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Travel

Harlem offers lively mix of old and new

| Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, 7:06 p.m.
The Apollo Theater, which dates to the 1930s and gave Ella Fitzgerald her start, is a fixture on 125th Street in Harlem.
The Apollo Theater, which dates to the 1930s and gave Ella Fitzgerald her start, is a fixture on 125th Street in Harlem.
West 125th Street, Harlem. (Chris Reynolds/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
West 125th Street, Harlem. (Chris Reynolds/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Take a walk on 125th Street. Check out the Apollo Theater marquee, the latest exhibit at the Studio Museum, the patio dinner crowd on Lenox Avenue, the high-priced brownstones, the locals of all hues striding past Afrocentric sidewalk stalls while a drum circle grooves across the street.

Harlem, several years into a burst of new prosperity, is rolling like an uptown train with a full head of steam.

Even the Starbucks harbors surprises. On the afternoon I ducked in, model Nia Fields, preparing for a photo shoot, had just put on the headgear of a neo-Egyptian queen. The results were so dramatic, I thought some customers might drop their drinks and start building her a pyramid.

New projects, new diversity, new buzz and creeping anxiety — this is what a first-time tourist finds in Harlem.

Most of my itinerary was new attractions. I was visiting midweek, so there would be no gospel brunches or Sunday church-music tours.

First up was a Crispy Bird sandwich for lunch at Red Rooster Harlem (redroosterharlem.com), where the menu is dressed-up comfort food, the service is courtly and the diners come in all ages and shades.

Then came a lively stroll on 125th Street, where I encountered jazz bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding doing a sound check for an outdoor show.

For dinner: the Cecil (thececilharlem.com), a trendy minimalist dining room on West 118th Street known for its Asian-African fusion cuisine. I had the pan-roasted cod with sorghum and coconut collard greens.

Then it was time for entertainment.

I started with Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater, a Wednesday tradition of many decades that has evolved into a show mostly for tourists. There's a DJ, a house band, a comedian host, a video tribute to remind you that Ella Fitzgerald got her start here in 1934, a kid segment (no booing allowed), a diverse roster of amateurs and plenty of audience participation, including a tap-dancing “executioner” who leads adult performers offstage when the boos get too intense.

Yes, I booed a few acts. The amateur comedian all but demanded it, and the Apollo credo, after all, is “be good or be gone.” But the two-hour show was kinder, gentler and kid-friendlier than I had expected, not unlike a night of cruise ship entertainment. For a seventh-row orchestra seat, I paid $33.

And that was good, because after the Apollo, I still had a jazz diva to meet and two bars to hit.

The diva was Amanda Humes, an aspiring singer, Harlem resident and guide for Big Apple Jazz Tours. We met atop the steps to Gin Fizz Harlem, a throwback speakeasy above the well-regarded French bistro Chez Lucienne.

The upstairs room's tin ceilings and velvet banquettes set a nice '20s tone, ideal for the revue in previews called “Black Pearls & White Diamonds in Harlem.”

There was tap-dancing. Torch songs. Sassy duets. Unfortunately, it was a packed house with no discernible air-conditioning. At what temperature, I wondered, do black pearls and white diamonds melt?

But the well-seasoned troupe — many longtime Harlem performers in their 60s and beyond — clung to their boas and fedoras and clearly loved having their way with such standards as “Satin Doll,” “Mood Indigo” and “Darktown Strutters' Ball.”

Next, Humes and I headed down Lenox Avenue toward the next joint. As we walked, she sneaked in some history.

For instance, those Stars of David on the facade of Mt. Olivet Baptist Church. The building began life as a synagogue in 1907. In those days, Humes said, Harlem was mostly Jewish, German and Italian. Harry Houdini lived on West 113th Street; Milton Berle was born on West 118th. But that world was about to change.

Between 1910 and 1950, a wave of African-American arrivals — and an undertow of European American departures — transformed the population of central Harlem from 10 percent black to 98 percent.

Along the way came the writers, musicians and artists of the Harlem Renaissance, followed by a long, deep decline that began to reverse about 25 years ago.

Now here's a revised Harlem, awash in new money and new people. And that, too, is easy to see on the street. Just look, Humes said, at the restaurants that have opened since 2013 in the old brownstones on Lenox Avenue.

She pointed out Chaiwali, offering Indian fusion food and fancy teas near 124th Street, Cheri (French, near 122nd Street) and BLVD Bistro (soul food, at 122nd). We might have missed Barawine (wine bar and bistro near 120th Street), but you get the idea.

Remember hearing how taxi drivers wouldn't go to Harlem?

These days, “we get yellow cabs, we get green cabs, we get black cars, we get Ubers, we get Lyft, and there are policemen everywhere. That did not used to be,” said Humes, who has lived in Harlem for about 20 years.

However, “there's uncertainty that comes when you see new people coming into the neighborhood, people who don't understand the holy ground they're standing on.”

“Summertime, and the livin' is easy,” sang Johnny Lovesong, flanking tenor sax man Les Goodson on the tiny stage of Paris Blues on Seventh Avenue. There was room for about 50 people, many of them musicians waiting their chance to sit in.

On this night, a bunch of regulars had gathered to celebrate the birthday of Goodson, who leads the Wednesday night jams. The crowd was about half African-American, half everybody else, not unlike the rest of central Harlem's demographics these days.

The next morning, I tagged along with Neal Shoemaker of Harlem Heritage Tours. He was leading a mostly white group of students and teachers from Woodland Regional High School in Beacon Falls, Conn.

Along the tree-shaded 1890s brownstones of Striver's Row, the aristocratic blocks of West 138th and 139th streets where Eubie Blake, W.C. Handy, Fletcher Henderson and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson once lived, Shoemaker greeted a longtime local, who welcomed the teens to her neighborhood.

As we walked, Shoemaker pointed out the new businesses and the new residents. Crime “has dropped like you would never believe,” he said. But every time he hears of another million-dollar townhouse sale, he worries about how long his aunt will be able to pay $600 a month for her apartment near 138th Street.

I'll think about that tension between community character and new money for a while. But I'll also remember the way we closed down Paris Blues.

The room was full of people and birthday balloons. Then out came a cake, and somebody lighted a sparkler. The players and listeners crowded into a big, loud circle: two trombones, two saxophones, a flute and a guitar, along with a pianist, a bassist and a drummer, swinging hard.

Harlem has challenges, but on that night in Manhattan, I'm not sure there was any place happier than that little club on West 121st Street.

Christopher Reynolds is a Los Angeles Times writer.

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