When I lived in NYC, I rarely explored anything North of 28th street or south of 60th aka Midtown, and forget about Harlem or Washington Heights. Well, on this trip, I needed to change that. Sure, I had seen Harlem from the top of a red bus tour, but that’s not the same as exploring it on my own two feet.
So, what better way to explore a new [to me] NYC neighborhood than with a company that is appropriately named Free Tours by Foot? As the name suggests, the tours are free and is purely donation-based. Now, I know when we think of “free,” we assume it is lacking in quality, but let me assure you these tours are not.
Our guide for the day, Derrik, was extremely knowledgeable about the area, entertaining, and he seemed to know almost everybody, stopping to say hello to the regulars he visits on his route. Though he is not from New York originally, he has lived there for nearly 20 years so essentially, it was like getting a tour from a local. As we walked up and down the blocks, he explained the history of Harlem, how the area made its comeback from the riots, and why the neighborhood draws a lot of celebrities in to eat and hibernate.
Notable stops included:
- Absynninian Church – As Derrik said, when you go to service at this church, 1.5 hours is only warm up. By the end, you’ll be exhausted from all the singing, dancing, clapping, and hallelujahs. Sunday service is rather popular, and if you’re interested in attending, it would be better to come for Wednesday night service.
- Red Rooster – Home to a $400 bottle of wine and the chef who catered Obama’s inauguration dinner. If you’re lucky, you can catch the likes of Denzel Washington and other celebrities at this place for a fancy meal.
- Apollo Theater
- Lennox Lounge – Currently closed due to unaffordable rent and reopening down the street from original location soon.
- Sylvia’s Restaurant – Famous for its soul food and hosting guests like Oprah, Nelson Mandela, and many more.
If you take this tour during the summer, it has been said that there is a good possibility of being invited to a neighborhood barbecue where you’ll inevitably find yourself doing the electric slide. Something to consider
My favorite moment on the tour was when we stopped in front of this worn out restaurant/music venue, and the older gentlemen who owns it taught us a lesson in being human. He, first, asked how many languages/countries were represented in the group. Twelve was the estimate, and he then asked us all to laugh in our respective languages. Naturally, the phonetics sounded the same, and he told us to remember that no matter where we come from, the sounds of emotion are the same. All differences aside, we all have being human in common. It was a really sweet, heart-felt moment, and as we started walking away, he reminded us to cherish one another. Sometimes, people are more full of honest wisdom than we give them credit for.
I’ll be honest. Harlem still isn’t a neighborhood where I feel comfortable hanging out on my own, and parts of it, you really shouldn’t. However, I will say that there is a sense of pride, community, and camaraderie that is difficult to find in any other Manhattan neighborhood. Despite whatever hardships the neighborhood has gone through, the people are beaming with pride, character, and that tough NYC edge. And naively, it is more developed and modern than I gave it credit for. If you go looking for trouble, you will find it, otherwise you’ll find people who are more willing to help you than hurt you and make you laugh.
For more information on these tours, visit the FTBF website. They offer a variety of tours all year round that cover nearly every area of Manhattan and Brooklyn. I enjoyed the Harlem tour so much that I even ended up taking their tour through Soho, Little Italy, and Chinatown. Group sizes are usually limited to 30 so reservations are required, and tours last around 2-2.5 hours. Happy explorations throughout the concrete jungle!