There’s something happening up in Harlem. The New York neighbourhood, best known as the heart of African-American culture, has quietly traded crime and grit for impressive doses of style and class. Not that it’s surprising. After all, with row upon row of elegant townhouses and some of Manhattan’s prettiest parks, Harlem has always looked the part. And now as safe as the neighbouring Upper West Side, Harlem is luring a cross-section of New York’s finest. Many are putting down roots and setting up businesses – with a resulting boom in restaurants, bars and boutiques.
There’s also an influx of culture, such as the soon-to-debut Museum for African Art, which is set in a striking Robert A M Stern-designed structure. And while glass-and-steel apartment towers now fill Harlem’s skyline, those brownstones remain as regal as ever. With jazz and blues still flowing from corner jam-spots and having- without doubt – Manhattan’s most diverse population, Harlem continues to prove there’s far more to Uptown than just Central Park. And linked to the rest of Manhattan by nearly half a dozen subway lines, Harlem is a world away from the Midtown madness but barely 20 minutes from Times Square.
A comfortable bed
When it opened two winters ago, the 124-room Aloft (www.alofthotels.com; 00 1 212 749 4000) was the first hotel to arrive in Harlem in almost 45 years, and the first local outpost of Starwood’s new “affordable” boutique brand. With its David Rockwell-designed interiors, the Aloft delivers Midtown style – flatscreen TVs, comfy desks, Bliss bath products – at budget-friendly prices. With its regular jazz and funk sessions, the hotel’s w, x, y, z bar brings some welcome contemporary cool to this still up-and-coming Harlem corner. And located close to West Harlem’s Morningside Park, the Aloft offers easy access to both Columbia University and Central Park. Double rooms cost from US$149 (Dh550) per night.
Find your feet
The corner of Lenox Avenue and West 125th Street marks the historic heart of Harlem, within easy walking distance of the museums, theatres, restaurants and lounges that have typified this quarter since the Harlem Renaissance. While most of its key players are long gone, their spirit lives on throughout the neighbourhood.
Today, 125th Street heaves with the sights and sounds of Harlem’s modern-day melange while forming an easy-to-find anchor point for the rest of the district. To the south, Lenox Avenue unfolds, a broad thoroughfare of century-old townhouses along with restaurants and cafes. To the north is Astor Row, a series of red-brick houses completed in 1880 as one of Harlem’s first “planned” communities, developed by the Astor family on 130th Street.
To the west, near the endpoint of 125th, is the Cotton Club (www.cottonclub-newyork.com), where jazz and blues legends such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald first got their start. The street’s eastern edge marks the top of “Spanish Harlem”, home to one of Manhattan’s oldest Hispanic communities and highlighted by museums, such as El Museo del Bario (www.elmuseo.org), and some of New York’s best Mexican restaurants, including the always-packed and wallet-friendly El Paso (www.elpasotaqueria.com).
Book a table
Harlem’s culinary scene shifted into high gear with the opening of the 316-square-metre Red Rooster, headed by the Swedish-Ethiopian chef Marcus Samuelsson (www.redroosterharlem.com; 00 1 212 792 9001). Executive chef Andrea Bergquist delivers a “glocal” menu with dishes such as fried yard bird ($26; Dh96), “dirty” rice and shrimp ($18; Dh66), and “Uptown” steak frites ($37; Dh136) with classic Swedish meatballs inspired by Samuelsson’s grandmother, Helga. Arrive in the evening to check out Red Rooster’s late-night lounge, which hops with after-hour jam sessions well past bedtime.
Despite its conspicuous position on 125th Street, the museum store at the Studio Museum in Harlem (www.studiomuseum.org; 001 212 864 0014) remains a real find. Along with stocking catalogues of current and previous exhibitions, the bijoux boutique is a repository for art by African-American talents. Must-buys include 60s-inspired “Black is beautiful” T-shirts and mugs by graphic designer Eddie Opara. Also check out local designer Sheila Bridges’ Harlem Toile De Jouy collection of graphic wallpaper, bedding, plates and glasses.
Like Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden, Harlem’s Apollo Theater (www.apollotheater.org; 001 212 531 5300) is a show-world legend that was founded almost a century ago as the birthplace of soul-music stars ranging from Billie Holiday to Aretha Franklin and Mariah Carey.