was relieved to see our tour guide was Juan. Juan is in his late 20s, much like myself, and grew up and currently lives in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Harlem, also known as Spanish Harlem. He was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to NYC with his family when he was 9 years old. Juan is an artist and enjoys incorporating technology into both his art and his tour. He carries around an iPad that he utilizes throughout the tour to display pictures of historical places and people. I really enjoyed his use of the iPad as it helped me put a face to a name when he was talking about the history of Harlem.
We began our tour on 135th Street in front of the Harlem Hospital and the Schomburg Center located on the corner of Lenox Avenue and 135th Street. The hospital has been renovated in recent years and the entire front of the newer part of the building is a beautiful and massive mural depicting the history and culture of Harlem. Juan told us the painting is lit up at night and the walls inside the hospital are full of murals as well. I love hospitals that bring in colorful art instead of just the plain white sterile walls. I believe that it does make a difference in patient recovery.
From the hospital we moved a few blocks away to the Abyssinian Baptist Church. The church was built in 1922 in the Gothic Revival and Tudor Revival architectural style. The church has served as a center of spirituality, politics and community for the Harlem African-American population for decades. On our tour, we got to witness this firsthand. As Juan was talking about the history of the church and its prominent members, a group of church ladies in their white uniforms walked by for a church celebration. We walked another block down the street to Malcolm X Boulevard where church members were walking in a parade. I’m not sure what the celebration was for, but it was nice to see such a happy community of people united in one shared belief.
Across the street from the parade was a beautiful mural painted onto a brick building depicting the police corruption and racism that has occurred in Harlem and other areas of the country. There are names coming out of the bullhorn of African-Americans who have been treated unfairly or killed due to excessive police force. Obviously, this mural is very relevant with the recent events of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
We moved down the street to view some gorgeous brownstones. If I remember correctly, the brownstones were built prior to the start of the Great Depression. Each brownstone is about 3500 square feet and are still one family, which makes them New York real estate goal! Once the Depression hit, only one or two of the brownstones were actually purchased and many sat empty for years. Today they sell for about $2.1 million and are estimated to double in value within the next 10 years! In case you’re looking for an investment, this is where you want to put your millions.
From there we moved down a few blocks to another street with “stars” of famous people on the sidewalk similar to what you may see in Hollywood. Juan talked a bit about each of the famous African-Americans who grew up in Harlem. I recognized a few of the names, but a few were new to me.
We finished the tour at the famous Apollo Theater. The Apollo Theater is located at 253 West 125th Street. The theater was built in 1913 and was designed by George Keister in the neo-Classical style. For its first few decades the theater was known as the Hurtig & Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater and was only open to white patrons. In 1934 the theater became open to African-Africans and was renamed the Apollo Theater. Just about everyone and anyone who is famous has performed at the Apollo at some point in their career. Apollo has launched the music careers of many including Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, and Jimi Hendrix among many others. To this day, the theater still offers amateur nights every week. The shows are open to the public so you might see America’s next big music star if you take in a show.
Overall, the Harlem tour lasted about 2 hours. I enjoyed the tour, but I left wanting to see more. Juan was a great tour guide and filled my little brain with an abundance of new knowledge. However, Juan didn’t quite have the pizzazz that Onel from the Brooklyn tour had that I enjoyed. I think this tour is a great introduction to Harlem for those who are interested in exploring the neighborhood and learning a bit more about its’ vibrant history and culture.
Have you explored Harlem? What do you think?