I started walking Harlem again after the holidays and I saw the last vestiges of the holidays all over the neighborhood. Some of the brownstone owners still had their wreaths and garland decorating their homes and it was still quite striking to see a ‘Victorian Christmas’ in front of me. There were still some Santa’s up and trees with lights at twilight and it was nice to see that some people kept their decorations up for the Epiphany.
I started my day by walking the avenues first and then I would do the side streets. It is very different to do this walk in the winter months than in the summer as the days get short and it gets dark very quickly. Some parts of this part of the neighborhood can be somewhat sketchy so try not to venture out too late. I would not say that some parts are dangerous but in any part of New York City even in daylight, you should watch yourself. Even parts of the Upper East Side can be daunting after dark.
The part of the neighborhood that I was covering on this part of the walk is from south of 145th Street east of Fredrick Douglas Boulevard and Edgecombe Avenue to FDR Drive, which is near impossible to walk as their is no outlet to get onto it with getting yourself killed.
I had covered most of First, Second, Third and Lexington Avenues over the summer but I walked them again to see if there were any changes. There were a few as new buildings are going up by 128th Street and some of the businesses in the area had splashed some new paint on the buildings. This area of the triangle bounded from Lexington Avenue from 131st Street to 125th Street is dominated by commercial buildings and the bus depots with a few small parks that have seen better days.
There is a very nice recreational area that I walked through on 128th Street that was very active in the Summer with loads of kids playing soccer and baseball but in the winter months, there were a few kids milling around and playing chase and soccer. Mostly groups of kids hanging out after school. As I walked up the ramp to the 3rd Avenue Bridge to the Bronx, I noticed a few pairs of eyes watching me as I was watching them. The same thing happened at Young Park on 145th Street.
In the summer, the park was very active with a huge basketball tournament that had attracted a big crowd. In the winter, it had just a few kids playing basketball and a few mothers strolling with their kids. The site of a six foot tall white guy had people staring at me but I have gotten used to it by this point.
Even Park Avenue in this part of Manhattan is not very glamorous. Much different from the blocks south of 96th Street. Up here, it is more commercial with a few schools in the area and a few new apartment houses. There are many small businesses and the area is mostly geared towards transportation. It is not a place to be late at night if you are not from the neighborhood.
Around 132nd Street down to about 128th, the glamour continues with the Department of Sanitation having one of their uptown buildings. This area under the train underpass is where they keep all the garbage trucks and the area is really busy during the days of pick up. It gets a little scary up here at night and it does smell but also too you get to see how the city works. I just wonder how this effects the health of so many residents who are living in public housing that surround the area.
Once you pass Park Avenue, then the neighborhood becomes more residential and you really see the beautiful brownstones and apartment buildings. From Madison Avenue to 7th Avenue, most of the streets are lined with the most graceful buildings from the turn of two centuries ago. Some of the doorways were still decorated for the holidays and it complimented the homes nicely.
This area of Harlem is dominated by many large public housing complexes, which is the reason why the Harlem section of the city will remain a diverse section of the city. This is unless the city decides to sell off their housing department to meet the demand for housing at market rates. This would really change the complexity of the city.
Walking the Avenues did not take as long as walking the streets. I was able to walk from 1st Avenue to Fredrick Douglas Boulevard in two days and get a real view on how the commercial districts are slowly changing. Since the summer, many businesses I have noticed have closed or have been replaced by chain businesses. It is funny that for the number of years that the city moaned and groaned about chain businesses not wanting to enter the city it is now being dominated by these businesses often pushing out the mom & pop businesses that give each neighborhood its uniqueness.
The one thing about Harlem is that if you ever want a quick snack, there is no lack of bodega’s and small restaurants that are reasonably priced. I stopped in at Food Company Deli at Madison and 130th Street for pastilitos, those wonderful and reasonable meat pies I enjoyed so much in Washington Heights. They were $1.25 here but still delicious. They were freshly cooked and full of chicken and beef respectively. They had a wonderful selection of hot snacks, probably for the after-school crowd from the two schools around the corner and the people playing in the park down the road. All I know is that the owner got very excited about me being there and jumped through hoops when I walked in and paid for my purchase in cash.
When both walking the avenues and the streets, you will notice that there are a large number of public housing units that spread over several blocks. The Drew Hamilton Housing Complex dominates from 144th to 141st Streets from Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard (7th Avenue) to Fredrick Douglas Boulevard (8th Avenue) and Fredrick Samuels Houses run from 141st to 139th Streets between Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard (7th Avenue). Saint Nicholas Houses at 127th to 131st Streets was my start off point since the summer months and where I completed the walk in February at 6:30pm while watching a group of kids play basketball (their park is still having a major makeover that has been going on since the summer months).
Between 142nd Street and 139th Streets, from Lenox to 5th Avenue, you have the mixed income and renovated Savoy Park Apartments. They are gated and you can see by the landscaping and the cars in the lots not public housing. It is much better taken care of then the surrounding housing but reading reviews on the internet, they still seem to have similar problems. Even though this series of former public housing still has older residents and am not sure if all the buildings are fully renovated yet.
I walked through most of these complexes around twilight and no one ever bothered me. Most people either ignored me or looked the other way. Sometimes groups of young men would be on their cell phones while I was walking on one side of the street and then would disappear by the time I walked back down the other side of the street. Since I criss-crossed most of the neighborhood for a second time, I was able to judge how the neighborhood was changing just in the few months it took to walk this side of Harlem.
The areas the surround the SUNY campus seem to have the most changes to it. Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and Fredrick Douglas Boulevard keep changing all the time in the areas between 140th Streets to about 132nd Street. Many of the buildings have the ‘new window’ syndrome, where you can tell the building is either been renovated or in the process of being renovated. This is where your newer restaurants and shops are popping up. This is especially true at around St. Nichols Boulevard and Edgecombe Avenues where brownstones and pre-war apartments being sandblasted back to sparkling perfection with new plantings and artwork to accompany them. The homes around Dorrance Brooks Square Park between 136th to 137th Streets have a real beauty to them with their unique designs and big windows over-looking the small park.
The area gets even nicer in the fast gentrifying St. Nicholas Historic District, known as ‘Strivers Row’ of brownstone homes between 137th and 139th Streets right off St. Nicholas Park between Fredrick Douglas and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevards. These majestic buildings were once ‘the’ area of Harlem and are fast taking their rightful place in the neighborhood again. So much of the block I have passed over the past two months has been under scaffolding (as much of the neighborhood has been). These buildings built between 1891-1893 in the Colonial, Georgian and Italian Renaissance styles and have been home to many famous residents including musician Eubie Blake and congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Really take time to look at the architecture and the detail work. You can still see traces of the past century in the details.
The commercial avenues is where you are seeing the most changes. The weird part is that it changes from block to block. Even the restaurants change. You can have a hip new barbecue place next to a Chinese restaurant with bullet proof glass and a small slot to get your food. The funny part is when the young white kids enter these Chinese restaurants and the looks on their faces when they are ordering. It can such a juxtaposed array of businesses catering to both old and new residents. Even when I walk in the owners seemed perplexed with who I was and what I was doing there. This happens right across the street from the housing projects but even in the nicest restaurants in the area, it is a mixed crowd of residents enjoying themselves.
One note when walking this upper part of Harlem is that there are scarce public bathrooms around the area. Outside of the McDonalds on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard the only other bathroom you can use in the neighborhood is in the much needed in renovation Fred Samuels Park. Their bathrooms are clean but still falling apart. The park is located between 139th and 140th Streets off Lenox Boulevard and is well used both days I passed it. You would think of the condition of the park and its bathrooms though that the park system could do more for the neighborhood.
Another part of the neighborhood is the very busy and very famous “Harlem Hilton”, Engine 69, Ladder 28 Battalion 16 located on 143rd Street, a block that I am sure has completely changed over the years. The years of the ‘burn baby burn’ days are long over but the company was out the whole time I was there making calls all over the neighborhood. This famous fire company had seen it share of fires over the years. With all the public housing in the area, it looks like the companies are kept busy.
Two unique blocks that I passed was the 132rd Street neighborhood and their garden, the 132rd Street Community Garden that is tended and planted by the neighborhood association and compliments the well-taken care of brownstones on the street. The effect must look nice in the summer. Another nice looking garden is the Harlem Rose Garden on 129th Street. It was under a foot of snow the time I passed it but it must be quite nice in June.
There are also the ‘Harlem Grows’ gardens at 134th Streets, which is an urban youth garden that caters to the children in the neighborhood by sponsoring programs and volunteer planting while working with schools to create school gardens. This unique programs gets kids involved with the whole process of urban farming. Again under a foot of snow when I passed it , you could see traces of activity in the small green houses on the property.
Some of the most beautiful buildings in the neighborhood was the Astor Row block on West 130th Street. These 28 single family brick houses were built by William Backhouse Astor Jr. between 1880 to 1883. These homes, mostly newly renovated have front and side yards and wooden porches that have been added again since their renovations. Most have renovated but in the middle of the development there is one home that is bricked up with a huge sign that says ‘not abandoned and not for sale. Don’t inquire.’ on the door. This is how desperate people are to buy into the historical housing in this area.
After seven weeks of walking this part of North Harlem, I finally reached 128th Street, months after the summer months of walking from 125th to 128th Streets. It was so nice to see the park at the Saint Nicholas Houses where I had started so many months ago.
Much has changed since the summer months with Colombia University growing by the Hudson River side of the island and scaffolding all over the areas surrounding the areas between Madison Avenue to Fredrick Douglas Boulevard where brownstones and prewar apartments are being snatched up quickly.
More college students are moving in and venturing to further reaches of the area and the housing projects are even going through their own renovations. It won’t be so strange this time to see college students sunning themselves in St. Nicholas and Jackie Robinson Parks anymore. The whole area is changing and there is a lot of investment in the neighborhood not just in housing but in the parks as well. With community gardens and block associations cleaning up empty lots, the pride of Harlem is alive and well. You just have to look for it.
This part of the walk completes the whole neighborhood above 125th Street known by the relators now as NoHA, North of Harlem. Now on to Morningside Heights.