WHEN YOU GET OFF THE subway at 125th
Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem—actually, anywhere in
Harlem—you’ll need to watch out for the missionaries. This new
breed of missionary is a little more subtle than the tract-pushing or
loudly proselytizing type.
“Have you seen the new cafe on Frederick Douglass?” they’ll
ask. “You know the new Aloft hotel is buzzing?” they’ll say.
“Checked out the condo listings? There’s a new green develop-
ment and the two-bedrooms are a bargain.”
Where other New York neighborhoods are content with
you visiting, dropping a bit of cash and then moving along your
merry way, Harlem would prefer it if you put down roots, or at
least stayed awhile to talk.
You quickly get a sense of the neighborhood’s hospitality
when you stroll for a few blocks with a local. Carolyn Johnson,
who founded the tour Welcome to Harlem, says, “Once we
start walking down the street, we can be stopped 10 or 15 times
because people are friends. We don’t think of it as an interrup-
tion. People learn more about what they’re seeing because the
locals are so attached.”
Still, you can get a first taste of Harlem in a day, and you don’t
need to bring a down payment. It’s friendliest on Sundays, when
everyone seems to be out on the streets, either returning from
church, on their way to a bike ride or tennis match or headed out
for a lazy lunch with friends.
Although Harlem is at the northern, somewhat distant end of
Manhattan, it’s faster and easier to get to the neighborhood than
it is to get from, say, Chelsea to the Upper East Side. From Penn
Station a quick trip up along the fabled A train, or an even faster
shot along the express 2 or 3 lines, will put you in the heart of Harlem in under 15 minutes.
I prefer arriving on the 2 or the 3, not only because it puts you
at the heart of commercial Harlem at 125th Street and Lenox
Avenue but also because of the Faith Ringgold tile murals along
the subway platform walls. Ringgold brought the roofs of Harlem
to life with her children’s book classic Tar Beach, and her subterranean work Flying Home: Harlem Heroes and Heroines brings a
sampling of this magic to the underground through tile representations of local legends Sugar Ray Robinson, Zora Neale Hurston
and others floating above the streets. When I emerge onto the
corner of Lenox and 125th, it’s a half block north to my first stop,
brunch at Red Rooster.
Johnson says, “After Bill Clinton moved his office up here,
people said, What’s going on up there? Why would he do that?
And then people started coming to find out. It happened really
fast and it’s continued to happen. If you blink your eye some-
Clinton can be credited with kick-starting mass-market interest
in Harlem in 2000, but Chef Marcus Samuelsson is the poster child
for everything that’s exciting about the latest wave of changes. As a
celebrated chef at Aquavit in the 1990s, Samuelsson reinvented
modern Swedish cuisine; in today’s Harlem, he’s infusing classic
can find in