Harlem is a culturally rich and vibrant neighborhood with a fascinating history.
Extending north from Central Park to Washington Heights, historic Harlem includes most of northern Manhattan. While several subway lines make it easy to get to all points south, Harlem can still feel like its own world — and it was long its own village, founded by the Dutch and named after Haarlem in the Netherlands. Despite its 17th-century roots, the area became famous at the beginning of the 20th century, when African-Americans from other parts of the city, and country, were welcomed here. The legacy of the Harlem Renaissance — the burgeoning of music, literature, and political activism from the 1910s to the ’30s — lives on at museums and the legendary Apollo Theater. Although the rest of the 20th century was tough on the neighborhood, in recent decades it has been experiencing a second renaissance, as historic brownstones are being restored, and 125th Street is once again the lively commercial heart of the neighborhood.
Even though it was a village under the Dutch, the history of Harlem as we know it today begins in the 19th century. In 1880, after it was connected to the rest of Manhattan by the New York Elevated Railroad, developers began erecting block after block of rowhouses and apartment buildings. As it turns out, they built too many, and after a real estate crash in 1904, they decided to sell and rent to African-Americans. A result of Harlem’s becoming a magnet for African-Americans was the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural flowering led by writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston and musicians including Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and Cab Calloway. Institutions from the Studio Museum to the Apollo Theater keep the spirit of that period alive. In the past few decades, public and private investments have resulted in a new blossoming of interest in the area.
Harlem’s restaurant scene includes Southern soul food favorites, like Sylvia’s, and other spots like the beloved Minton’s Playhouse, where music is as much of a draw as the food. In recent years, the offerings have become more varied. Newer arrivals have menus focused on African, Caribbean, French, Italian, and other cuisines. There’s even a Michelin-starred sushi restaurant, Sushi Inoue, and a popular outpost from chef Marcus Samuelsson, Red Rooster Harlem. There isn’t a single restaurant row per se in Harlem, and you’ll find its best restaurants throughout the neighborhood. Shopping, on the other hand, is concentrated along 125th Street and nearby blocks. There’s a mix of familiar stores like Old Navy and DSW Designer Shoe Warehouse, but also independent, only-in-Harlem options. Frederick Douglass Boulevard (the continuation of Central Park West) also has some stores to lure strolling window-shoppers.