Urban Explorer: Uptown Local Provides a Guide for Making the Most of Harlem


Garish sunlight pours like a bucket of cold water through my bedroom window, from the hard edge of the Broadway Horizon, down 138th Street and beats unforgivingly upon my eyelids. Another morning in Harlem’s Hamilton Heights: the syncopation of car horns, the melodic hum of multi-lingual conversations and the keening chords from a neighbor’s viola. A neighborhood I now call home.

Some say New York City has lost its grit, its color and edge. Not here. At Manhattan’s crown lies one of its greatest living cultural jewels. A culture that hasn’t been sold and compressed into T-shirts and proud plastic trinkets, this is still relative wilderness to the taming forces of gentrification. In this western Harlem, a mixture of the old guard residents and the new bobo (Bourgeoisie Bohemian) population co-exist.

According to Wikipedia, Hamilton Heights is “bounded by 135th Street to the south, the Hudson river to the west, 155th to the north and Edgecomb Avenue to the east.” However, those who live here draw their own boundaries.

Take a quick walkabout and it is apparent that this is an area that spans continents’ worth of cultures. The owners and employees at the local deli, Nadal’s One Deli, speak three languages: English, Arabic and Spanish. Geographically, I find that this distinct “Hamilton Heights” or “West-side’s Spanish Harlem” begins along 125th and Broadway in the south, 155th to the north; it extends westward until the Hudson River and this distinct “West Spanish Harlem” begins to grow fainter around Covent Avenue to the east. To continue further east is an entirely unique facet of Harlem which harbors the most potent influences of the lingering echoes of the Harlem Renaissance.

Remember the L.E.S. and Greenwich village during its high-points of creativity, where young drifters, starving artists, wistful musicians and rebellious philosophers created unique communities of idolized outcasts? This is West Harlem’s secret identity. While Greenwhich Village, SoHo and the L.E.S. are being bought out by real estate agents catering to the wealthy and fashionable “bohemians,” the legitmate underfed artists have moved into Harlem. The once-feared tip of Manhattan is beginning to be a haven for all those who still dream of an affordable New York.

So discover this new land, where the official language is Spanglish and any series of multi-lingual fusion of phonetics; where New York City neighbors are still tolerant, if not enthusiastic about the occasional block party and loud music; and where you can get a sandwich for $2.50. Just make sure you do it safely—during the appropriate hours of day-light for real newbies or until 12 a.m. for others. I would also advise traveling with friends. It’s more fun that way anyway. And hey, if you ever need a guide, you know where to find me.


Your Urban Explorer


Most Authentic:
Flor de Broadway
3401 Broadway (between 138th Street & 139th Street)
Attire: very casual

One of my best friends, who has lived in the Harlem area for his entire life, brought me here for a delicious Dominican breakfast. Del-ish-ous. As far as authenticity and taste goes, this one takes the cake. If you’re in the mood for a heavy breakfast I would try “Un Lunche de Mangu con Tres Golpe,” which consists of Mangu (comparable to mashed potatoes), fried white cheese, an egg and sausage, with their freshly squeezed orange jJuice.

Best place to Bring family:
Dinosaur BBQ
700 W. 125th St. (between 12th Avenue & W Riverside Drive)
Attire: Casual

Located by the scenic Hudson River, Dinosaur BBQ’s claim-to-fame is its “Big Ass” pulled pork platter and BBQ ribs. Make reservations ahead of time if trying to get a big group weekend spot. Weekends feature live Blues until late and live music every night except Sunday. It will even make those “mainstream” cousins of yours comfortable.

Best Drink with the “locals” or good steak
La Parilla
3379 Broadway (between 137th Street & West 138th Street)

While the lunch specials here are a steal ($5.99-6.99 for an entrée with two sides and a drink). Come during “bar hours” for a full sense of the atmosphere. It is one of the best places to go for a more suave atmosphere, but it has just as much local energy as its counterparts. Try one of the really great steaks with tostones and green sauce. Sometimes the atmosphere includes live DJs and people are open to spontaneous dance.

Entertainment & Art

Apollo Theatre
253 W. 125 Street

The Apollo is definitely one of the most historically vibrant theatre in all of Harlem. Not the center of culture and artistic birth it once was, the Apollo is great for its Amateur Nights, where talented, aspiring performers aim to impress the audience and become Apollo legends. The Amateur Nights started up on Jan. 26. Aim for seats in the front row or the lower balcony.

Local Dance: Club El Morroco 

Probably not the safest or swankiest night club in the city, but it’s a great place to dance merengue, bachata and salsa, and the drinks are cheap. Yet it is a pretty cool experience for the brave, adaptable or accustomed—an experience for sure. It’s also a good place for first-rate seats to girl fights, and if you like zebra print, this is definitely for you.

Best Outdoor Hangout: Riverside Park

It has everything: enchanting river views, a recreation center, basketball courts, a skating rink, playgrounds, running tracks and soccer fields. I would recommend the Harlem section of the park in every season but winter (unless you’re ice skating) and every hour except from 1 a.m.-6 a.m. (especially alone). It also has one of the best quiet-spots-per-tourist ratios in Manhattan.