Home is where the heart is right? Forget what you think you know about Harlem and start giving 125th street and the surrounding area a little more lovin…
1. The real New York
2. An intro to Harlem
3. Maison Harlem and neighborhood growth
I’ve wanted to travel to New York City since I was a kid. All the books you read, the movies you saw, the pictures, articles, travel conversations – all underscored NYC’s gravitas as a metropolis of endless action and influence. It turns out they weren’t far wrong. Visiting for a friend’s wedding I was blown away by the energy and industriousness of the city, still maintaining that ethos of progression and positivity that saw it grow so rapidly in the 20th century.
View from Brooklyn over the East River to Manhattan
Residential New York
For sure I was going to explore Manhattan, but with the same certainty I promised myself to stay in other areas and get a feel for the real New York and New Yorkers. Once again, my trusty AirBnB app came in handy (although for once I even felt that I’d left my booking a little late in the day) and I stayed on the border of Brooklyn / Queens. On reflection, Queens is a little far out for an NY first timer, however having visited the Williamsburg district a few miles away, I can’t recommend this area enough. Low lying, easily commutable and comprising eateries from all manner of international backgrounds, Williamsburg is a must for any tourist. Make sure to check out Roberta’s and get there early….
The focus of this article though is strictly Harlem. Having been recommended a jazz bar in the area and knowing that I needed easy access downtown to attend a wedding, my next AirBnB stint took me just up from 125th street. The Harlem neighborhood has always had a strong sense of African American identity and culture, still passionately clung to by residents, but sadly has also suffered from chronic levels of unemployment, crime and hardship. This of course has kept investors and visitors away, stagnating the area for decades. Today though the area is on the up, but what’s the price of progression?
The Apollo Theater close to 125th Street
Colombia University’s Manhattanville Campus, West Harlem
Tough and uncompromising crack-downs on crime championed by New York City Mayors, most recently Rudolph Giuliani, have seen a monumental drop in criminal behavior. This, in addition to a rezoning policy ten years ago permitting favorable property development laws, began to draw attention to the area for all the right reasons. High street brands, edgy bars and renovated iconic buildings previously forgotten by the city, have raised eyebrows and drawn attention to its potential once again. Not forgetting youth and infrastructure investments, Harlem really has seen a renaissance in the last 10-15 years. At the forefront of Harlem’s evolution is the cool, charismatic and seriously laid-back Franco-American restaurant bar, Maison Harlem.
Maison Harlem, view from St Nicholas Avenue
Maison Harlem, interior
Edgy, worn, funky; MH manages to tip its hat to Harlem’s heritage while carefully stamping its own identity on St Nicholas Avenue. I say carefully because with development comes gentrification and many long-term Harlem residents feel powerless to control the influx of new ideas and cultural norms that are evolving over time. Here’s the rub, because without change, areas are at risk of further stagnation. Surely then, in the absence of major investment focus for many years, the best approach for Harlemites is to do what I always felt New Yorkers were best at - embrace positivity and grow with it.
The owner of MH clearly has an appreciation for the area as well as what it means to provide good food and service. The staff are personable and welcoming, and the food is out of this world. So much did I enjoy my first visit in fact, that I went back a further three times, bringing friends with me on the latter occasion. A quick look down the bar revealed a cross-section of New Yorkers, with residents, tourists and professionals of all ages and ethnicities enjoying themselves. Try the homemade granola for a refreshing brunch and check out happy hour to take advantage of the brilliant atmosphere.
Harlem’s not rid of its problems – what area is in a big city – but with places like Maison Harlem cropping up, places that respect the past while offering a bright future, it won’t be long before this neighborhood gets the attention it fully deserves. I for one can’t wait to go back!