Inside Harlem's history

A tour guide enlightens and enriches during walk through Manhattan's historic black community

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NEW YORK -- My sister and I climb the subway stairs on a Sunday afternoon and exit on busy 135th Street. We wait in the shade of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and breathe in the lore of this mythic community. After about 10 minutes, we're joined by a spry 84-old-year who calls himself a Harlem historian.

Andi Owens is a guide with Harlem Heritage Tours. We have booked the Pre-Dinner Harlem Renaissance Walking Tour, a jaunt that begins at 3 p.m. and lasts about two hours. Harlem Heritage boasts of its homegrown guides, people whose past and present remain deeply connected to this community.

If you go

Harlem Heritage Tours: 104 Malcolm X Blvd., New York, NY 10026; 1-212-280-7888;

Andi Owens, a guide with Harlem Heritage Tours, is also curator and director of Genesis II Museum of International Black Culture. The museum houses an archive of Barack Obama and galleries including the "Art of the Royal Kingdoms of Black Africa." It is at 2376 Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. and 139th St. 1-212-690-3800.

The tours were created by Neal Shoemaker 14 years ago. Mr. Shoemaker was raised in the housing projects in Harlem and rose to be a successful banker. He was working on 118th Street in Harlem when he followed an outsider leading a tour of his neighborhood. Mr. Shoemaker felt he could lead a more authentic tour, one full of cultural sensitivities and local memories. He later lead an impromptu tour and earned a $20 tip, launching his enterprise to take people beyond the ster-eotypes of his hometown.

Mr. Owens wasn't born in Harlem, but he's lived here for 53 years. He came in 1959, disembarking at the Pennsylvanian railroad station, from Minneapolis. He came to attend Columbia University on the Upper West Side, just south of Harlem, to study drama. He never left, and over time he has acquired an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the spiritual, social, artistic and entrepreneurial pulse of the community, much of which he shared as we walk over an eight-block area beginning at 135th Street.

Any excursion into the place once called the mecca of the black world gives me goosebumps, but this walk was enlivened by Mr. Owens' rascally chatter. "I'm one handsome black dude," he told us, attributing his youthful appearance "to staying away from fast food and fast women."

This is Mr. Owens' second tour of the day. His first was at 9 a.m. when he met a group of 29 for the gospel tour of Harlem, a visit to several historic churches.

Because we're at the Schomburg (515 Malcolm X Blvd. NY 10037; 1-212-491-2200), Mr. Owens begins with a short biography of Arturo Schomburg, the black Puerto Rican who founded the center and for whom it is named. After a teacher told Mr. Schomburg that African peoples had no history, no present and no future, he began a lifelong quest to disprove such notions. His collections of art, music and scholarship became the foundation of the center. We hear many such history lessons from Mr. Owens, but it's his insider tittle-tattle of Harlem that thrills, too.

Want an Al Sharpton pancake? Mr. Owens will direct you to Amy Ruth's, (113 W. 116th St., 1-212-280-8779) a restaurant where many of the meals are named for black history figures. He delivers gossip on what he feels is the lost mission of the The Studio Museum in Harlem (144 W. 125th St.; NY 10027; 1-212-864-4500).

A local artist and curator, Mr. Owens knew artists Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence who had links to the museum. Later, he chitchats about Malcolm X's connection to Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican-born black nationalist who created a 'Back to Africa' movement in the United States.

PG graphic: Harlem walking tour
(Click image for larger version)

Harlem fills an upper part of Manhattan that 750,000 people call ho me. It was first laid out in 1875, a broad and beautiful community that quickly attracted developers. By 1909, black real estate agents preached that Harlem could house professional African-Americans and free them from the oppression of living in segregated areas of the city. They came and so did a bustling diasporic stew of Caribbean and other African peoples.

On our tour, we're mostly chasing ghosts. Mr. Owens leads a romp that focuses on the institutions and figures that were in the spotlight when Harlem was in vogue in the 1930s. The first spirit pops up from the Schomburg -- now one of five prominent research libraries in New York. Inside the ashes of Langston Hughes are interred. The globe-trotting poet lived on 127th Street and considered Harlem his literary home.

Around the corner is the Countee Cullen Library (104 W. 136th St. NY 10030; 1-212-491-2070), sitting across the street from where an Aaron Douglas painting is re-created in a mural on the block-long Harlem Hospital. The mural depicts the rise of blacks from enslavement in America to freedom. The library, named for the young Harlem Renaissance poet, is nondescript. What was here before, Mr. Owens said, was something much more lavish. The sumptuous hair salon of Madame C.J. Walker, the millionaire entrepreneur who also owned a hair products line. Ms. Walker was born poor but later legally changed her name to Madame so that white people would not refer to her as "Sally," a common reference to black domestics.

Two blocks down, more of the history of what came before. Standing before the Minisink Town House (646 Lenox Ave., NY 10037; 1-212-368-8400), a faded social service agency, we found nothing spectacular. But eight decades ago, the Cotton Club stood on this very spot, in full glow. It was an after-hours haven, popular in the prohibition era because it served liquor to the white patrons who flocked here for its big band and jazz and for its cafe au lait lusciousness. Back then, said Mr. Owens, the only black people allowed in the Cotton Club were those whose skin tone was no darker than a brown paper bag.

A few steps down the street was an historic marker. It commemorates the place where the two-story Savoy Ballroom rocked from 1926-59, shutting down the year before Mr. Owens moved to town. It was a huge warehouse of a club that could hold 4,000 dancers at one time. The band leader Chick Webb introduced Ella Fitzgerald here. The Lindy Hop, the gymnastic dance where young men would slide their partners between their legs, was born here. And it was popular for its mechanics night -- a time to lure the working class to the Savoy, as the mechanics attracted the black maids, who got in for a reduced price on Thursday night.

Over on 139th Street, it's a decidedly more lush life at Strivers Row. A polished corridor of buff brick buildings erected for the black elite of Harlem. Today, Strivers Row is 55 percent white, Mr. Owens said, as many of the children of the elite moved out of Harlem, heading south to Atlanta.

Crossing over Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, we stop at Abyssinian Baptist Church (132 Odell Clark Place, NY 10030; 1-212-862-7474). Powell's father began this church, and it became a powerhouse in Harlem, fueling the rise of Powell's son to legend as a political leader and social activist. Today the church -- which boasts 10,000 members -- is boosting Harlem's revitalization. It is purchasing abandoned buildings and making the new housing available first to longtime Harlemites. The church bears the ancient name of Ethiopia. And, the congregation carries the stately ancestry. The people who fill the pews do so in black suits, black bowties and with their "noises in the air," Mr. Owens said.

As we stroll along, Mr. Owens stops and gives an elderly woman a kiss on the cheek. She's a Significant Elder, a group of retired professional black women who gather to discuss community development. As we head one block over, we pass Mother African Methodist Episcopal Church. Mr. Owens whispers about its link to the Underground Railroad: "Harriett Tubman stopped here." And then, he shares more: The minister today is a descendent of Paul Robeson, the internationally acclaimed singer, activist. Tidbits, yes; but they signify the continuum of how Harlem has for generations flowed across African-American life and times.

And then it ends. On 130th Street, a broad avenue lined with regal brownstones, Mr. Owens says goodbye, turning the corner and disappearing into the pulse and history that is Harlem.


Ervin Dyer, a former Post-Gazette staff writer, is a senior editor at the University of Pittsburgh's Pitt Magazine and a graduate student in Pitt's Department of Sociology (


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