Ode to Harlem

One of my most viewed videos on Instagram in a stroll around Harlem. It’s the route I walk 2 times a week from Spanish Harlem to the heart of Harlem at 125th Street and Lenox. I love this walk especially on a warm summer day. I’ve been living in Harlem for 11 years and there’s no place I’d rather be. I knew it was home the first time I visited after moving to New York. It had been a week since I’d been living downtown on NYU’s campus in a graduate dorm and I needed comfort food asap. I needed smothered chicken and cornbread and sweet tea and I came to Sylvia’s to get it. Speaking of food, here are more options in Harlem that I love. Anywho, I made my way to Harlem and vividly remember stepping off the 3 train at 125th and Lenox. I literally said “Home” out loud but quietly enough that no one heard me but me.
I could hear drums being played in front of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Building. The whole of 125th Street was lined with vendors selling everything from incense, to oils, to head wraps and tee shirts, earrings and shea butters as far as the eye could see. The air was filled with deliciousness arising from Golden Krust and everywhere I looked were gorgeous black women and men in every hue. When it was time to move off campus, I moved to Harlem and never looked back. I also credit my first Harlem Experience as well for really introducing me to Harlem. I call him the Harlem Experience because he was indeed an experience (can you guess which one of these guys he was? LOL) and he definitely had me on that long train ride on the C train to visit him in Morningside Park every weekend. Oh the joys of dating in NYC.

There’s no place like Harlem in the summertime. It’s my favorite time of year because everyone is out on the stoops taking in the sun we waited all 7 months of winter for. The kids are splashing through the water that shoots from the busted fire hydrants and laughing uncontrollably. We watch on knowing full well that our water pressure will be next to nothing for the next two days but that laughter is worth it. The dollar Icee carts are on every corner and I always get a coconut or a cherry. The restaurants up and down Frederick Douglass Blvd (now called Restaurant Row), set up shop outside on the sidewalks for better people watching. I’ve quite literally bumped into Dapper Dan at least 3 times in the past month just walking up Lenox Avenue. It’s always a moment when we see each other too. It seems like everyone is in a good mood in the summer. There’s nothing like getting a YAS SIS, from a fellow Queen walking down Frederick Douglass Blvd in my head wrap intricately concealing my yet to be released twist out. Harlem is so vibrant and rich in culture. I honestly don’t think I could live anywhere else.

Striver’s Row is one of my favorite neighborhoods in all of Harlem. It also happens to be on the same street as the first church I ever attended in New York City, Abyssinian Baptist Church. I used to walk Striver’s Row religiously just dreaming of owning a brownstone there one day. After most of the houses were foreclosed on during the depression they sat empty for years and were finally made available to black folk in the 1920’s (it would be almost 30 years after the homes were built that they could be sold to black people).  The houses sold for around $8000 to affluent blacks. Some noted residents include Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Bill Bojangles Robinson. 10 years ago when I’d walk this way to and from church every Sunday morning, I’d see everyone out on their stoops, cleaning their steps, tending to their plants. The elderly, would walk from their homes to church in their sharpest ensembles. I loved the camaraderie of the people in the neighborhood. I even had a few patients whom I did home-care physical therapy with in Striver’s Row and loved hearing all the old stories about the neighborhood from them. 

Photography by Rose Lazard || Edited by Monroe Steele

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Harlem has changed. I knew it was changing when after about a year, I stopped going to Abyssinian Baptist Church. There were always lines of Europeans who’d be bused into the neighborhood and who lined up around the block to visit the church. They’d actually visit during service hours and were given prime seating up in the balcony. I loved Abyssinian and my pastor but like a lot of young people, I’d get pretty emotional and often cry during the sermon or during praise and worship. Once, I happened to look up into the the crowd of white faces during one of those times and some were smiling, laughing and even taking photos. I felt like an animal on display in what was supposed to be a moment between me, my people and God. This felt like entertainment at the expense of the people who came to church for something so far from that. I never went back.
Harlem is for sale and not even an affluent black pastor of a church is immune from trading black culture for profit. Even Striver’s Row couldn’t keep a foothold in the black community. Homes are now selling upwards of 3-4 million dollars and are now mostly inhabited by non people of color. In the whole 20 minutes it took to shoot this look along with a video, we only saw one black person. Harlem has changed a lot in the decade I’ve lived here but it will always be home. The boys on the corners make sure I get in my door safely. My bodega guy knows exactly how I like my bacon, egg and cheese and I’m ok with the motorcycles riding noisily up and down Frederick Douglass Blvd on any day over 70 degrees. Harlem took me in and became my refuge when I was just a wide-eyed southern girl living on her own in the city and for that I will always be grateful.

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xx

Monroe

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9 Comments

  1. August 23, 2018 / 10:32 am

    Interesting post. I’ve lived in NY for 13 years (Queens to be exact) and sadly have never experienced the old or the new Harlem. I went once to a friend’s house but never got to explore the neighborhoods… It’s fascinating how you speak of your NY experience in general with so much joy. I must make it a point to create more memories here before I decide to leave it for good.

    Lastly, even if you don’t return to this same church, I hope you return to church if you haven’t already. As a society, we tend to make church sound like a place for the Holy whereas it’s meant to be a hospital for the sick. I pray that you’ll find a place of worship to be planted at and remain there long enough to allow God to use you to make a change. All the best.

    PS: Love your blog and consistency! So inspiring.

    • monroesteele
      Author
      August 23, 2018 / 10:46 am

      Oh this was years and years ago. I shimmed over to FCBC for a few years but currently don’t go to church. Thanks for reading.

      xx
      Monroe

  2. Faith
    August 23, 2018 / 11:01 am

    This look is just too good! And Harlem, all the heart eyes!

    • monroesteele
      Author
      August 24, 2018 / 9:49 am

      Thanks so much!

      xx
      Monroe

  3. August 23, 2018 / 11:38 pm

    This was such an enjoyable read and I’m happy that you shared your experience living in Harlem. One of my cousins bought a brownstone on 128th Street years before Harlem was re-gentrified and some of relatives tried to discourage her from doing so. Now, it’s worth alot and she gladly she still owns it! It’s a source of joy to me that she is a black woman who owns such a piece of property. However, I do find it sad that so many people of color have been pushed out of an area that holds so much rich history for them.

    • monroesteele
      Author
      August 24, 2018 / 9:50 am

      Wow thats amazing! A lot of people have been pushed out too. She probably gets offers all the time, but I love this story. Thank you so much for sharing and reading.

      Best,
      Monroe

  4. Miss E
    August 26, 2018 / 7:17 pm

    Great Post!

  5. Chioma
    September 17, 2018 / 11:19 am

    You are simply amazing. You and Ken Smith really inspire me. Just discovered ur page. Keep pushing sis, God will bless ur hustle.

    • monroesteele
      Author
      September 17, 2018 / 9:50 pm

      Wow thank you so much! That means a lot to me and I LOVE KEN!!

      xx
      Monroe

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