Why We Had Never Been to Harlem Before & What We Did When We Went

Since we grew up in the NY area, and because we visit Manhattan at least once a year, it’s hard to find things to do “in between Broadway shows.” We’ve done all the touristy things and a lot of the museums and other things that might interest us. But for this trip, we decided to do something we had never, ever done before – go to Harlem!

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Harlem in the late 1970s. Photo by Manel Armegol

Going to Harlem nowadays isn’t such a big deal but from the 1920s until the early 2000s, Harlem was generally a low income area and not the safest of neighborhoods. Growing up in Brooklyn and then Staten Island, “Don’t go to Harlem; you’ll get killed!” is the kind of thing I heard my whole life. Now, I don’t know whether or not that was really true, but the point certainly scared me enough, as I entered my teens, 20s and 30s, that Harlem wasn’t on my short list destinations to visit, except in a “forbidden fruit” sort of way – part of the reason why I wanted to go because it was suggested I couldn’t/shouldn’t. I’m such a rebel, LOL!

But it’s 2017 now and Harlem had become safer over the past decade or so. Meanwhile, I really wanted to go to a church service in NYC where they sang black gospel, because I truly do enjoy that kind of music; the more hand-clapping and foot-stomping, the better! So I did my research to see what churches in Manhattan had gospel music and which would be the best for visitors, and First Corinthian Baptist Church (FCBC) made the top of the list – so we got an Uber and off to Harlem we went.

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First Corinthian Baptist Church

Sunday worship services were at 7:30am, 9:30am and 11:30am, and it was suggested that visitors arrive early. “Early” is subjective, I’m habitually early as it is, and our Uber took less time than we anticipated, so we wound up arriving for the 11:30am service at a couple of minutes before 10am. It was cold out and we didn’t want to hang out outside for an hour and a half so we decided to join the 9:30am service, even though it was already in progress. I felt badly about that, but the gentleman at the door assured us it was OK.

As visitors, we were directed upstairs. And it was a LOT of stairs. See, FCBC is housed in what used to be the Regent Theater, a landmarked, historic building built in 1913 (yay, more old architecture!), and visitors are encouraged to sit the balcony. So we had to climb up a HUGE flight of steps. But once we made it to the top and had caught our breath, we saw that the view of the pulpit was awesome from up there!

The praise team was in the midst of singing when we arrived, so I was immediately happy and in my musical element. Reverend Dr. LaKeesha Walrond then led the sermon, “How Much Is Enough?,” which dealt with being more in tune with loving and sharing, rather than being focused on having, as she called it, “stuff.” Neither Joe nor I are Baptist, so attending a service that included a video of George Carlin’s classic “A Place For My Stuff” routine (one of the few “clean” George Carlin routines, LOL!) and a reading of Shel Silverstein’s “Hector the Collector” was refreshing and entertaining for both of us.

With a few more songs from the praise team, the service was over. As it turned out, their music was not exactly the type of gospel choir music I had been looking for, but their voices were great, their harmonies were tight and the sermon was enjoyable, so I was still very happy we went!

After church, Joe suggested we go to Hamilton Grange National Memorial, which is the home Alexander and Elizabeth Hamilton built in Harlem in the early 1800s – it’s currently part of the National Parks Department and is the only national memorial that was built by the person who it memorializes. For those of you who are Broadway buffs, it’s referred to in the song “It’s Quiet Uptown” from the stage musical Hamilton. The church was on 116th Street and the Grange was on 141st; we decided to walk it. It was a long walk, especially with temperatures in the mid-30s, but it was fun to see all of the different architectural styles of buildings we passed on our way.

grangeoutside2When we got to the Hamilton Grange, we signed up for a self guided tour. The building is relatively small so only a limited number of people can visit the upstairs rooms at one time. We bided our time by watching a short movie about Alexander Hamilton and looking at a timeline of his accomplishments, which were on 2 rooms on the first floor. After 10 or 15 minutes or so, our name was called and upstairs we went.

Public domain photos courtesy of the National Parks Department. For more photos and information, visit the Hamilton Grange pages of the National Parks Service.

The upstairs was a group of 3 large rooms and a couple of smaller spaces. Since the house had had variety of uses (including as a church) over the past 200+ years, to say nothing of the entire building being moved 2 times (!!!), details of the original house and furniture are limited, so it’s been filled with artifacts that Hamilton once owned, as well as some reproductions and the types of things the family might have owned during their time there. The space was done very well, complete with a hand-painted floor in the entry foyer that was in the style that was done at the time of the very early 19th century. A Parks Department representative remained in the middle of the space to answer questions, and she really knew her stuff!

With a quick visit to the gift shop (Hello, “It’s Quiet Uptown” T-shirt!), we took a train back downtown so we could have lunch. Our visit to Harlem was over. But what a fun day it was! I look forward to visiting the area again one of these days, preferably to get a tour of the Apollo Theater!!!

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3 thoughts on “Why We Had Never Been to Harlem Before & What We Did When We Went”

  1. Hamilton’s house looks like a “Southern style house” complete w/ a front porch for sitting outside. I went to the Apollo once on a tour–very interesting. The church sounded like it was interesting also, but the stairs!

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