Harlem World, February 2010
They pass by every half-hour right outside our apartment window. The double-decker buses loaded with tourists rolling down Broadway and past our building on West 133rd before swinging a right on 131st on their way to Madame Alexander’s Doll Factory, the second biggest tourist attraction in Harlem after the Apollo Theater.
Yes, it is true. Madame Alexander has teamed up with Gray Line New York Sightseeing to have those big buses swing through the smattering of auto body shops and Nick Sprayregan’s self-storage empire to drop tourists from all over the world right at her front door. They apparently get a free gift of some sort, and then perhaps a bite to eat at Studebaker’s Café right next door while they wait to hop on the next bus.
Amazingly, this is one of the only businesses in Harlem besides the Apollo that is even making an honest effort to capture the billions of tourist dollars spent in New York City each year. According to NYC & Company (the official marketing and tourism arm of the City of New York whose mission it is “to maximize travel and tourism opportunities throughout the five boroughs, build economic prosperity and spread the dynamic image of New York City around the world”), over 45 million people visited New York City in 2009. These visitors spent a whopping $28 billion in the midst of the worst economy since the Great Depression (they spent $32 billion in 2008), and by 2012, NYC & Company hopes to have 50 million tourists visiting the city annually.
“We really have done a good job in attracting people,” Mayor Bloomberg said of these statistics.
These are staggering numbers—but where are these tourists spending this $28 billion? Of course, most of it is spent Downtown and Midtown Manhattan, where people are willing to wait on line for five hours to visit the Statue of Liberty and then spend over $20 for a cheeseburger at T.G.I.Friday’s and $36 for a martini at a cocktail lounge. Because of the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and most recently Ground Zero, tourists will always first be drawn to Downtown and Midtown. But then what? Are they spending any of this $28 billion in Harlem? And what are Harlem’s local business owners doing to attract more visitors and grab a slice of this lucrative economic pie?
I didn’t even realize that I lived right around the block from Harlem’s second biggest tourist attraction until I spoke to David Chien, the Director of Marketing for Gray Line New York and City Sights NY (the two companies are former rivals but are now a joint venture—the “red buses” being Gray Line, and the “blue buses” being City Sights). He told me that over a million customers per year take their tours and trust them to show them only the best of what New York City has to offer. Many of these visitors will only go where these buses take them, making them very influential as to where tourist money is spent in the city and what specific businesses are the beneficiaries.
“I think a lot of people visiting New York City are confused as to where is the one stop they could find everything, and that is basically Gray Line or New York Sightseeing,” David told me. “We sell all attraction tickets, there are maps and information that will help guide your visit for the first time or for the second time to make things easier for you. New York City is intimidating—we take that for granted because we’re here every day. But to come to the big city, some of them need that familiar place where you can say, ‘Listen, I trust you, and I will go there if this is where you will go.’ Otherwise, they’re not going to go. A lot of people can’t find the comfort in venturing out to a borough or a street if we’re not the connector.”
This is particularly true of visitors from abroad, many of whom are visiting the United States for the first time. But even for domestic visitors, New York City is nothing like the towns they come from, so it can be overwhelming and even a bit frightening. And, while many of these visitors may really want to see a neighborhood such as Harlem, many are not willing to simply jump on the A train to 125th Street and start exploring on their own. They want someone to show them around and to point them to the interesting sites and tell them where to go, which, again, makes these tours very influential in their impact local neighborhood economies.
“There may be an apprehensiveness of someone who may have the misnomer of what Harlem is all about,” David said. “We’ve got to give them the comfort zone. If someone who hasn’t visited New York City in fifteen years, they would be shocked if they saw 42nd Street. And that is my point about not only Harlem, but all of New York City. It’s probably the safest big city in the entire world, so how do we give them this hand to say, ‘Visit us! You’re going to have such a great time, and here’s the starting point.’ I think that should be considered when also introducing Harlem. Let’s have a point there where everybody can come and visit this great neighborhood. Right now that starting point is just a bus stop. Right now all I have a bus stop in Harlem.”
In general, the only Harlem attraction most outsiders know about is the Apollo Theater. That’s what everyone has to see when they come to Harlem, whether just to get a glimpse of the marquee, take a guided tour, or see a show. That’s why it made sense to me that all these buses were going down 125th Street. But, before I knew about this supposedly famous doll factory on West 131st, I was wondering why these tour buses started driving by our building. It was cool in a way that we lived in a neighborhood that tourists were paying good money to see ($44 a head for the “Uptown Loop”, which originates down near Times Square and takes them all the way up to 135th Street, through part of Harlem, and then back down Fifth Avenue). But, if it wasn’t for these buses, would our little enclave here on the Isle of Manhattan be considered a tourist destination? Probably not. I suppose 3333 Broadway could be a tourist attraction for urban planning students in the “what not to do” section of their course load, and I suppose I could hang a sign out our apartment window pointing out that our building could be seen in the opening scene of American Gangster. We do get a lot of locals who venture up to 12th Avenue to eat at Dinosaur Barbecue or the Hudson River Café or Covo Trattoria & Pizzeria and who do their shopping at Fairway, and we get a lot of film crews who love shooting under the viaduct, which does look really cool from below. But I don’t think many tourists or even most New Yorkers for that matter know about this trendy part of Harlem, the so-called “Harlem Meatpacking District” or “Viaduct Valley”. This is unfortunate because it is a glimpse of what Harlem could be and an example of success where other business owners have not only failed to succeed, but have not even tried.
Imagine if Dinosaur Barbecue was located right in the middle of 125th Street. People would come from all over the world to eat there. Instead, 125th Street has a new Applebee’s, a restaurant chain that is everywhere, and therefore irrelevant in terms of outside money coming into Harlem because only locals will eat there and the profits will go to their corporate headquarters in Lenexa, Kansas. The approach that local businesses have taken, which has prevented Harlem from reaching its economic potential, has again come to pass: offer a generic brand that the local residents recognize and make money from them. Sure, maybe a few jobs have been created this way, but these are not the kind of businesses that can spur significant growth, which can only happen here if outside money is brought in and spent here. Harlem itself is a brand recognized around the world, yet when people come here, what is there to do beyond the Apollo? Go to Applebee’s? Jimmy Jazz? OTB? And, what are the locally owned restaurants speckled around Harlem in places not visible from 125th Street doing to attract this $28 billion?
Apparently, Madame Alexander’s Doll Factory is one of the few businesses unique to Harlem that recognizes the potential of boosting the local economy by attracting outside tourist dollars. It seems bizarre that a doll factory is what many tourists will associate with Harlem after their visit here, but that shows the economic power that a company such as Gray Line yields given the hundreds of thousands of tourists they physically bring to Harlem each year.
“We feel that Madame Alexander’s is a very historical place that the entire family can enjoy,” David said. “We’ve provided incentives where when someone hops off at Madame Alexander’s, they’ll receive a free gift. And we’re trying to work with the community to develop this stop a lot more. We recently had a trolley to Dreamgirls [at the Apollo, which premiered the new movie], and there will soon be a shuttle that goes up from Midtown in conjunction with NYC & Company. Hopefully it will bring more customers from Midtown to venture into Harlem.”
I asked David what the tourists do when they get off the bus in Harlem.
“They want to see the Apollo Theater,” he said. “People have asked about where to eat, but unfortunately we don’t have a restaurant or food venue in Harlem that ties to any of our tours. We’re certainly hoping to develop that. I throw that question out to you: if someone is visiting Harlem for the first time, where would you point them to?”
This was an interesting question. I can tell you that Madame Alexander’s Doll Factory would not be among them, although I would show them 12th Avenue right down the block. As for the Apollo Theater, they would see it anyway since you would have to take them down 125th Street, and if they really wanted to see the inside, they could take a tour. For my fifteen minute tour, I would show them Striver’s Row, take them over to Convent Avenue near City College, up through Sugar Hill, and back down Frederick Douglass Blvd. below 125th to show them the ridiculous amount of new construction there has been in the last few years. I would also take them across 116th Street and do a little tour of East Harlem, of course mentioning that this area is more famously known as “Spanish Harlem”. Then we would have lunch at Sylvia’s.
And here lies one of the issues. Sylvia’s is already a successful business and one of the strongest brand names in Harlem. They do well enough that they don’t really need outside help, so they probably don’t want busloads of tourists being dumped at their door and disrupting their regular business. If there were more unique restaurants and clubs in Harlem, then maybe Sylvia’s would be more accommodating to organized bus tours such as Gray Line and City Sights. David said they have tried to work with Sylvia’s in the past, but they were never able to reach an agreement. Part of the reason for this is that the tour companies would want Sylvia’s to give their customers a discount in exchange for bringing customers and advertising their business in their tour books and pamphlets. Sylvia’s, which is already reasonably priced, does not need to offer discounts in order to do steady business.
“In order to develop a certain venue for meals, it’s difficult to go to an establishment and say, ‘We’re looking to bring busloads of people who are hopping off to have lunch here’,” David said. “Some restaurants might night like that, but others will say, ‘The more the merrier.’ When you have a restaurant as iconic as Sylvia’s, it may present a challenge, and we’re trying to figure out how to do this at a price that’s available for our customers to buy a ticket to go uptown as well as shopping and spending their money in Harlem. We take that into consideration, so we want to keep the price of the meal affordable for everyone. But we haven’t been able to do that yet.”
But what about the other restaurants? Not many of them have enjoyed the success of Sylvia’s, and some are struggling to keep their doors open. I asked David if other Harlem businesses have been resistant in trying to form partnerships with Gray Line and City Sights.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘resistant’ because I think each business has its own way of going about their daily schedule,” he said. “Flexibility is the key here. Obviously we like to work with everybody, and we’re reaching out to the operators of Harlem businesses.”
I was also curious about what the outside perception of Harlem is. Having grown up on Long Island in the 1980s, Harlem was simply a place that you did not go. Of course, back then neither was Times Square or even Central Park. The only thing I knew about Harlem was Showtime at the Apollo when it used to come on after Saturday Night Live at one in the morning. Unfortunately, many Long Islanders, as well as others who grew up in the greater New York metropolitan area or even other areas of the city such as Riverdale and Staten Island, have been so brainwashed by the perception of Harlem being a violent, crime-riddled area that they still won’t even think about coming here. Despite this image no longer being true, local businesses are doing very little or nothing at all to reach out to these groups who continue to have a negative perception of Harlem, even if they have heard people saying that Harlem is now actually a nice, safe place. Yet, there has been no major campaigns by local businesses to Come visit the New Harlem, enjoy restaurants such as Chez Lucienne, the River Room, or Melba’s. And this is at a time when there has been expressed outside interest in developing Harlem as a tourist attraction by companies such as Gray Line and City Sights, who have not been successful in finding cooperation with these establishments.
Of course, there remains the issue of there not being enough amenities for even local residents to enjoy, a common complaint among some of the newer residents here who often venture out of Harlem when they want to go out to eat or have a drink. While there are several wonderful restaurants throughout the neighborhood, they are scattered about rather than being located in a Central location such as 125th Street, which is presently dominated by chain apparel stores. Many of the newer locals don’t know about many of these restaurants because they are tucked away and doing little to attract customers who live in Harlem. Many of the newer residents like Harlem merely because it is convenient to the rest of Manhattan. They didn’t move here because of the neighborhood itself. When they go out to eat or to have a drink, they don’t even consider staying here because there isn’t enough to choose from. They go to other parts of Manhattan to spend their money.
While many who grew up in and around New York generally have a negative perception of Harlem, those who grew up outside of New York, particularly those from other countries, tend to have a very different perception. They think Harlem is a very culturally rich area and one of the great music scenes in New York City. Many expect to come here and find jazz clubs and Uptown nightlife that other parts of Manhattan do not offer, but when they get here they are disappointed when it does not meet their expectations. One of the only other names they recognize besides the Apollo is the Cotton Club at it’s odd current location on a small desolate island at the western end of 125th Street. The place always looks like it is closed, and there are no signs or menus posted outside. The building itself resembles a roadside strip club one might find outside of town. It doesn’t seem worth it to risk your life crossing that very dangerous section of 125th with the short traffic light and all the cars racing to and from the Henry Hudson Parkway to get a closer look. And even if you are willing to get close, it’s not like you can see inside that it’s actually a decent place.
Yet, imagine this place located on 125th somewhere near the Apollo. A brand name like this has the potential to be a huge success. People would see the Apollo and then fix their eyes on the Cotton Club and say, ‘Hey, I’ve heard of this place.’ They could have live music and post a menu outside the door. People on the tour bus who weren’t planning on checking out Harlem and were only passing through for this 15 minute section of the tour may say to each other, ‘Hey, this looks like a happening neighborhood, we should check it out,’ or decide to come back later for dinner and to hear some live music. They would spend money here—outside money.
The Apollo is such a tremendous anchor to Harlem that provides enormous potential for the right businesses. Yet, it is surrounded by businesses that do not benefit from its presence. The Apollo is a destination that over a million tourists a year see from the tour buses alone, and if there were anything of interest besides the Apollo where people could get off the bus and sit down and have a drink or a cup of coffee or browse or whatever, that business would be a huge success. But nobody seems to realize this or doing anything about it, including the so-called “celebrities” who live here who have the wealth to make it happen. And why aren’t the present business owners on 125th Street doing something a little more creative to attract some of these billions of dollars that are passing by on these buses? They have had plenty of time and opportunity to create something interesting and financially successful, but instead they complain that they are being pushed out by big corporate developers. They complain, yet they offer nothing original. They exploit urban and hip hop clichés that bring little value to the community and create very few jobs. Does Harlem really need so many clothing stores that sell low quality merchandise in stores that are always a mess with piles of clothes all over and employees who are there not to help customers but to make sure that they aren’t stealing anything? Yet, many locals express a desire to keep open the very businesses that are exploiting them. Perhaps it is that same old fear that they too will be priced out, a danger that will not come to pass any time soon in this real estate market or at any time in the near future. Perhaps that was a more realistic threat when people were going crazy buying up real estate all over the city, but that’s not going to happen again anytime soon. And, even if the real estate market does make a comeback, it will in no way resemble the buying frenzy it was a few years ago. Even then, nobody got pushed out or priced out of Harlem. There was enough empty space in Harlem for these developers to come in and build without displacement, and most of this new construction included affordable housing. But now, even though this perceived threat has passed, many continue to resist change. This resistance does sometimes drive prospective entrepreneurs away because residents accuse them of destroying their community. In the end, all this resistance does is open the door for outside corporations such as Applebee’s who don’t give a damn about the community to come in and open up shop. Continued resistance will allow other chain restaurants and retailers such as the Gap, Wal-Mart, T.G.I.Friday’s, or Checker’s to come in and take over 125th Street. Current local business are not being pushed out; they are pushing themselves out by continuing to sell cheap generic crap in messy stores.
As for what would make Harlem a more tourist-friendly place, David believes that annual events that can be promoted would bring in lots of tourist dollars and could also be enjoyed by local residents.
“I think we need to do a lot more calendar events, meaning we need to do more promotional festivals, activities,” he said. “Do you know of an activity or weeklong event that’s synonymous with Harlem?”
I explained that there are events, but they are disorganized and not very well promoted outside of Harlem. There is no one signature event that allows locals and outsiders to both share the pride and culture of Harlem. The events here are mostly geared towards local residents and often to specific demographics. There is no Harlem Jazz Festival or Harlem Gospel Festival attracting big names and large crowds. There is not a strip of bars and restaurants in Harlem besides the tiny one on 12th Avenue where there are enough establishments to band together and have a “Restaurant Week” or a weeklong series of events that celebrates Harlem not only as it once was, but what it is today and what it could be. There are spots dotted around Harlem, but they are too spread out to build something around and too small to be worthy destinations in themselves. There’s a place here and there, but in between there’s a mile of dollar stores, Duane Reades, and bodegas.
“Harlem is one of the top two reasons why people want to take the Uptown Loop bus tour, the other being Central Park” David said. “I think most people that take our Uptown Loop tour are very aware of the Harlem community, and that’s why they want to see and explore it. The Europeans especially are familiar with Harlem tours, and they want to participate with the Sunday brunch and gospel tours.”
The gospel tours are very popular. Just walk around Harlem on any given Sunday morning and you will see lines of tourists a block long waiting to get in and see these gospel choirs. So why aren’t there more businesses that cater to this crowd? And why isn’t there a Harlem Gospel Choir Festival? The churches are benefiting financially (although some parishioners may not appreciate all these tourists invading their churches). Harlem has the potential to be the gospel and jazz capital of the Northeast, so why hasn’t anything been done to promote Harlem as a musical capital like New Orleans or Nashville? Someone could open a business where the gospel choirs can perform (not only on Sundays but any day of the week) and where the tourists can eat and have coffee and buy CDs or whatever. Instead, this is being left to the churches. It is unfathomable that in this age of capitalism, no one is capitalizing on the enormous potential of Harlem’s culture. People come here from all over the world hoping to experience this culture, but, for the most part, they aren’t finding it unless they already know where and when to look. This culture has the potential for enormous expansion if anyone is willing to do anything about it. The City and local politicians certainly aren’t doing anything to organize and promote events that will bring tourists to Harlem. People from all over the world want to come here and see Harlem, but when they get here they don’t know what to do, and local businesses and residents look at them like they don’t want them here.
“What would help is having an event such as a parade through Harlem that is established, something that celebrates the culture and livelihood of Harlem on an annual basis, not just when a new business opens or when there’s an event at the Apollo,” David said. “I also want to stress that Harlem is not just 125th Street. You need the time to venture through the whole neighborhood, but we need a venue or an event to celebrate it. Right now it’s very difficult for us to do so aside from our bus route and the bus stops. There’s really no other way to really promote it.”
More tourists would mean more jobs and more money for Harlem residents. Instead, business owners have not taken the necessary steps to attract outsiders and their money. Instead, they are content to capitalize on the money that is already here, which results in a stagnant local economy.
I wanted to see Harlem from a tourist’s perspective, so David was kind enough to arrange for me to take the “Uptown Loop” tour myself. This particular tour is approximately two hours, about 15 to 20 minutes of which passes through Harlem.
The first stop in the area is at St. John the Devine on 110th Street, then the bus heads up to Riverside Church at 120th and Broadway. Next it heads up Riverside Drive and makes a stop at Grant’s Tomb and continues up to 135th Street, where it turns right and heads back to Broadway. It then heads south on Broadway, past my building at 133rd, and turns right at 131st Street to Madame Alexander’s Doll Factory. At 12th Avenue, the bus makes a left and then another quick left onto 125th Street, where it heads east past the Apollo to Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. It makes a right on ACP and then a quick left at 122nd. At Lenox it makes a right and heads down to 116th, where it makes a left and stops at the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market. It then makes a right at Fifth Avenue and heads south, across 110th Street and towards Museum Mile and the Upper East Side.
It was very cold on the day I took the tour, so the upper decks of the buses were covered with a glass encasement designed to allow for unobstructed views. However, the encasement of the bus I boarded was so filthy that I could only make out the shapes of the buildings hovering above us. Also, the encasement only covered the top of the bus, so there was a large opening in the back of that was freely letting in cold air.
The bus was crowded, so I had to sit in the second to last row. The encasement was very low, so someone six feet or taller such as myself has to duck to avoid a bump on the head. It looked like a big MRI machine with seats. I’m a bit claustrophobic, so it was a bit uncomfortable.
Most of my fellow passengers were speaking in foreign tongues and wearing giant sunglasses, which made me suspect that they were European. I did not hear a single English-speaking voice that did not have a strong accent, including the tour guide, a woman who looked to be in her sixties who was collecting the tickets downstairs and who made it a point to tell me that my ticket was good only for the Uptown Loop as if I looked like the type who might try to pull a fast one by sneaking onto the Downtown Loop bus afterwards.
When we started moving, the tour guide sat in an empty seat up front and picked up the microphone. Those of us in the back could not hear her at all, and a gentleman with a British accent raised his hand and said that we in the back could not hear her. She looked agitated at the interruption and said that the group before this one was able to hear just fine and then suggested maybe we should just be quiet and listen. But very few people were talking to begin with, so this made no difference.
A couple of minutes later the British gentleman raised his hand again and said he still couldn’t hear, and his companion suggested that maybe she should just turn up the volume. After glaring at the Brits for a moment, the guide finally turned and shouted down the stairs to the driver to turn the sound up. She then turned back to us and with a stern tone said that we all had to be quiet so that everyone could hear her. We had barely gone two blocks and this was already beginning to feel like a bad high school field trip.
Heading up Eighth Avenue approaching 50th Street, the guide said that the entire area we were in now was known as “Columbus Circle”. This was news to me. I thought Columbus Circle was Columbus Circle, and that the area we were in is known as Midtown. When we actually arrived at Columbus Circle and were driving around the traffic circle, she said that the area we were now in was Central Park West and that the next stop was Central Park South, which was actually on Central Park West because we had already crossed Central Park South. She asked how many people wanted to get off at this stop, and about ten or so people indicated they did by raising their hands. There was no cord to pull or strip to press to request a stop like an MTA bus, so every time we approached a stop, the guide asked if anyone wanted to get off. If anyone did, she shouted down the stairs to let the driver know that people were getting off.
About ten more people hopped on to replace the ten that had exited, so the bus was once again at full capacity as we headed up Central Park West. The guide indicated that Madonna lived in one of the buildings that we had just passed, and she ordered everyone to remain quiet as if not to disturb her. I wondered if she would do the same when we passed my building in 133rd.
We continued on to Lincoln Center and up into the Upper West Side. On a nice day it would probably be a good view from the top of the bus, but this encasement window was so dirty that I couldn’t help but think that I would have seen a lot more from an MTA bus. It was also a little bit disconcerting to see the traffic lights hover just above us as we passed underneath them. If the cover was not on and someone happened to stand up at the wrong time, it would not be pretty. I looked at my ticket to see if there were any warnings about decapitation. There was nothing specific about losing your head, but the company claimed that it was not responsible for injuries, delays, inconveniences, or anything else for that matter.
The next major stop was the Dakota on 72nd, which she pointed out as the building where John Lennon was shot (never mind that he actually lived there before being shot). She also mentioned that Alec Baldwin had just purchased an apartment there, but did not mention anything about the building itself. About ten people hopped off here, and for a moment there was a little more breathing room. Then ten more hopped on, and once again every seat was taken.
Several people indicated that they wanted to get off at the Museum of Natural History, which was the next stop. The guide became impatient and told them that the stop was coming up and that they had to wait. The bus was quiet, but you could feel the tension building between the passengers and the tour guide. There was no enthusiasm from the passengers, and there were no “oohs” and “ahhs” at any of the things she pointed out, which seemed random and relatively insignificant. Perhaps they were afraid of being yelled at if they made any noise. It’s not like anyone was allowed to have fun on this tour. I would have been pretty pissed if I had paid $44 for this. I began to think that the only value of this tour was that it was an option for tourists who are too lazy to try to figure out how to read a subway map or too shy to hail a cab.
At 91st & Broadway she said that this was still the Upper West Side, “but not the yuppie Upper West Side… This is the quiet Upper West Side.” I wasn’t sure exactly what this was supposed to mean, but it was the first time I had heard the term “yuppie” in about a decade.
At 96th St. we turned off Broadway and headed towards Amsterdam. She said the next major stop was St. John the Devine, which she talked up like it was one of the highlights of the tour. It occurred to me, though, that if most of these people were from Europe, they probably wouldn’t be very interested in seeing an old cathedral. After all, isn’t Europe littered with old Cathedrals, many of which are probably much grander than this one? As I suspected, nobody got off at this stop. As architecturally beautiful as it is, St. John the Devine is probably not very interesting to European tourists. They came to see New York City, not old cathedrals. They could have stayed home if they wanted to see those.
Finally, heading up Amsterdam we entered Morningside Heights and the campus of Columbia University. She was not nearly as enthusiastic about Columbia as she was about St. John the Devine, and there was apparently no stop in this area. I was expecting her to describe Columbia as an Ivy League school and one of the elite universities in the United States, but instead she indicated that “Columbia was run down not too long ago, but now it is an excellent school, particularly for journalists.” I let out a little laugh at this, and the person sitting next to me gave me a quick glance. My wife got her undergraduate degree at Barnard and is currently a student at Columbia Law, so I couldn’t wait to tell her about this description (she too laughed out loud when I did tell her later that evening). The guide also mentioned that President Obama was a Columbia graduate, which may have added some significance to the school (but, of course, they were not nearly as important the buildings where Madonna and Alec Baldwin lived). And, despite this being an institution of higher learning where there are classrooms and libraries, she did not order us to be quiet here. Apparently Madonna practicing Kaballah requires more quiet concentration than an Ivy League courseload. As for Morningside Heights, the only thing she said about it was that it was “a very old neighborhood”.
The next stop was Riverside Church at 120th & Broadway. Despite the mention of a free guided tour here, nobody got off. Nor did anyone take any pictures. Just about everybody on the bus had a digital camera in hand, but no one was using them. And nobody had hopped off or on the bus since 72nd Street.
We turned on Riverside Drive and headed up past Grant’s Tomb. Had there been any Americans on the bus, there may have perhaps been at least some interest in this stop, especially since it was a free attraction. But the guide had to explain to these passengers who Ulysses S. Grant was, and even after hearing that he was the Union General in the Civil War and a former President of the United States, still nobody was interested.
Now we were heading into my neighborhood. In fact, I usually park my car near Grant’s Tomb, and when looking down at my car as we passed by, I wished I was in it instead of on this bus. My son’s daycare, Red Balloon, was also right down the hill from where we were as we approached the viaduct, and I’m sure he would have enjoyed being on this bus more than me if only because it is a vehicular oddity that he sees from our living room window.
On a clear day such as this you get a beautiful view of the Hudson and the George Washington Bridge from atop the viaduct, but, again, it was difficult to see out of these filthy windows. Perhaps that wasn’t such a bad thing when we made a right and rolled down 135th Street. As we approached Broadway, I broke the no cell-phone rule to call my wife to let her know that the bus was coming by the building and to get out the camera. Fortunately I was not caught.
The guide said that we were now entering Harlem, which she claimed was built because working class people came to live here. Not exactly the way I understood it, but at this point I realized that just about every word that came out of her mouth was rubbish and that we were all being taken for a ride. She made no mention of being on the border of Hamilton Heights or of Washington Heights being twenty blocks to the north or that George Washington’s headquarters had been there and that it had been a strategic and very important area during the American Revolution. Instead, she mentioned that Madame Alexander’s Doll Factory was the next stop and how it had been a very popular stop during the holiday season.
We stopped at a red light at my corner. I looked up and waved at our apartment. I couldn’t see if my wife was at the window, and I wasn’t sure if she would be able to see me, but she did snap a couple of pictures and I was able to identify myself when I saw them later.
Heading down Broadway we made a right on 131st and stopped in front of the Doll Factory. Nobody got off. Besides mentioning that it had been a popular stop during the holidays, the guide had made no other selling points as to why this doll factory was so wildly popular or even who Madame Alexander was or what kind of dolls were manufactured there. Nor did she mention the free gift that David had told me about. Despite the incompetent salesmanship, it still occurred to me what an amazing source of customers these tour buses could be. If she had been a better tour guide, she probably could have convinced at least a few people to get off and check it out. Multiply those few by buses running by every half-hour all day every day, and that has the potential to add up to a lot of outside money coming in to Harlem.
A good tour guide can excite and entertain people and make tourism fun, but Madame Nonsense was actually making New York City seem like a boring place. It was as if you already had to know what to look for in dreary old Manhattan, and if you didn’t, this lady sure as hell wasn’t going to tell you. For the most part I was amused at her ineptitude, but then she went too far. As we pulled away from Madame Alexander’s and stopped at the corner of 12th Avenue, with Dinosaur Barbecue on our left and one of the great successes of Harlem’s redevelopment right in front of us in the “Meatpacking District” or “Viaduct Valley” or whatever you want to call it, she actually said, “we’re now in an industrial area that’s not too appealing”. This was a slap in the face to my neighborhood and a disservice to every paying customer on this bus. Why did she not mention that Dinosaur Barbecue is one of the more popular eateries in Harlem and that people come from all over the city to eat here? It was lunchtime too, and some people may have wanted to get off and experience some great American barbecue and one of the unique and wonderful establishments in Harlem. This was getting more bizarre by the moment.
We headed down to 125th, where we made a left and were now heading east. To our right was the Cotton Club, which, like Floridita Tapas (a very nice restaurant up the block), is at a horrendous location for a restaurant or club. How successful would either of these two places be if they merely moved to a more central location on 125th Street near the Apollo? The guide mentioned that this was not the original Cotton Club, which was located on Lenox, and that sometimes they have gospel services there. I pass this place every day on my way to pick up my son from daycare, and I just shake my head that they put it right here on this awful triangular island and make it look about as welcoming as a Mason lodge. This could be one of Harlem’s crown jewels, but instead it is a tiny island lost in the sea of Columbia’s expansion project. If anything, Columbia would be doing the owners of the Cotton Club a favor if it were to displace it. Even Columbia’s most vociferous critic Nick Sprayregan, who has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money fighting Columbia’s potential use of eminent domain to acquire property and displace businesses and residential buildings, might even agree.
We hadn’t even crossed Broadway before the tour guide started talking about the Apollo. Granted, there is not much to talk about between the Cotton Club and the Apollo, and a lot can be said about the history of the Apollo and what an important landmark it is. But, true to form, all she said about it was that every Wednesday night was amateur night, and that John Lennon and Yoko Ono were regular performers there in the 70s. She did not mention James Brown, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Diana Ross, or any other performers who made the Apollo one of the most legendary performance venues in the United States. She also failed to mention the recent tributes by fans of Michael Jackson upon the news of his passing, which is something I’m sure the Europeans would have been interested in because he was far more popular there than he was in the States during the later years of his life. But no, it’s just the Apollo, and that’s all you need to know.
By the time we crossed Broadway she was already done talking about the Apollo and had changed the subject to American culture and how it is common to tip people here, including tour bus operators, and that tips are not included in the price of the ticket. This was just despicable. Charging 44 bucks for this ticket, doing a shitty job, and then outright asking for a tip? This woman was out of her mind.
Ten people got off at the Apollo, and a few got on. To my pleasant surprise, this was as popular a stop on the tour that any of the others. On a cold day such as this, 125th Street actually seemed like one of the livelier streets compared to some of the others that we passed in Midtown and on the Upper West Side. But I knew that this was it, that those who got off were merely going to cross the street, look at the Apollo, maybe spend money to take a tour, snap a few pictures, and get back on the bus. Where else would they go? Jimmy Jazz? Duane Reade? The new Applebee’s? Maybe they’ll take a look at what the sidewalk vendors are selling since they are the only retailers on 125th Street that sell items unique to Harlem that visitors may potentially be interested in. However, because they are on the cold street and not in a warm physical store where you can walk in and browse, vendors are not likely to be a significant recipient of tourist spending. Even if they were, street vendors do virtually nothing to help the local economy.
If only there were somewhere else to go. If only they could get off the bus, look at the Apollo, and then head into “The Harlem Bookstore”, a big store like Barnes & Noble (but locally owned, not corporate like Barnes & Noble) where you could go in, buy books about Harlem, souvenirs, CDs, photos, art, posters, coffee, snacks, and maybe have an area where a small jazz ensemble can play. A big locally-owned bookstore could also host annual events in conjunction with the Apollo. If a business like this showed signs of success, others would follow. Perhaps a little club or restaurant would open next door where you can slip in and have a drink and a bite to eat before hopping on the next bus. How about a nice soul food restaurant that advertises “Authentic Harlem Soul Food”? Outsiders would be thrilled to eat at a place like this, especially if they have never heard of or don’t know where Sylvia’s is. What about an art gallery for local artists (there are many great ones already here). Or, how about “The Harlem Jazz Club” or something like The Blue Note down in the Village? Or, imagine if the Cotton Club was right here? And perhaps someday there will be a nice locally-owned hotel in that big ugly lot next to the Apollo, the most valuable piece of commercial real estate in Harlem, that will bring more big name acts to the Apollo and inject more outside money into the local economy. Gray Line buses would be thrilled to partner with businesses such as these, which would do phenomenally well if they actually existed and create significant job growth in Harlem. And, contrary to popular belief, these businesses would be enjoyed by local residents as well.
Instead, the tendency of some local residents has been to do nothing but complain about how Harlem is changing. This complaining scares off local entrepreneurs who want to open something unique that may benefit Harlem. These are the business owners who should be embraced because they actually care about the community, but if they hear complaints from residents who don’t want Harlem to change anymore, they may decide not to move forward. This in turn leaves the door open for corporations who don’t give a damn about the community to open chain restaurants and clothing stores. This is how Harlem will lose its soul for good. Trying to keep Harlem from changing is essentially giving up control as to how it will change. No neighborhood in New York City is immune to change; that’s the way this city has always been, and that’s the way it will always be. Fighting change does more harm than good. Instead, local residents and business owners should be proactive in focusing their energy on the kind of change they would like to see rather than allowing corporate America to do it for them. Seek out local entrepreneurs who may be interested in opening a business here and work with them to make it happen. Work with existing local business owners to help them improve the goods and services they offer. Local businesses must do more than sell cheap crap in messy stores. The term “Uptown” should have a classy connotation. Vibrant culture, good food, good music. Unfortunately, no one has taken up the challenge to change this association. Whoever does will be very successful. Harlem has the chance to be a New Orleans-like neighborhood right here in New York City, but the opening of Applebee’s is only the latest sign that Harlem is turning into a corporate landing pad. Right now there is still an amazing opportunity to take advantage of the Harlem brand and build something unique that will attract people from all over the world, but this has to happen before there is a Starbuck’s on every corner and McDonald’s in between. It would be a travesty if 125th Street turned into a generic shopping strip like Steinway Street in Astoria, which ten years ago had similar kinds of stores that 125th Street has now. Today Steinway Street is mostly all corporate retailers, and most of the money made there goes right into the pockets of corporate executives who live nowhere near Astoria. Tourists and residents alike would enjoy something unique and representative of Harlem, not things you can find anywhere in the country like Applebee’s or Old Navy.
When the big double-decker buses come to Harlem, it’s hop-on, hop-off, and hop-on again. No money is spent. Tourists with money to burn come and go and wind up spending their cash in Times Square. What a waste.
I wanted to see the rest of the Harlem tour, so I stayed on the bus. The tour guide mentioned that Bill Clinton’s office was right up the block and pointed out the statue of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in the plaza, explaining that he was the first African-American elected to Congress from New York. We then turned right on the street that bears his name and headed south before swinging a left on 122nd.
Of course, one of the signature features of Harlem is the beautiful brownstone townhouses. There is a nice row of them on one side of 122nd between ACP and Lenox, but she did not point them out or even mention the word “brownstone”. Instead she started talking about how Lenox Avenue was also known as Malcolm X Boulevard, named after a civil rights activist who “unfortunately got shot here in New York City”.
We turned right on Lenox and headed south. The guide mentioned that this part of Harlem used to be a German-Jewish neighborhood and then pointed out the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque at the corner of 116th. Yet, she failed to mention any of the dozens of new condominium developments in Harlem, which is the biggest story in Harlem over the past decade.
We turned left and headed east on 116th Street and asked if anyone wanted to get off at the Harlem Market (meaning the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market). This could have been her salvation. She could have mentioned that this was a place where you can buy traditional African crafts and textiles and souvenirs, and that it is perhaps one of the most tourist-friendly places in Harlem. Instead, she merely asked if anyone wanted to get off here. For all they knew, the Harlem Market was a grocery store. Needless to say, nobody got off. This was also an opportunity to mention new development, as we were right next door to the Kalahari, one of the biggest new condo buildings in Harlem and one of the only LEED-certified green buildings. But, as far as she was concerned, it wasn’t even there.
We turned right on Fifth Avenue and continued heading south. We were told that somewhere to our left was Spanish Harlem, but that before it was Spanish it was Italian, and now there are a lot of people from “The Orient” living here. The Orient?
And that was it for the Harlem part of the tour. We headed down Fifth Avenue and swung around the traffic circle at 110th Street. She mentioned that yes, Central Park was right there, but she made no mention of the Harlem Meer or the Conservatory Garden, which I personally think is the most beautiful feature in Central Park. As we approached East 105th she asked if anyone was getting off without mentioning where we were or why anyone would want to get off here, even though the garden was right there. I raised my hand, and a few people looked at me wondering why I would get off here since the guide didn’t say anything about it. She then shouted down to the driver that someone was getting off here, but he must not have believed her because he kept on going. She again yelled at him to stop, and finally after East 103rd, he did.
On the sidewalk, overlooking the Conservatory Garden, still beautiful even without its summer bloom, I turned back in the direction of Uptown. Many of my former fellow passengers were looking down at me through the dirty glass wondering if I knew something that they didn’t or if I was just a helplessly lost soul in the great big city. I smiled back at them and waved to show them how great it felt to no longer be trapped on that horrible bus.
I caught the M4 bus at 110th. Ah, the good ol’ M4. It was nice and warm inside, unlike the bus I had just been on. It was quiet—no tour guide here, and no one asking for tips. The windows were clean, and I had an unobstructed view of Central Park all the way across Central Park North as we headed west towards Broadway. Oh sweet Harlem, it’s good to be home. ▪