“Harlem is where the heritage is!” By Emma Nicolas

Harlem Heritage Tours

Harlem has been famous since the 1920s as an African-American residential, cultural and business area. It is one of New York’s more vibrant neighboroods and one that is undergoing considerable development. Americans, and Black Americans in particular, are proud of the cultural heritage of Harlem.

Harlem is a large neighborhood north of the borough of Manhattan. Black residents began to arrive there in large numbers in the early 20th century during the Great Migration. In the 1920s and 1930s, the “Harlem Renaissance” took place, mostly in Central and West Harlem. For the Black artists, musicians, politicians and entrepreneurs, it was a time when everything seemed possible, a time, as a former resident recalled, when “it was truly bliss to be alive”. Not only did Blacks take pride in their African heritage, pride in Black folklore, pride in just being Black, it also seemed natural to believe that art could bridge the formidable gap between the black and white worlds, that excellence and merit could produce social change. However, with job losses during the Great Depression and the closure of the industries in New York City after World War II, crime and poverty increased significantly.

Then segregation reared its ugly head and the African-American dream of a better life fell apart. Harlem was seen by New Yorkers as a place of extreme poverty where you could buy drugs easily. Whites considered it a dangerous place because “full of black people”. Violence rose.

During the 1960s, public figures like Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Queen Mother Moore, and Preston Wilcox, used Harlem as a launch pad for political, social, and economic empowerment activities.

Howard Dodson, the director of Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, has said about the Harlem community: “…coming into the urban areas they (Blacks) had access to information, more information not just about themselves but about their world, and an opportunity to think in some very different ways about their world and what they might do to change it.”

Segregation has gradually faded away in Harlem, and the neighborhood has slowly been gentrified in the past twenty years.

Many local tour companies have appeared. “Harlem is where the heritage is!” is the slogan of the Harlem Heritage Tours company. This company is different from the others because all tours are conducted by those who were actually born and raised in Harlem. You can take a Harlem Gospel tour, a Harlem Hip Hop roots tour, a Harlem movies tour, a Harlem Jazz tour, or even a Harlem heritage basket-ball tour. The creator of the company said: “When we started ten years ago, many thought that visitors would be reluctant to visit the community, but to our pleasant surprise, the public was thirsty for authentic experiences presented via the eyes of those who are actually from Harlem”.

I would have thought most New Yorkers would have preferred to forget Harlem’s history, the violence, poverty, drugs and crime… But Harlem is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The President of Harlem Heritage Tours said: “I’ve had opportunities to reverse people’s perceptions of my home. So many people come here and they want the history, they want the culture. But they hesitate because of the stereotype that Harlem is dangerous… And I walk them around and show them what Harlem is really about”.

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