Harlem has always had a rhythm of its own, blending multiple styles and cultures into one intoxicating beat. Lance Richardson walks us through the place he calls home.
It’s a warm Friday evening in autumn when I arrive at Bill’s Place on West 133rd Street. The building – a New York brownstone – is unremarkable but there are fairy lights and a red marquee above the entrance. As I step up to press the buzzer, I notice a plaque on the wall announcing that Billie Holiday was “discovered” here in 1933 during the days of Prohibition, when the basement was a speakeasy where people could dance and drink with impunity.
These days, Bill’s Place is a jazz club, though not like you imagine – with waitresses carrying Martinis on silver trays, say, or a lounge singer crooning from behind a grand piano. This is Harlem. Things work a little differently here.
A man opens the door and steps into the street. A small crowd has gathered behind me, people clutching bottles of wine or beer (Bill’s is BYO), and from each person the man accepts a $20 “donation”. Then he ushers us inside to a room so narrow the stage is sideways and the seats are pressed against the walls. When I take my place, I’m that close to the drums, I could reach out and flick a cymbal.
A sleepy-looking gent wanders onto the stage, clutching a saxophone. Behind him are portraits of John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie – and himself. “Hi everyone,” he says, as the band takes their places around him. “Welcome to Bill’s Place. This is Bill.” He laughs a slow wheeze.
And then suddenly, out of nowhere, the tiny space is filled with a very big sound – sax, drums, piano, double bass – everything combining and separating in a hyperactive tempo, manic and yet strangely sublime.
I wonder what the neighbours think, hearing this multiple times a week. They’re probably used to it, like they’re used to the rumble of subway trains beneath the street. Bill’s Place is just another layer of the urban soundscape. Harlem is loud and shameless, low-fi and improvised, the kind of place where you can find a jazz concert in a stranger’s apartment. Which is exactly what makes it so wonderful.
I first moved to Harlem in 2013. My single city block, on West 124th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenue, is more or less representative of this neighbourhood’s surreal charms. For example, just around the corner is a medieval sword-fighting school, where grown men dress up like Arthurian knights and attack each other Game of Thrones-style. Not far away, a family sells steamed crabs from a street stall. Four doors down is a building where police discovered an eight-foot python in a man’s apartment. The house next to that was just rented by a family for more than $20,000 a month; rich and poor live side by side here. Meanwhile, across the road, in Marcus Garvey Park, old men sit at tables, wrangling over chessboards, Black Hebrew Israelites whisper to each other on walkie-talkies – I’ve never worked out what they’re saying – and a devious hawk nests somewhere in the trees. It once swooped down on me while I was carrying clothes to the local laundromat, forcing me to make a mad dash for cover.
Most residents of Manhattan will tell you that the city has changed in the past few decades, becoming increasingly gentrified, the mom-and-pop stores replaced with luxury boutiques and upmarket eateries. There is no question that some of this change has come to Harlem. La Diagonal, for example, offers zucchini-blossom empanadas in a dining room filled with fancy cacti. At Clay, a farm-to-table menu is presented on handmade dinnerware from Brooklyn and is accompanied by a “curated” soundtrack by DJ Javier Peral.
But the spirit of Harlem is not so easily overcome by an influx of capital. Harlem demands respect and there is an effort by many new businesses to be, as Clay enthuses on its website, “community-minded”.
A few years ago, an unusual establishment, called Chéri, opened on Lenox Avenue. Its owner, a Frenchman named Alain Eoche, had previously run a successful bistro in Paris before pursuing his dream of moving to New York.
“I chose Harlem to establish my new life because of its very specific character,” Eoche tells me. “Everyone talks to one another here.” This was something he embraced in setting up Chéri, which, with its eclectic furniture, faux fireplace and cosy garden, is more like an open house than a French restaurant. “Chéri is considered by many to be their second home,” he says. “It makes me so happy.”
Just across the street from Chéri is Sugar Hill Creamery, which bills itself as the neighbourhood’s first family-owned ice-cream parlour since 1983. Nick Larsen and Petrushka Bazin Larsen, who used Kickstarter to raise funds for the store, were acutely aware that they might be viewed as a gentrifying force. “For us, gentrification is really about obliterating the culture that was there before,” explains Bazin Larsen. To emphasise that this wasn’t their intention – that they love Harlem just as it is – they hired muralist Raúl Ayala to paint portraits of locals straight onto the walls, advertising the parlour as open to everyone.
Of course, to talk about gentrification in New York is to talk about race. The bedrock of Harlem is African American, as it has been since the early 20th century. Though it’s true that there are increasing numbers of white residents – myself included – the neighbourhood remains very much “the capital of black America”, as it is sometimes described.
Visitors to Harlem interested in this black America, but unsure of how to access it, will walk through the curio stalls at Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market (52 West 116th Street; +1 212 987 8131) or meekly sit in the back pews of a church, listening to gospel singers belt out hymns. Both are worthy activities but they can only scratch the surface.
A more interesting picture can be glimpsed by adding a late-night stop at Harlem Shake, where teenagers slouch over sweet yam fries in a retro-looking diner, or by walking the length of West 125th Street on virtually any afternoon, pausing to chat to the young men selling their music demos, hoping to hit the big time like Jay-Z or Sean Combs.
If you want to see the best of black Harlem, go to Harlem Haberdashery, a family-owned fashion house where hip-hop bigwigs drop by to pick up shirts stencilled “Swag Hustle Boss” or get measured up for custom outfits. “This is from when I styled Aaliyah for Tommy Hilfiger,” the owner tells me, pawing a particularly striking red-and-white top.
My favourite place, though, is Flamekeepers Hat Club, which is the kind of store that doesn’t seem to exist anywhere else. “I’ve been in the business for more than 20 years,” says Marc Williamson, a debonair gentleman in a rabbit-fur top hat. “I chose Harlem to express my vision. I’d looked at the Lower East Side, Brooklyn. But I wanted to be part of the scene.”
I ask him who shops here. Who buys Panama hats from Ecuador, straw boaters from Venice? “You can get someone who works in a post office or a king of a country.” And he’s correct. Harlem contains that full spectrum; it’s as wide and varied as a universe.
As I write this, a thousand felt fedoras are bobbing through the streets as smartly dressed couples return home from church. It’s Sunday afternoon. Spanish music floats through my window and I can see a Puerto Rican family having a barbecue in the park. Somewhere drums are being played and the elevated train is rumbling down Park Avenue. I’ve lived here for four years and yet, when I step out my front door to listen to live music tonight, I will still be surprised. Something always happens. That is the Harlem promise. ￼
Photography credit: Chris Sorensen