A Walk On Lenox Ave

A visit to Harlem, to find out what it means to be black in America

On The Town | Agnes-Julie Martin | March 2009

A corner of Lenox Avenue, Harlem: traditionally an African neighborhood (Photo: Agnes-Julie Martin)

On the eve of the U.S. election, I decided to take a visit to Harlem, New York City: I needed to find out a little more about what it means to be black in America. In Austria, as in the U.S., emotions were running extremely high. The economy was unraveling; the need for change became more dire every day.

Now three months later, with Barack Obama in office, knee-deep in the world’s mess, the scenes on the Harlem streets stay with me.

It was a big undertaking for me: At the age of 21 with not a lot of money in my pockets, I had to find an affordable place to stay that was close to the city’s most important sights.

The cheapest youth hostels in Manhattan are easy to find in Harlem. I tried two – they were completely different from one another. At the first, "Jazz on the Lenox," for $18 a night, you shared an eight-bed female dorm. This was a typical hostel; if you’re modest and a survivor type, you’ll get along well with it. The second, "L-Hostel," was unusually luxurious for only $25 a night. A huge, free breakfast, fresh from Dunkin’ Donuts every morning, large clean rooms, and an attractive interior gave a less of a "backpacker" feeling.

And this is how I got to know one of the most "cliché" areas of New York.

Harlem on the Upper West Side begins at 110th Street and ends at 155th Street. When people say Uptown, this is what they usually mean: the cultural center of the city’s African-American community in New York City. There is more to it, but for me, this was the part that counted.

Harlem’s main artery is 125th Street, a bustling thoroughfare of little boutiques selling big and colorful jewelry, cheap but stylish (so a great place to browse), cinemas, cafés, bars and all sorts of fast food.

Crossing it north-south is the famed Lenox Avenue, named in 1889 after philanthropist James Lenox, whose books became a founding collection of the New York Public Library. It was renamed "Malcolm X Boulevard" in 1989 – used by the sign makers if not the public. Among its treasures is the old jazz club, the Lenox Lounge, renovated in 1999, and has served as a location for the movies Shaft and American Gangster. Jazz legends like singer Billie Holiday and saxophonist Miles Davis performed there, and with a relatively low cover charge of $25, it is within the reach of at least some of its Harlem neighbors. Nearby is the Apollo Theater (where Motown icons like "The Supremes" and Marvin Gaye performed as well) and the many, many churches at almost every corner where Sunday mornings ring with Gospel chants.

One other Harlem legend is the Cotton Club at the entrance to Sugar Hill on West 125th Street. This is not the original Harlem Cotton Club, which moved to midtown and finally closed decades ago. Still, this one is fun, set up for a full size big band and vocalists, with a swing night each ($15  cover) and a Blues and Jazz Show and Buffet on weekends ($40 a person inclusive)

Young hostel tourists also need affordable meals. In Harlem, there’s always fast food – McDonald’s or White Castle for quick burgers or the Halal food, like our kebab stands in Vienna. But you can also find civilized, healthy, and affordable meals at the many clean and well-stocked self-service places in Midtown. An Uptown compromise is Chinese fast-food, where you can just order and take away – a vegetable fried rice for only $2.99.

Just like the rest of Manhattan, brownstones fill the Harlem streets. Most of those built between America’s East Coast brownstones are the Hummelstown type. These are usually a little more expensive; several people share them and are similar to the Austrian Reihenhaus.

The emotional and cultural daily life experience of Harlem is a far more important way of sight-seeing than any other institution or museum could give you.

I didn’t know what to expect in Harlem; many in Vienna had warned me not to go out at night alone as a white, single woman, and even of the possibility of getting caught in a shooting. But my curiosity overcame my fear.

Harlem turned out to be full of life and anything but frightening. Like the rest of New York, Harlem doesn’t sleep. Stores are open around the clock and you hear people talking loudly outside, day and night. You need to adjust a little, to be open and friendly, to acquire the right swagger. This took some practice. In the end, my "camouflage" of strutting around like I was in some MTV hip-hop video clip worked fine: A stylish jogging suit, big earrings, sunglasses, a freaky hair style, and a big smile on my face is how I walked on the Lenox Avenue, which was really convenient when it came to the many old men asking for money.

The ‘deeper’ you get into Harlem’s streets, somewhere around 145th street, you notice  fewer white people. A business suit would probably attract curious looks. Black people have lived in the United States for 400 years and still, even in Vienna where the first Africans arrived in the 70’s, neighborhoods look more mixed. At least more so than the Upper West Side.

Harlem churns up many emotions: sadness, desperation at times, even a stirring of revolution as much as friendliness and humanity. And behind all that, the constant power and campaign: music. With fascination, I was carried along.

With all its charms, Harlem is caught in a vicious cycle of lack of education (most did not know where Vienna was) whose effects repeat themselves through the generations. Without an education, young people find themselves in a dead end and all too often end up in encounters with the police.

We saw this for ourselves one evening. Walking with two other students from my hostel, we came across a group of policemen on the street. "Go straight back to the hostel," one warned us. Five shots had been heard nearby. Hungry for action, we moved off to the side and stayed. A few minutes later, we saw a huge crowd of young men running away from five police cars, alarms blaring. Old people had gathered and were arguing with the police.

Fifty years after the U.S. Civil Rights Bill, social injustices and discrimination appear to be a daily experience in Harlem. In one of the first days of my stay, a 13-year old boy got shot by another boy in front of a grocery store on Lenox Avenue, close to 144th Street. People in the crowd were not as shocked as I was. Still, they were grieving, wearing t-shirts saying "Rest in Peace, Scotty."

Another morning at Dunkin’ Donuts, biting into a cinnamon roll, we were suddenly caught in the scene of a policewoman pointing a pistol at a young man’s head, screaming, "Get on the floor, get on the floor." It was hard to escape the conclusion that America’s gun politics and laws on race need a drastic change.

Poverty is the source of many problems in Uptown Manhattan. The picture of the many disabled, alcoholics, and homeless people sleeping on the stairs of Harlem’s brownstones is affecting. With an inadequate health care system, most elderly people have a physical handicap or look sick. The young people have little to look forward to; perhaps most of all they need positive visions of the future.

Now, they have it. In late September, Obama-hysteria was everywhere. When I did my laundry, I heard the local people debating about him, items with his name and picture were everywhere, and even the graffiti shouted out words of hope and change. Even the ugly past seemed to have found a gentler form: seeing old grandfathers wearing T-shirts with sayings like "Retired Slave" was a daily picture. There was pride in the names of the heroes of the emancipation fight of the 19th century, and the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th – people after whom so many boulevards, parks, and statues are named.

But it is with music that Harlem truly conquers the heart. Its culture is deeply rooted in Christianity, history and belief, which fuse in the beautiful mix of gospel music. Close to my hostel was the quaint Shiloh Baptist Church, where I was welcomed with a friendliness I found typical of Harlem. I was lucky and did not get sent to the balcony where the tourists usually go; I attended the Harlem Gospel service in it fullness, the chants and litanies of questions and answers, its chorus of faith. If the words faith and optimism had a soundtrack, it would definitely be close to these sounds. Swept up in its soulful and passionate sounds, you become overwhelmed with emotion, and you realize why waking up early on a Harlem Sunday and going to church is worth it.

But in Harlem, every day, music accompanies you. Some of the musicians might be people who never learned how to read music, because their parents weren’t able to pay for the lessons. But the strength of music is there to feel at every corner. Aretha Franklin’s bluesy sounds come out of stands selling CDs at 125th Street and at 145th Street. Hip-hop pours out of ghetto blasters, giving you your own personal soundtrack as you walk along the avenue. If you’re lucky, you might even get to see someone’s rap live-act. Old men, perhaps on their way to a chess game, walk down the street, singing blues evergreens, such as, "I Wish It Would Rain" – all part of the scene, where cliché meets reality.

The appeal of Harlem is, in many ways, this experience of realness, a radical contrast to other neighborhoods of New York.

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