By Raenard Weddington
Baltimore Watchdog Contributor
Harlem is one of the largest neighborhoods in Manhattan, but for many tourists the borough has an intimidating reputation deemed inaccurate by Harlemites – residents of Harlem.
“Is it safe to walk around?”
That’s a question John Riddick is often asked when working as a tour guide for Taste Harlem, a company that leads tourists to different locations in the neighborhood to taste culturally diverse cuisines.
“I’ve lived here since 1980,” Riddick said. “I’ve never heard of any group of tourists that were beat up, robbed or treated badly.”
Despite the expectations visitors often maintain about Harlem, thousands consistently flock to the neighborhood with keen interests in specific activities but usually leave with a new perspective and an appreciation for Harlem’s fruitful history.
“There’s always been an intense interest and fascination with black culture,” said Kellie Madden, a real-estate agent from Harlem. “And Harlem is the capital of black history and culture. There really isn’t another place like it.”
Tourists from overseas flock to Harlem to have an experience that is starkly different from their own. Riddick believes that the mainstream interest in black life is what attracts foreigners to Harlem.
“The only place they usually think to go is Harlem,” Riddick said. “Its like the premier spot for the foreign visitors who want to experience black culture.”
The black churches are very popular tourist attractions among Europeans. They are fascinated by the black church experience and are eager to experience gospel music.
Riddick said on Sundays the lines of visitors waiting to enter black churches are about as long as the lines at Empire State Building in Midtown Manhattan.
“I don’t know what the white tourists are expecting to get out of it,” Riddick said. “A James Brown performance?”
Jacqueline Orange, founder of Taste Harlem, attributes Europeans’ unquenchable interest in black gospel to the success of the 1992 film “Sister Act,” starring Whoopi Goldberg.
“Because of the movie “Sister Act,” so many Europeans and people from around the world want to experience live black gospel,” Orange said. “On Sundays there are so many buses filled with people who want to experience gospel. You would think Harlem was 100 percent white.”
Orange said that tourists can go to any black church in any state and experience a powerful gospel experience, but the allure of the fantasy of the film leads them to Harlem.
One church in particular attracts an especially high volume of tourists.
“A lot of people try to go to First Corinthian Baptist Church,” said Cassandra Rosario, a blogger and entrepreneur who has lived in Harlem her entire life. “It’s one of the biggest churches in Harlem. It’s very popular. Harlem has the highest amount of churches.”
While black culture may be the dominant culture of interest for tourists who visit Harlem, Harlem is highly diverse. For visitors, the different cultures provide various perspectives and insights into different experiences.
“You have Spanish Harlem, Jewish Harlem, and obviously the black influence,” Madden said. “Sometimes you can’t differentiate between the races on the streets.”
When tourists visit Harlem they also want to explore staple attractions and activities.
“They love to go to Sylvia’s and the Apollo Theatre,” Rosario said. “You have to check out the Apollo, you have to check out Sylvia’s to get chicken and waffles.”
Chicken and waffles is a hotly sought after meal for tourists who want a true Harlem experience and Sylvia’s Restaurant is the best the place to go. The restaurant is packed during the bustling lunch hours on the weekdays, filled with residents and visitors who want to taste authentic soul food.
The authenticity of Harlem can be felt as you stroll down 125th Street. During the summers, old-school hip hop resonates through speakers that are typically positioned next to street vendors.
“People from all over come here and they just love it,” Orange said. “They feel like there is no other place as real as Harlem.”
For some visitors, Harlem represents grit and danger, but Harlem is comprised of communal spaces that are loved by countless outsiders who venture into the communities.
“Wow this is really a community,” Orange said tourists often tell her. “They feel like it’s very different from Times Square. They come to Harlem and it’s more relaxed and tranquil.”
Communities are solid in Harlem and tourists are often surprised by how the communities in Harlem shatter their expectations. Rosario cherishes the communal atmosphere of her neighborhood. She appreciates the kinship between herself and members of her community.
“Even if I don’t know everyone very well,” Rosario said. “There’s just a comradery here that I like, for me personally.”
Some people visit Harlem with ideas about the culture, Riddick said. But a majority of tourists and Harlem dwellers alike are unaware of Harlem’s history, particularly the history concerning its architecture.
Affluent leaders in the late 1800s founded Harlem. This wealthy group contributed to the architecture in Harlem, which is some of the best in the city Orange said.
“Brownstones were built in the 1890s and the people that built them did so with amazing material,” Orange said. “The brownstones were built with marble floors, brass hinges, and beautiful hard wood.”
According to Riddick, people would never think to visit Harlem for its architectural history. He said that if tourists explore the history it might break prejudices they have about Harlem.
Some who live in Harlem fear that companies and wealthy individuals are disrupting the history and legacy through gentrification – the purchasing of old buildings in urban neighborhoods by companies and wealthy individuals.
Communities and local landmarks that were once cherished are disappearing.
“Gentrification has really impacted Harlem,” Madden said. “Certain parts of Harlem have changed so much in the past six years. Some of the neighborhoods look completely different.”
Some Harlem inhabitants can identify indicators of gentrification.
“Somebody told me one time that you know your neighborhood is getting gentrified when you have a Starbucks,” Rosario said. “Now they’re building a Whole Foods on 125th Street.”
Orange observed that before affluent white people began relocating to Harlem, white Harlem business owners were reluctant to say their businesses were in Harlem.
“As things are being gentrified and it’s more in vogue to say you live in Harlem,” Orange said. “They will start identifying themselves as being in Harlem.”
Despite the influence of gentrification, Rosario said that the history and culture is still intact although some communities may be changing and are even unrecognizable.
Riddick thinks gentrification does come with benefits.
“One of the benefits of gentrification, is the range of restaurants that we didn’t have before,” Riddick said.
Rosario said that Harlem’s history is still alive and that the residents embody the spirit of Harlem.
“I think that Harlem still maintains its richness,” Rosario said. “At the end of the day, the people that live in Harlem make up Harlem.”
Rosario wants to live in Chicago someday but she makes it very clear that she would return to Harlem when she settled down.
“I can’t imagine not raising my kids in New York,” Rosario said. “It would just be strange for me. I need my kids to have New York swagger.”
As visitors come and go, and social and economic changes unfold, Riddick is sure Harlem will survive.
“Harlem is a brand that’s stronger than Chanel,” he said.