by Carly, New York Guest Concierge
Growing up in Queens, I hardly ever ventured into Manhattan until I was old enough to understand the subway lines of the five boroughs. Slowly, my friends and I would start making short trips into the city after school when I was a teen, but soon, I came to know the system like the back of my hand. When I moved to the Upper West Side during my four years of college, my extensive knowledge of the city, its sights, and all of its wonderful neighborhoods grew rapidly. My favorites always included the East and West Villages, SoHo, Chinatown, and Nolita, but I never really thought to explore uptown much further than my own neighborhood, to Harlem.
The other day, I finally got my chance to see the gems of Harlem, and realize why it is such a historical piece of New York history and culture, and how important a location it is for African American culture as well. I traveled on the Harlem Gospel tour run by Harlem Spirituals, and was greeting in the morning on a comfy tour bus by Sheila, our fantastic guide, and Carl, our bus driver for the day. Our bus left from midtown near Times Square, so our tour naturally started with some highlights of the surrounding area such as the New York Times building, various Broadway theaters, and a peek at the crystal ball which drops above Times Square on New Year’s Eve. We also were surprised with the instructions to stomp our feet on the bus, but Sheila then revealed that it was so we could all say we had “danced on Broadway!” Everyone, including me, must have thought that was the cutest thing that happened all day!
Our bus tour continued onward and upward through midtown, passing by Columbus Circle and Central Park, where we learned some interesting historical facts about New York, and the history of blacks in New York who made Harlem the neighborhood it is today. Did you know that the area that is now Central Park was once inhabited by rich African Americans who built a community called Seneca Village? It had two churches, a school, and free men that also sold slaves! But back in the day, the land in Harlem had been preserved for the Dutch aristocracy as a “country” getaway, so hardly anyone ever went that far into the city. The land was also vastly covered in schist rock, the large boulder rocks that are now visible in Central Park, so it was a long difficult journey up to Harlem for anyone that even had the time and the money to get there. It was this idea of Harlem being so far away, that stuck for so many years, which is one of the main reasons why New Yorkers like me never really explored the area!
I was happy to break from my mold, and to be able to finally have my chance to see the gems of Harlem that I was missing. Our trip up Central Park West to Harlem was quick as ever; since there are no shops, there’s no traffic! The views of the park were beautiful, and we even got to see some great New York architecture like the gorgeous Dakota building, where the famed Beatles legend John Lennon lived and was shot. As we reached Harlem, finally, we passed through neighborhoods like Morningside Heights where the students of Columbia University thrive, and even got to see St. Luke’s Hospital and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine above Morningside Park; both beautiful structures in a serene setting. Manhattanville and Sugar Hill were other famous Harlem neighborhoods we passed through, and we even got to see a view of Yankee Stadium right before the Macombs Dam Bridge, which connects Harlem to the Bronx!
After much more sight-seeing and wonderful history lessons about the Harlem Renaissance, prohibition, the stock market crash, and the musical history of Harlem, we had a brief walk around the CUNY City College Campus to see the beauty of the area and New York college kids in action! Then, it was finally time for the entertainment we had all been waiting for; to see a live Harlem gospel choir perform music in a classic New York church! For one hour, we were transported into a musical heaven at the Metropolitan Community United Methodist Church, where the ARC choir belted out fantastic tunes of praise and worship. It was really cool to see everyone up and clapping, singing along, and even dancing in their seats!
When the tour was over, there was an option to go to brunch at Syliva’s for some authentic soul food, which I highly recommend. Although I didn’t do the group brunch (which is a huge, family style lunch of fried chicken, ribs, all the sides like mac and cheese, collard greens, and corn bread, and all the sweet tea you can drink), I did have the famous California style Chicken ‘n Waffles, which was absolutely amazing! The combination is an acquired taste for some, but for me, it’s the perfect balance of salty, sweet, crunch, soft, mouth-watering goodness all the way down!
The Harlem Gospel tour was surprisingly fun and informational, and I would recommend it to anyone coming to New York looking to see another side of the city. If you want to hear some fantastic music, taste amazing food, and understand the rich culture of Harlem, you should definitely join in the fun! Harlem Spirituals also offers nighttime dinner and jazz club tours, as well as other informative tours around Harlem. New York Guest is happy to be on board with Harlem Spirituals, and we really hope you’ll try this unique experience! It’s a great way to see the gems of a neighborhood that is often not explored enough, but deserves to be.