Coming Up Harlem

A revival of the fabled New York community inspires pride and controversy

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Highbrow, mainstream, pop, hiphop, avant-garde— Harlem's cultural and artistic revival is evident on nearly every block. At the partially renovated Apollo Theater, the curtain went up in July on Harlem Song, a Broadway-style musical directed by George C. Wolfe, producer of the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival. On St. Nicholas Avenue, the threeyear- old Classical Theater of Harlem recently staged King Lear in its garden court, with Paul Butler playing the title role as an African tribal chief in purple and cinnamon robes. In a 1909 firehouse on Hancock Place, George Faison, choreographer of The Wiz, a Broadway hit in the 1970s, is creating a performing arts complex with two theaters, three rehearsal studios and a library.


In another restored firehouse, on West 121st Street, is a small avant-garde gallery, Fire Patrol No. 5 Art. One re-cent night, a racially mixed crowd sipped wine from paper cups and witnessed a performance by a literary “commando” group called the Unbearables. “Museums were created to bring ugliness into the world!” one male trouper declaimed from the gallery floor. Another, a woman with short blonde hair, recites a poem titled “Balls.” Applause was vigorous but not unanimous. A young girl, trying to concentrate on her homework in a corner, piped up, “That was really nasty!”


The performance may not have been for everyone, but it indicates an atmosphere of artistic adventure. Over the decades, different New York neighborhoods have played host to the cutting edge—Greenwich Village in the 1950s, SoHo in the 1970s, the Lower East Side in the 1980s—and Harlem may be remembered as the place to have been at the turn of the millennium. As in other New York golden ages, some of the attraction has been cheap rent. Until a skyrocketing lease chased her north, French-born Christine Louisy-Daniel, the proprietor of Fire Patrol No. 5 Art, had a gallery on the Lower East Side . The grit of the neighborhood around her current venue doesn’t faze her. “I come from Versailles, which is beautiful,” she says. “But Harlem is exciting.”


Attesting to that excitement, a growing number of painters and sculptors with international reputations—Ellen Gallagher, Julie Mehretu, Chakaia Booker and Brett Cook-Dizney, to name a few—live and work in Harlem. Ousmane Gueye, a Senegalese sculptor who trained at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris and with Henry Moore in England, shows his art in the P.C.O.G. Gallery on Seventh Avenue, which he co-owns. “My father always turned the radio to music from Harlem when I was a child in Dakar,” says Gueye. “It was my dream to get here myself.” the word is dutch, reflecting Holland’s 1626 acquisition of Manhattan Island from local Indians, and Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant’s naming the village, in 1658, New Harlem, after a city in his homeland. Today, Harlem is informally divided into three parts. Central and West Harlem stretch roughly from 110th Street (the northern end of Central Park) to 155th Street, and are bounded on the west by the Hudson River and on the east by Fifth Avenue. East Harlem, which has been predominantly Latino, runs from around Madison Avenue to the Harlem River and south to 96th Street . Some 337,000 people live in Harlem, according to the 2000 U.S. census.


Like other urban neighborhoods settled by successive waves of immigrants, Harlem is a story of flux. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, prominent men such as the royalist Roger Morris and the patriot Alexander Hamilton built splendid houses (they still stand) in what was then a rural setting. In the late 1800s came elevated rail service, which brought prosperous commuters from as far away as City Hall, near Manhattan 's southern end. Two New York mayors, Thomas Gilroy and Robert Van Wyck, lived in Harlem . So did P. T. Barnum’s partner, James Bailey, whose turreted and gabled limestone extravaganza, built in the 1880s, still graces St. Nicholas Place . Around the same time, Protestant gentry erected impressive town houses around Mount Morris Park (now also called Marcus Garvey Memorial Park ). Next to settle Harlem were politically connected Roman Catholic families and also prominent Jewish families, including those of Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, Walter Winchell and Arthur Hays Sulzberger, grandfather of the current publisher of the New York Times. A relic of that period is the Temple Israel on Lenox Avenue ; it has a massively columned facade and looks built for the ages. But the synagogue fell into disuse once African-Americans started moving into the community and whites began moving out in large numbers. In 1925, it became Mount Olivet Baptist Church .


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