Harlem is known throughout the world as a center of African-American culture, music, and life. Today many renovated and new buildings join such historic jewels as the Apollo Theater, architecturally splendid churches, and cultural magnets like the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
As overcrowded apartments and expensive rents downtown make Harlem a more and more attractive area, professionals and young families are restoring many of Harlem's classic brownstone and limestone buildings. This new growth has brought life and commerce to the community, but it has also priced out some longtime residents.
Back in 2001, former president Bill Clinton's selection of 55 West 125th Street as the site of his New York office was an inspiration to businesses considering a move to Harlem; now the busy thoroughfare sprouts outposts of Starbucks, Old Navy, MAC Cosmetics, and H&M side by side with local restaurants and clothing stores, including a smattering of boutiques. Outside, the sidewalk is a continuous traffic jam of people, offering a concentrated glimpse of neighborhood life. Pedestrians compete with street-side hawkers selling bootleg DVDs, books, and homemade essential oils in nondescript bottles.
Some of Harlem's most interesting religious buildings—especially its Baptist churches—stand on 116th Street, particularly between St. Nicholas Avenue and Lenox (Malcolm X) Boulevard. Admire the ornate theatrical facade of the giant First Corinthian Baptist Church or fill your soul with the mellifluous gospel music of the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ's choir during a Sunday service. Take a hint from the parishioners and follow up with the smothered chicken and waffles at Amy Ruth's, at 113 W. 116th. After lunch, walk by the green-domed Masjid Malcolm Shabazz —a mosque attended primarily by West Africans and African-Americans. Finish at Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market to stock up on African jewelry, masks, crafts, and caftans at good prices. On Saturday, the jazz players jam at the market from 1:30 to 3.
Many of Harlem's historic jazz venues (found mostly on 125th Street) are still active, so you can pay respect to legends like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, then listen to one of their musical heirs. A giant digital marquee announces the Apollo Theater, where jazz and funk godfather James Brown debuted in 1956 and was laid out in splendor after his death in 2006. (Following this tradition, king of pop Michael Jackson was also given a final farewell here in 2009.) Around the corner, the Lenox Lounge (288 Lenox Ave., at W. 125th St.) is a trip back in time. Continue the pilgrimage at Minton's Playhouse (206 W. 118th St.), the birthplace of bebop, where Thelonious Monk was house pianist in the 1940s. It reopened in 2006 after being closed since 1974. If you're here on Thursday or Friday, when exhibits are open until 9 pm, check out the contemporary African-American-oriented artworks at the Studio Museum in Harlem.