Day Sixty-Eight: Walking SoHA (South Harlem from 110th to 125th Streets from Frederick Douglas Boulevard to Park Avenue, February 22rd-April 3rd, 2017.

The relators have changed the borders many times to extend  neighborhoods from their traditional borders to include areas that have improved and been renovated to add to the value of the neighborhood. This is what I have seen in SoHA (South Harlem). Morningside Heights has creeped across the border, leap-frogging over Morningside Park to include a new ‘Restaurant Row’ on Frederick Douglas Boulevard making it the new eastern border of Morningside Heights.

What the borders might be now, I really could not say but I can see how the area has changed in the last twenty years. When I visited the Columbia campus in the early 90’s, I remember overhearing some of the students talking about all the fires that they saw the night before in the area on the other side of Morningside Park and how metal gates used to be in front of the steps leading to the park. Oh how times have changed in this area.

I started my walk during the winter break from school and the weather was in the high 60’s and low 70’s the whole week and it seemed that everyone had a case of cabin fever. People were all out and about this whole week. I started my walk that Wednesday morning and the weather had to be about 68 degrees and it was just beautiful out. It had started out a little cloudy then just cleared giving me perfect weather to walk around. My first part of the trip to me to the border of ‘SoHA’, South of Harlem 125th Street.

125th Street, which is the main artery of Harlem, is still being developed. All over the place things are under scaffolding or being knocked down and rebuilt all over the street. It is amazing the changes that have taken place so quickly since the summer. Since the summer, many of the side streets are under scaffolding as brownstones have been bought and even ones that have been bricked up for years have been sold and are being gutted.

My first part of the day was exploring Morningside Park by walking down Morningside Avenue and walking through the park area in the late morning. Most of the buildings facing the park have been renovated and sandblasted back into beauty and I am sure have gone up in value in the last 15 years. New playgrounds and spring plantings and clean up were happening all over the park as the park service had their crews were working all day to clean up the park for spring. The warm weather had plants popping up all over the park about a month early as I could see daffodils ready to bloom.

The park was full of mothers with strollers and kids playing baseball and soccer. The schools were out for the winter break and these kids really lucked out with the beautiful weather. It was more like late spring instead of the middle of the winter with warm temperatures and lots of sunshine. Everyone was taking advantage of the warm weather.

I was impressed by how nice the park looked with its new landscaping, well-tended paths and new playgrounds. It was a far cry from the drug dens that my father described when he was attending Columbia. The police would not even let him cross the park when he took the wrong subway and wanted to walk across the park to get to class. They made him go back downtown and take the 1 subway uptown.

I  was fascinated by a statue of George Washington and General Lafayette that stood at the corner of 114th Street and Morningside Avenue. This impressive statue sits in a small triangle park across the street from Morningside Park and is surrounding by Victorian looking apartment buildings. The whole block surrounding the park has been sandblasted and renovated back to its original elegance. It is an impressive block of brownstones and prewar apartment buildings that surround this pocket park.

As I exited the park, I can see all the new construction that is taking place on 110th Street which now looks like the Upper East Side. Pretty much everything from Riverside Drive to Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard has been renovated or rebuilt and has become an extension of Columbia University. The whole area was loaded with students going to classes or just trying to escape their classes by sitting in both Morningside and Central Parks. Several of the apartment buildings along 110th Street look straight off Park Avenue downtown with their elegant facades and their doormen.

The first day I walked this part of the neighborhood, I walked the Avenues and was able to walk Manhattan Avenue, Fredrick Douglas Boulevard, Nicholas Avenue (which crosses these Avenues)  and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. It is amazing how the neighborhood changes from block to block.

Morningside Avenue and Manhattan Avenue are lined with elegant brownstones and prewar apartments that are beginning to see signs of college students moving in. I saw students milling around the area all day long. These and Fredrick Douglas Boulevard (which in the not so distant future will probably be renamed Central Park North) have extended Morningside Heights further west. These three blocks east of the park are starting to cater to Columbia students and faculty.

Fredrick Douglas Boulevard has become ‘Restaurant Row’ to the college students and hipsters living in the area. I had never seen so many new restaurants on a fifteen block stretch and the funny part was you know that they are not catering to the local crowds as the cheapest entrée on most of the menus was between $15.00 to $20.00. All of these places were ridiculously expensive for this part of the city and the menus were very similar. On such a warm day though, the outdoor cafes were in full swing and the street was loaded with people either walking their dogs, catching up with friends or eating outside. I have to tell you this though, the white population in this section of SoHA is growing fast and they are young.

After covering these streets from 110th to 125th and back, I took a break and relaxed at the Harlem Meer located in Central Park North at 110th Street. On a beautiful sunny day, there is no better place to relax than on the benches facing the meer. People were outside fishing with their children and seniors were relaxing with their fishing poles bobbing by the side of the meer and gossiping about their neighbors. Behind them, loads of small children and their parents were running around the playground.

I took some time out from my sunning and walked around the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center, where the bathrooms (note these are open late), visitors center and the history the park played in the Revolutionary War are located here. You can also arrange walking tours or become a member of the Central Park Conservatory ( I know because I did). I took some time out and looked over the history of the park. It is a very interesting timeline of the park during both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Take a half hour out and look over the display.

I walked up and down the every changing Nicholas Avenue that cuts across the neighborhood from Fredrick Douglas Boulevard across 7th Avenue to exit at Lenox Avenue. This ever changing street has loads of new restaurants and businesses on it. It starts off a small triangle a block below 125th Street that has a theater and a slew of new restaurants. You can see how the blocks keep changing with a lot of the buildings under scaffolding and for rent signs. There was an impressive memorial tribute to Harriet Tubman at 122nd Street and St. Nicholas Avenue with a beautiful statue located on a triangle over looking the road crossing.

I was able to cover a small section of Lenox Avenue the first day in the neighborhood and between 112th to 115th Streets stretching from Lenox Avenue to 5th Avenue the area is dominated by the Martin Luther King Jr. Houses and then from 5th Avenue to Park Avenue by the Taft Houses. It looks like the city just bulldozed down an entire part of the neighborhood to build this hideous public housing. No wonder Jane Jacob said in “The Death and Life of American Cities” that public housing was the failure of a neighborhood and how it disengages itself from the rest of the neighborhood. There was a lot of renovation of the houses and parks in both areas but it looked out of place with the blocks of prewar buildings and brownstones (Who knew that living in the projects was so trendy?).

It was getting dark on my first day in the this part of the neighborhood but with so many people outside, I never felt unsafe even walking through the projects. I double backed down part of Lenox Avenue and discovered at the corner between 109th and 110th Streets in a series of restaurants, a small take out Chinese restaurant named Hunan Chen’s Kitchen at 1003A Columbus Avenue (see review on TripAdvisor). This little hole in the wall is amazing.

The food and the service is just excellent. The place is so small it can barely hold three people comfortably and it has only one table to sit on and that is always full. The food is so reasonable and the portion sizes are huge. I was there for a second time and had to try their General Tso’s Chicken, which had been raved about online on Grubhub. At about twilight, I took my food and ate it on the benches at the entrance of Morningside Park on the corner of 110th Street and just watched the crowds of people in the park. The large portion of chicken was well-fried and the sauce had a tangy sweetness and just enough fire from the hot chilies to wake me up. It was excellent. The food was steaming hot and the egg roll had just come out of the fryer. With a Coke, the whole meal which could have easily fed two people was $8.25. It was a real steal and the food was wonderful.

My second day I walked in the neighborhood, I concentrated on walking more of the avenues and covered Lenox, Madison, Park and Lexington Avenues. That took time as I walked from 110th to 125th Streets both sides up and down. I also stopped in various parks and businesses. I could see traces of the old Italian neighborhood up on 116th Street east of Park Avenue with many Italian restaurants with Spanish menus.

All three streets are dominated by public housing surrounding 110th Street and between 112th and 115th Streets. The Taft Houses, the Martin Luther King Jr. Houses and the Jefferson Houses pretty much surrounds this section of the neighborhood and you see as far as you can about a dozen hulking buildings surrounded by small businesses. Again, once you cross 116th Street, it starts to change again with new apartment complexes wedged a block from the projects that cater to a whole other person. Surrounding those new apartment buildings are new restaurants and shops especially coffee shops are dotted all over this section of the neighborhood. They are the hang outs for all the twenty and thirty something’s that live there.

Lenox and Fifth Avenues above 116th and near Mount Morris (Marcus Garvey) Park is dominated by the Mount Morris Historic District. Streets that surround the park on the west side of the park are either scaffolded or have already been sandblasted to their original charm. These brownstones and prewar apartments have a turn of the last century charm to them and the blocks are very elegant and well-maintained. When you pass them, really look at the stonework and detail work in the carvings. Are those flowers and faces in the buildings?

Park Avenue has its own charm and uniqueness to it after you go above 98th Street when the tracks become elevated and it cuts the street in half. Some businesses have been established under the tracks to add to the charm of the area.

The Harlem Garden Center at 117th Street on Park Avenue has a huge array of products for the urban gardener including the trees, bushes and all the equipment for heavy duty gardening. La Marqueta Marketplace is on East 117th Street & Park Avenue, which has an interesting grouping of bakeries and shops that cater to both the locals and the hipsters.

There are about three bakeries inside the market and it is a nice place to venture on a long day. Hot Bread Bakery has quite the reputation in the neighborhood. I stopped at Patisserie Vanessa one afternoon and had a Caramel Caneles ($2.00), which was a tiny crème caramel with burnt sides (see TripAdvisor review). It was a delicious little chewy dessert and was cute to look at and had a wonderful bite to it.  The problem is that these bakeries never seem to be open during the week.

Another nice bakery I came across is Lee Lee’s Bakery, which I stopped at for a much needed pastry. This bakery is located at 283 West 118th Street. I had the most amazingly buttery peach pastry that melted in my mouth (see review on TripAdvisor). They also have the most delicious buttery rugelach, little cinnamon pastries. This little store is located right off Fifth Avenue and is worth the trip uptown.

There are several Community Gardens tucked in between the blocks of businesses and the projects. I cam across Peaceful Valley Community Garden at 117th Street that looked like it was being replanted in the middle of the winter in the warm weather. Chenchita’s Garden was at East 112th Street and was also being worked on in the warm weather.  The Villa Santurce Jardinera at East 112th Street looked like it was going to need some work in the spring. That is the resourcefulness of this neighborhood is that the residents have taken these empty lots and created something beautiful in their place. It shows the pride of wanting to build a neighborhood.

I walked the last section of SoHA on April 3rd and it took most of the day. After a long day of working at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen (which I do most mornings before I start by neighborhood walks), I took the subway up to 125th Street and walked down the street from Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard to Park Avenue. 125th Street keeps morphing.

It seems that every building on the block around 5th Avenue is going through some sort of renovation or is being knocked down. It is so funny to see a Red Lobster next to the Apollo Theater (but it is the same when you pass the Cotton Club and how it is dominated by the new Columbia campus extension. It is out of place now). Once you pass 5th Avenue, the businesses start to get a little fancier reflecting the changes in this part of the neighborhood with the renovation of the brownstones around Mount Morris Park (Marcus Garvey Park).

I stopped at Lady Lexis Sweets Bakery at 1931 Madison Avenue to grab a quick snack to keep me going before lunch. They had a nice selection of cookies, candy and cakes in the cases and very creative art work on the walls (See review on TripAdvisor). The mother-daughter team that runs the bakery does a nice job. I had a from scratch M & M cookie that was pretty good but a little on the expense side. I think that $1.75 for a cookie is a little steep but it was well worth it. It had a sugar cookies sweetness to it.

I rounded the corner of 5th Avenue and Madison Avenue and decided to pin-point the walk between 5th Avenue and Lexington Avenue between 125th Street and 116th Street and then Lenox Avenue from 115th Street to 110th Street and retraced my tracks on 125th, 124th, 116th and 110th Streets. The scaffolding keeps going up.

It was such a nice day that I took some time out and walked around Mount Morris Park (Marcus Garvey Park) or about a half hour. I was able to walk all over the park but I want to warn readers about going into the park. I walked around the upper level of the park and there were more than a few suspicious looking guys hanging around the top of the hill of the park. They took one look at me walking around and they left the top of the hill.

I walked around the hill and watched them and then walked around the perimeter of the park. I watched the families in the playground and by the dog park and admired a structure of huts by artist Simone Leigh, that had been placed in the park. It was part of the ‘Flex Public Art’ display as part of the city’s ‘Changing Landscapes’ program. Its a work that shows three huts or ‘imba Yokubikira’ or called ‘kitchen houses’ based on structures in Zimbabwe. The artist from what I read was trying to show the sense of community or a loss of it. They are located the entrance to the hill and are very interesting public art.

After walking the whole park, it was off down 123rd Street and covering the upper section of the neighborhood. Most of the this section of SoHA is dominated by schools and businesses. Before you cross over to 118th Street, most of what I saw were the commercial strips of 125th Street and its back lot 124th Street. As you walk in this area, there are a lot of elementary schools, health clinics, churches and apartment buildings, especially a lot of affordable housing buildings that are being renovated. It seems that the city is trying to upgrade its public housing.

Around 118th Street and Madison Avenue, the neighborhood starts to change again with new apartment buildings and businesses dominating 5th, Madison, Park and Lexington Avenues. This area is being knocked down for new construction and small residential buildings are opening all over the place. The strangest thing is that there is luxury housing opening right next door to the public housing. It seems that the next generation of luxury owners does not mind this arrangement.

In the midst of all of this change and renovation, you discover all sorts of pocket parks and street art.  Artist Naomi Lawrence has a yarn work called ‘Lotus’ on the fence at the corner of Park Avenue and 120th Street. This flower sculpture is woven into the fence and is the image of a colorful opening up. This street art that is also part of the ‘Changing Landscapes’ project. The ‘Three Women’ sculpture in front of the new apartment building at 120th and 5th Avenue by artist Nnamdi Okonkwo, shows three somewhat rotund women hugging one another. It was interesting to see how these artists expressed themselves. It was not typical of you might see outside.

I discovered more urban community gardens while walking around the neighborhood. The Peaceful Valley Community Garden at 117th and Madison Avenue and the Jackie Robinson Garden at 122nd and Park show the creativity of residents with space and plantings. They have managed to put in raised vegetable beds, flower gardens, modern sculpture and stone paths into a tiny area and still make it attractive. I have noticed these small urban parks that are part of the ‘Green Thumb’  initiative. The city is really backing all these small gardens that dot Harlem.

I also noticed that even in the projects that people are adopting the raised vegetable beds. Many of the residents are fencing off space to grow fruits and vegetables in obscure parts of lawns and playgrounds. I noticed this as I walked 114th Street through the Taft, Johnson and Jefferson Housing Projects. There is a little ray of sunshine in these rather depressing complexes. It is sad to walk through what was once supposed to be ‘transition’ housing’ and see desolate parks and playgrounds and the mountains of garbage piling up in their dumpsters and wonder how the city has let this happen.

I also wondered what people thought of a six foot white guy walking the length of these complexes.  These interlocking complexes stretch from Lenox Avenue to 2nd Avenue from 115th to 112th Streets and it is an interesting and eye opening walk of how not to ‘warehouse’ people. Small groups of people gave me either the strangest looks or just pretended that I was not there. Try to walk around the exterior boundaries of these areas.

I revisited 116th Street again with its dozens of eating selections and took a pit stop for lunch at Sam’s Famous Pizza on the corner of 116th and Lexington Avenue. These oversized slices are well worth the $2.25 price (See review on TripAdvisor). The sauce has the right amount spices and a rich tomato flavor and is well cooked. The owner and his son seem to know everyone in the neighborhood.

For dessert not far from the end of the projects, I discovered Milenio Bakery at 2030 Third Avenue not far from Thomas Jefferson Park. This amazing little bakery (see TripAdvisor review) has a selection of both Spanish and Italian baked treats run by an Asian family and trust me, nothing gets lost in translation.

I had the most delicious Spanish sugar cookie, filled with mango cream, I had ever tasted. It was two chewy sugar cookies with the cream in the middle and gave a new twist to a traditional Woopie pie. Among the mouthwatering pastries in the cases were mango and lemon filled puffs, apple turnovers and several Spanish desserts that I have never seen before. The quality is excellent and the selection is interesting. The nice part is that the owners are very engaging and want to be sure that you made the right selection.

I took to munching it on the way back to Thomas Jefferson Park, across the street from the Thomas Jefferson Houses. This park attracts everyone from the kids in the projects playing basketball and soccer to the hipsters who are moving into the former Italian neighborhood strolling with their kids. It is a very Democratic park. It is also in need of a dire renovation and could be a jewel of a park with its view of the river and extensive recreational options. Just try to avoid it towards sundown when most people leave the park as the characters in it get very interesting.

My last section of the neighborhood that I covered was the entire lengths of 112th and 111th Streets from Lenox to the Jefferson Park and by the time I exited Lenox Avenue at 110th Street, I needed to rest by the Harlem Meer. At the time of the day, the clouds had started to roll in but people were still playing with their kids in the park or fishing or reading or singing. At sundown, there was still a lot of action going on in Central Park. All I know that after walking 24 blocks by 4 city blocks I was done for the day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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