Hey Bart, You coming with?
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This Has to be possible...
~ John Muir
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This Has to be possible...
What do you think, maybe four weekends?
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We have long had this idea of urban spiderweb walking routes, connecting the endpoint of various public tranportation options.
|Type||Prairie, Woods, Suburban|
|Lodging||mixed (note: the writer chose to do the route in sections.)|
|Duration||Walker's Choice. Epic, or just a day trip.|
“But it is so flat” is the usual response that I get when I suggest walking in the Midwest. The response is even more incredulous when I suggest that there is great hiking to be found within the Chicagoland area. No one believes that there are any decent hiking trails close to such a major city. But there are!
I am standing next to the Subway stop at 155th Street and St. Nicholas, one of the stops in Harlem along the famous ‘A’ train route. (2) The ‘A’ Train, immortalized by Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, is in fact the quickest way to get to Harlem. It is also the quickest way to follow the Old Post Road from 125th Street north to 207th Street in Inwood at the northern tip of Manhattan. The route of the ‘A’ Train takes it up Central Park West, which then becomes Eighth Avenue (Frederick Douglas Boulevard) from 110th to about 125th Street, after which the train follows the route of the old road to Boston, St. Nicholas Avenue to Broadway, along which the train roughly continues through to the end of the line at 207th Street. Of course, as it is underground, the only thing you will learn about the post road is that it curves occasionally.
155th Street is traditionally regarded as the northern border of Harlem, probably the most well-known neighborhood in the city of New York. Well-known it might be, but I myself had never set foot in Harlem until this very moment, despite the fact that I have visited New York on a regular basis since at least 1969. I could pretend that the many wonders of Greenwich Village, the Upper West Side, or Chelsea kept me so occupied that I never could find the time to visit. Or I could just admit up front that I never could get up the energy to wander into a place that seemed somewhat unwelcoming to the outsider. After all, I knew someone who, as a student at Columbia University, had a bullet fly through his dorm room window overlooking Morningside Park in the 1980s. I never went there because I was afraid to go there, and the rewards did not seem worth the risk.
Why do I not have the same fear now? Perhaps it is because I have read so much about the transformation of Harlem in the last two decades that I want to see what all the fuss is about. Perhaps it is because I have a famous photograph by Art Kane of many famous jazz musicians gathered on the steps of a brownstone on 126th Street in Harlem in 1958, and I am curious about both the picture and the outsized role Harlem seems to have played in the development of music in the twentieth century. Perhaps it is because every time I think I am going into a dangerous area (Roxbury, New Haven, Bridgeport, the Bronx) my fears turn out to be not only unwarranted but embarrassing as I realize that, although at heart I am afraid of standing out, nobody seems to pay any attention to me. Or perhaps it is because I am only ten miles from the end of my long journey on the Post Road, and I am excited to get through Harlem as fast as possible to reach the finish line.
I am sure all of these factors play some role in my current motivation to plunge in. I will add one more factor: I am older now, and I have wandered through many places that the average person would consider far less safe than Harlem: Mexico City, Zagreb during anti-Serbian riots in 1990, backwoods towns in Malaysia, alone but for the monkeys in Calakmul, a marvelous Mayan city buried deep in the jungle in the southern Yucatan near Guatemala. I enjoy seeking out the new and the unfamiliar as long as it is on my own terms. Hence I enjoy wandering through strange and exotic areas on foot, but I have no interest in bungee-jumping off a bridge. I will gladly plunge into the night market in Chiang Mai, peer into an active volcano in Indonesia, or wander alone in the Central American rain forest without a second thought, and pretend to be an adventurer, as long as I know where I will sleep that night. I am uninterested, however, in riding a roller coaster because I am sure that it will collapse and I will die. I guess one picks one’s poison. And since I have yet to be “poisoned” by wandering into “unsafe” places I guess I feel confident that this last few miles will be fine, so in I go.
My first memory of the name Harlem dates to my childhood in Bermuda when I saw the Harlem Globetrotters on TV. I was fascinated by their antics but did not register that Harlem was a place until much later, probably on a visit to my grandmother, who lived in Manhattan for many years, albeit miles away from Harlem in spirit and substance. Certainly by the time I was a teenager I knew what Harlem was but by then the die had been cast: too many movies about bad guys from “Uptown,” and images of riots on TV were enough to set the image in my mind of a burned out neighborhood filled with poor black people, harassed at every corner by drug dealers, pimps, and murderers in Cadillacs; in short, Harlem became a synonym for the Ghetto, a place to be avoided.
Slowly my image of Harlem became more nuanced: I was a big fan of Francis Ford Coppola as a teenager and saw the Cotton Club, which was a crappy film but which gave me new insight into Harlem as a musical hothouse. Later I became interested in jazz music, and now my image of the neighborhood was transformed from one of decay into one of artistic ferment, albeit in the quickly receding past. Finally, and I know this sounds strange, but when Bill Clinton returned to the private sector in 2001 and set up his offices in Harlem, I was downright intrigued; If the President of the United States (although he was the first “black” President) feels comfortable setting up shop in Harlem, then how bad could it be? I did a little research now and then, and it was obvious to me that Harlem was on an upswing. Magic Johnson was opening a movie theater, the Body Shop and Ben and Jerry’s had opened outlets (although the Ben & Jerry’s store subsequently closed), as well as Starbucks in 1999. It seemed to be a happening place again after half a century of steady decline.
But it was not until I began to research the Post Road that I realized that I would finally become acquainted with Harlem on the ground and not as a mythical location. And so, on a chilly but bright day in February, I find myself walking down St. Nicholas Avenue, which cuts through the heart of the neighborhood. My first impression is that there is some really good housing stock here, lots of elegant early twentieth-century apartment buildings. The nice architecture continues for the next ten to fifteen blocks. The area to the left of St. Nicholas Avenue is the higher ground for this ten block stretch. I discover later that this area is the famous Sugar Hill, the place in which many many successful black families lived. Among the many well-known people who resided there were W.E.B. DuBois, Adam Clayton Powell, Thurgood Marshall, and Duke Ellington himself, hence the mention of Sugar Hill in Take the ‘A’ Train.
At 145th Street St. Nicholas Avenue once merged with a road coming in from the northeast that led to another bridge across the Harlem River, Macomb’s Bridge, the fourth oldest bridge in New York City (after King’s Bridge, Dyckman’s Bridge, and Harlem Bridge), built in 1814. The streets are today separated by Jackie Robinson Park (ironic since Macomb’s Bridge leads directly to Yankee Stadium and Robinson played for the Dodgers). There is a small gap in the hills here through which St. Nicholas Avenue passes, and then the road runs along the base of a steep escarpment which rises to the west. At 141st Street, a short but very steep walk half a block uphill leads to Hamilton Grange, the home of Alexander Hamilton, Founding Father, First Secretary of the Treasury, and the guy whose face is on the ten dollar bill. This is the Alexander Hamilton my readers probably think I am describing when I speak of the diary of the traveler, but the diarist Hamilton lived in Annapolis, Maryland and was long dead by the time of the Revolution (he died in 1756). Hamilton Grange was built in 1802, but Alexander Hamilton lived here for only two years before being killed in a famous duel with Aaron Burr who, as I mentioned in the previous entry, lived up the street a few blocks more than three decades later. This is the third house along the route that is over two centuries old. James Birket, as early as 1750, mentions that the “13 miles of good road” from Kingsbridge to New York “is very narrow but butified with many handsome seats belonging to the Gentlemen in York.”(3) But I did not expect to find even one Colonial or Federal house surviving in New York City. Hamilton Grange is undergoing restoration, which involved moving the whole building a couple of blocks to a more prominent location here in St. Nicholas Park.
Behind Hamilton Grange further up the hill is the campus of City College. The hill to the right looms overhead as I make my way along St. Nicholas Avenue for the next dozen blocks. At 3:20 p.m. I reach 133rd Street, which is where Colles’s located the 9 milestone on his map of 1792. At mile nine on Colles’s Map is a ‘Day’ tavern. This spot was traditionally known as “The Halfway House” and is listed as such on all the Almanac tavern lists. Sarah Knight stopped here at 3 p.m. on the first day of her return journey on December 21, 1704, where she “Baited and went forward.” (3) A road shown on Colles’s map leads east to Harlem, the center of which was closer to the Harlem River in the eighteenth century. The Harlem Bridge was built at 129th Street in 1798, making the road I am traveling obsolete, as I have discussed in recent entries. A few minutes later I reach 125th Street, the heart of Harlem in the twentieth century.
CHRISTOPHER COLLES’S MAP OF THE ROAD TO BOSTON, SHEET 1 SHOWING THE LAST 12 MILES, ALL ON THE ISLAND OF MANHATTAN.
Looking down St. Nicholas Avenue at 153rd Street in Harlem
The settlement on the Harlem River ten miles north of New York City was called Haarlem as early as 1658, after the Dutch town. Although the name was anglicized when the British took control of New York, Harlem remained a Dutch community as late as 1786, when Manasseh Cutler traveled through the area. Cutler tells us that “ten miles this side of the city is a plain of good land, called Harlem Plain. On this plain, and toward the East River, is a small village called Harlem. The inhabitants are nearly all Dutch, and the houses are built in a Dutch style.” (5) The community remained small and isolated through much of the nineteenth century, and the area remained farmland until the advent of the elevated railroad in the 1880s. As the population of New York swelled, the city expanded in all directions, reaching the northern end of Manhattan. Development exploded around the turn of the century in anticipation of the expansion of the city into Harlem, but a real estate crash occurred, just as many new buildings were completed, which led to the area being settled by groups who could afford the lower prices, particularly Irish and Jews, and African-Americans. Many blacks from the South migrated northwards during and after World War I in search of a better life, and the neighborhood slowly became increasingly black; by 1920 32% of Harlem was African-American, and by 1930 over 70% of the neighborhood was made up of black families.
Unsurprisingly, in a city with such a complex mixture of ethnicity, race, religion, and class, the group with the least power was neglected, and Harlem suffered from a lack of investment by the government. Of 255 parks built under Robert Moses in the city during the Depression, only one was in Harlem After World War II, as New York City began a four decade long population decline, the financial situation of the city became increasingly dire, and the poorest neighborhoods suffered the most as a result. Many wealthier blacks left the increasingly decrepit neighborhood, and the cycle of decline and decay continued unabated for over forty years. In 1950, 237,000 people lived in Harlem, but by 1990 that number had fallen by more than half to 101,000.
Development began again in the 1990s as real estate pressure in the rest of Manhattan finally brought some attention to the housing stock in Harlem. Ironically, as the neighborhood improves, the number of blacks continues to drop as whites return to live in the neighborhood after being virtually absent since the 1940s. In 1990 a mere 672 whites lived in what is considered central Harlem, from 110th to 125th Street between Fifth Avenue and St. Nicholas Avenue, but by 2010 that number had increased to almost 14,000. Much attention has been lavished on the ‘Main Street’ of Harlem, 125th Street, with many major retailers opening stores in the area after ignoring the neighborhood for decades.
For many, the changes in Harlem are bittersweet. I spoke with a gentleman in his sixties distributing pamphlets in front of the Apollo Theater, the world-renowned epicenter of black musical culture on 125th Street, and he expressed happiness that the neighborhood was much more vibrant than it had been in the 1980s. On the other hand, he was unhappy that rents were increasing dramatically, and he also felt a sense of loss because he felt the neighborhood was losing the cultural importance it once held as the center of black culture in America. He told me stories of seeing James Brown at the Apollo, as well as Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and the Temptations, and was obviously proud of the central role African-American performers hold in the evolution of music worldwide in the last century. His sentiment about change is not dissimilar to that which I often hear expressed by Italians in the North End of Boston or in Little Italy, or by Irish in South Boston. Even my own neighborhood in Boston is claimed by many former residents to have been “lost” to the “yuppies.” Of course the tinted glasses of nostalgia screen the unsavory images of racism, of drugs and violence, of poverty, and of desperation. I noticed some time ago that boxing in America was early dominated by Irish Americans, then by Italians and even a few Jews, then by blacks, and now increasingly by Hispanics. My point is that sports and entertainment are avenues out of poverty; as ethnic and racial groups become more integrated into the economic structure they move out to the suburbs and take on a wider range of jobs. The old neighborhood and the old way of life fade to a misty memory of a better time, but often the bad memories are left behind.
And for all the vaunted development of Harlem, 125th Street is still a bit scruffy, and I see one or two Check Cashing stores, a sure sign that improvements need to continue. However it is definitely bustling with commerce and I have to work my way through the crowds for a block to get to the Apollo Theater from St. Nicholas Avenue. To me, standing in front of the Apollo is like standing in front of the Louvre or Carnegie Hall: it is, in my mind, the most important theater in the world as the hothouse which helped produce a list of stars that staggers the imagination: Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Billy Holiday, Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Billy Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, The Jackson Five, Pearl Bailey, Lionel Hampton, Benny Carter, etc. etc. etc....not for nothing is the Apollo called “The Soul of American Culture.”
Scenes of Harlem: Top row left is Hamilton Grange, Alexander Hamilton’s mansion, built in 1802, on 141st Street in St Nicholas Park. Top right are elegant residences along St Nicholas Avenue at 136th Street. Center left is another picture of the Apollo Theater on 125th Street, “Where stars are born and legends are made.” Center right and bottom left are views down St. Nicholas Avenue. The image at bottom left gives an impression of just how many people live in New York as these large buildings recede into the distance. Bottom right is a monument to the Underground Railroad.
At 124th Street I depart from the route of the ‘A’ Train, which heads due south while I continue the last fifteen blocks down to Central Park on St Nicholas Avenue, which slices through the grid at an acute angle. At about 116th Street is the eight mile marker shown on Colles’s map. The last five blocks to Central Park are, surprisingly, the most rundown areas in Harlem through which I have walked. I would have anticipated a burst of development the closer I get to the park, with its potential for views and the proximity of the park for dog walkers and exercise fiends, but only one or two new buildings at 110th and Lenox are apparent in an otherwise dispiriting neighborhood.
Harlem ends for me at 110th Street, where I enter Central Park. In the next entry I will describe the original route of the old road from Boston, from this point through what is now Central Park and the Upper East Side. Before I head into the park I turn and look back up St Nicholas Avenue and reflect on the incredibly rich cultural legacy left by the people of this neighborhood in the twentieth century, producing some of the most sublime music and some of the most depressing iconic imagery as the prototypical downtrodden urban neighborhood. Things change though, and one thing that has changed is my attitude about visiting Harlem. As I head into Central Park I contemplate returning to Harlem soon. Only next time I will take the ‘A’ train as I want to get there in a hurry.