“Harlem’s atmosphere quickly changes, however, as one turns from the bustle of
the boulevards to the more subdued residential character of its side-street
brownstone homes and smaller apartment blocks. Walking down those streets, one
finds neighbours chatting on their ‘stoops’. In the heat of summer, when school is out,
that same street might be animated by a locally hosted ‘block party’, with its
offerings of free food, music and games for the street’s families, children and
neighbours. The fortunate and observant visitor stumbling on such a block will
possess a memory universal to generations of Harlem residents and a visual akin
to a 1990s urban rap video.
“From the beginning, I found a very supportive and engaging LGBT
community in Harlem. It was an affordable place, where artists, dancers and
creative young professionals engaged socially and supportively with the
community. I have neighbours and fellow churchgoers who danced with Alvin Ailey’s
company or who are young artists engaged at Harlem’s Studio Museum. In just the
randomness of a day I might spot any of them on the street and fall into
conversation with them or casually drop in to say ‘hi’. Since my time in
Harlem, the Studio Museum has had numerous LGBT artists-in-residence, including
Glenn Ligon, Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, Derrick Adams and a host of
others who’ve drawn on the culture vibe of the neighbourhood and its
“Among the most vibrant residents is Michael Johnson: in 2011 he and his late partner Michael Roberts were one of the first same-sex couples to be legally married in New York. Every Christmas, they pulled out the silver and the crystal and regally entertained an anointed tribe of Harlem’s gay elite. This annual event was always much discussed, both by those who attended – and by those who did not. The house is chock-a-block with quirky antiques and phallic murals and is long overdue as a setting for a fashion shoot or full-out spread in a nesting magazine.
“Nearby, the poet James Fenton and his partner, writer Darryl Pinckney,
right, are lovingly restoring one of the neighbourhood’s grandest houses,
completed in 1890 for the John Dwight family, manufacturers of Arm & Hammer
baking soda. For decades prior to its current owners, the building served as a
synagogue for a sect of black Jews known as the Commandment Keepers of Harlem.
In just the short time they’ve been owners, Fenton and Pinckney have been true
citizens and supporters of the neighbourhood, offering their home for the area’s
annual house tour and other events that promote community-based activities and
“I try to remain optimistic, but at least one person in every tour group
I have still presents me with that question posed by Laurence Olivier’s
character in the film Marathon Man: ‘is it safe?’
“It’s so ridiculous. I’ve never heard of a tourist being physically abused
or injured. After all, we welcome visitors into what is for African Americans
our most sacred space, our churches, yet that hospitality isn’t translated into
our community as a whole. Through its religious and civic institutions, the
Harlem community was instrumental in the formative stages of the neighbourhood’s
revitalisation. It focused on affordable development to support and attract
working families, improve schools and coax supportive businesses and services
to the area.
“In recent years Harlem has served as a refuge for numerous Louisiana artists who fled the region after Hurricane Katrina and ended up settling here. Many New Orleans artists, such as singer and pianist Davell Crawford, have come here and several of his fellow ‘Steinway’ artists, such as composers Jason Moran and Aaron Diehl, are actively engaged in music education and performance, working with local Harlem churches and cultural institutions.
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“West African emigrants as well have made homes for themselves in
Harlem. Arriving about a decade ago, the African presence has enhanced Harlem’s
restaurant scene with a mastery of African cuisine partnered with coffee
counters brimming with exquisite French pastries. The import of unique African
fabric, worn in combination with modifications of traditional African dress,
has moved beyond the streets of Harlem to impact the purveyors of fashion in
Soho and the pages of Vogue. I often say ‘Harlem is a brand greater than Chanel’
and I feel that the African infusion represents a return of my gene pool, come
to assist in reinvigorating the Harlem brand.
“An early Harlem fashion renegade in a similar vein was designer Dapper
Dan, who in the 1980s produced what he tagged as ‘knock-ups’ of Gucci’s logo
and styles. His designs became must-haves as street and performance wear for
the golden age of rap artists, such as Big Daddy Kane, Salt-N-Pepa and LL Cool
J. Today, Dapper Dan has partnered under a licence with Gucci to create fabric
and fashion for the design house and has an atelier in a landmark Harlem
brownstone, from where he can often be seen stylishly strolling along Lenox
Avenue, as he might the runways of Milan.
“I always encourage visitors to New York to check out Harlem. It’s a wonderful and ever-evolving neighbourhood and its residents are welcoming hosts. They know that, for visitors to be in Harlem in the first place, they’ve already crossed some perceived culture barrier. We realise that you either have a lover here or are in love with our culture. Or maybe even both.”