June 27, 2011

Harlem Globe Trotter

Ten years ago I stayed in Harlem for the first time. Actually, it was right on the edge, at Amsterdam and 103rd, in the worst (only?) youth hostel in New York. That particular experience is one I would have been happy to forget, but it is seared into my mind for a variety of reasons: being ripped off by a ‘taxi driver’ on the way; being aggressively propositioned in the communal bathroom; navigating the shelfless glass-doored refrigerator that served 1,500 people, etc. And at no point when leaving the building did I have any desire to head farther north. The neighbourhood was bad enough where I was, and promised worse.

A lot can change in ten years. I’m certainly no longer a ragged backpacker, for one. Experienced eyes would have looked on that neighbourhood differently even then, but now they do not recognise it as the same place. Doings at Columbia took me back to Harlem, and I hereby recommend it as your destination, the next time you choose to trot the globe.

This time Mrs. VB and I stayed in a proper brownstone house on 118th and Malcolm X. The post-Giuliani neighbourhood is a charming place, full of relaxed yet busy people. The welcome is the warmest in New York. The community is vibrant, mixed, young, and (to judge by the food on offer) demanding of high standards. Ten years ago, I doubt I’d have been consuming home-made and authentic Italian food in a restaurant street terrace at 120th Street. I might have been welcomed into the bosom of Sylvia’s soul food restaurant (it’s been there for decades), but I somehow think it unlikely that the waiter would have been able to try out his German on me back then. I also suspect I wouldn’t have wandered home calmly at a saunter at around midnight. Friends, the cosmopolitan dream is alive. In these streets America is doing quite nicely, thank you.

The 100ft climb through Morningside Park to reach Columbia on the Upper West Side no longer represents an ascent to civilisation in the stark manner of yesteryear. Ivy League cosmopolitanism is its own peculiar brand of soul-sapping homogeneity. After lengthy days in the rarefied air-conditioning of the Ivory Tower, it felt good to descend again and return to what I happily thought of, for a few sultry days, as home.

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