A Great Day in Harlem

As I approached my last week in NY, there was one more spot I wanted to check out – Harlem. Definitely one of the cultural highlights of my time in New York.  Two things automatically come to mind when I think of Harlem – cultural hub and of course Harlem Nights. The “Pinky toe” scene makes me laugh every time!

Don’t mess with Vera!

Harlem has been the backdrop for many great films, from classic comedies to dramas that showcase the various personalities that draw people to this borough. It was great to get to visit in person. Harlem’s contributions over the past few decades has made it a cultural hub in black history. One of my all-time favorite eras includes the Harlem Renaissance.  If I could pick a time in the past to visit, it would be Harlem in the 1920s. There was also the Black Arts Movement (BAM) during the late 1960s and into the mid 1970s.  During these times visual art, music, literature, theatre and cultural awareness and pride emerged from a place others had categorized as untamed and dangerous. Unfortunately, some still use negative connotations to describe Harlem. Like many other boroughs in New York, Harlem has seen some pretty dark times. To be honest I was a little nervous about making the trip up alone, but when I arrived I really felt a connection to the area. In many ways if reminded me of the South – people wave hello from their stoop, smile, and the pace is not as rushed as Midtown.

I had visited Harlem years ago during a high school trip, but I didn’t really get to hear the history. I decided to signup for a walking tour with Harlem Heritage. It was awesome. Mine was the Harlem Renaissance Multimedia Walking Tour.  What I enjoyed most about the tour was the guide’s connection to Harlem and the way he pulled from his experiences to tell its story. As we walked up Malcolm X blvd, our guide would point out area celebrities and friends who live in the area. Some include the Pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church – Dr. Calvin O. Butts, A Marketing exec from Vibe Magazine and local activist and up and coming talent. Everyone one was kind enough to stop and wave to our group and one person even sang a little jazz.

In addition to the wonderful people that make up Harlem, there is a rich history. Our guide shared how Harlem was founded by Dutch settlers in the 17th century and how the demographics changed over time as other areas of New York developed. Since I was on the Harlem Renaissance Multimedia Walking Tour, most of the history focused on events falling between the 1920 and and 1930s. As we walked through the neighborhoods, the guide played music from the time include Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan and Cab Calloway. We visited historic landmarks from famous streets and spots where movies were filmed, historic neighborhoods, and the highlight – visiting the famous Apollo Theater.

I had visited once  for a tour and Amateur Night but this time I had a chance to access other parts of the theater such as the dressing rooms and the signature wall. It was pretty amazing to see how many different acts and performers had graced that stage. Where else can you see Barack Obama and Metallica signatures on the same wall? The tour of the Apollo was conducted by “Mr. Apollo” Billy Mitchell who gave insight to the history and great personal stories about all the people he has met over the years. Outside vendors selling Apollo and James Brown souvenirs, blasted his music as some danced near by.  That was good marketing for the release of his bio Get on Up because I checked out the movie later that day:-)  I really enjoyed it, and apparently so did the lady behind me:
Screen Shot 2014-08-05 at 2.45.29 PM

It was a great visit and a great day to be in Harlem. Pictures from from the tour and other adventures this week as well as a few of my favorite songs played during the tour below.

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Songs:

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