Words by Matthew Romano
Illustration by Katie Herchenroeder
Take a second and think about the neighborhoods in NYC with the best culture and food scene. What comes to mind? Were you taken back to the smells from the international food carts of Tribeca wafting higher than the skyscrapers? What about the sweet smoke of thin sliced bulgogi searing on the Korean BBQ plates in K-Town? Chances are if Harlem passed through your sense memory, it was for the homey comfort of soul food.
While soul food is central to the identity of the Harlem community and its history, in 2019, it is clear that it is only part of the story, one that spans over a century of an ever-changing landscape of people, places, and of course, tastes.
Key to understanding the food scene in Harlem is understanding its history – as the two are indivisible. Undoubtedly, Harlem is considered one of, if not the, soul food capitol of the world; but where did this food come from? Soul food, put succinctly, finds its roots in centuries of slavery. Thanks to 20th century spikes in immigration and the Great Migration, it’s found its place and power in today’s world. Specific to Harlem, these events, intertwined with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s followed by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, have allowed this cuisine to rise out of its beginnings and make a name for itself and its neighborhood while respecting and honoring its history and serving as a culinary anthem for its large African American population.
Central to any discussion of soul food in Harlem is restauranteur Sylvia Woods, dubbed the Queen of Soul food. Her world-famous Sylvia’s, located at 328 Lenox Avenue, was a major factor in Harlem’s soul food scene’s meteoric rise to stardom, renown, and reputability. Such a feat is an even more important step when looked at through a lens of the cultural history of the struggle for equality at the time of its founding, 1962.
There are, however, some other lesser-known historical, demographical events that make up Harlem’s food history that should not be discounted.
Following World War II, the name Spanish Harlem or “El Barrio” became synonymous with East Harlem for the district’s new arrivals from Latin America. Outside of this enclave, west African and west Indian populations also made a presence in the 1940s to 1950s, just as the African American population had reached its peak in the neighborhood. For reference, 98% of the population was African American in 1950. Demographically, Harlem has more recently gone under dramatic shifts. 2017 Census data for Harlem show that African Americans only maintain a majority in the albeit significantly larger district 10, Central Harlem at 53%, while the Hispanic population has increased in East and West Harlem. Diversity is palpable for City College students as they are members and friends of the 150 different countries and 90 different languages that make up the college’s voice and identity. A food stroll through the streets of the Harlem neighborhood brings this into reality
Now, picture this: you have a 3-hour break between your classes; it is a brisk afternoon; and you have not eaten since the night before – because what college student really has time for breakfast?. You start from the NAC’s back entrance at 137th street and try to scope out your lunch options. You want something affordable, cannot be too picky and do not really have a specific craving to limit your options as you wander. You walk on and restaurants begin shouting out their specific cuisines to you as you pass them physically and as they linger in your mind.
Italian (Fumo), Chinese take-out (Grand Great Wall), Comfort/Soul Food (Home Sweet Harlem), Japanese (Rai Rai Ken, Sushi Sushi), Mexican (Oso), Indian (Clove), even Greek (newly opened, Whaddapita) and, because it needs no introduction, Empanadas Monumental.
Any which way you meander down this avenue and along this stroll, you are sure to find yourself somewhere the food is as diverse as the college where you study – while also being easy on the pocket and even easier on the taste buds.
One last time, picture this: you are riding the m100 bus, looking out the window to scope out your next culinary escapades. 125th St., certainly one of the primary streets in Harlem’s political (Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building), cultural (Apollo Theater), and culinary (Sylvia’s) histories, also paints an interesting picture of the Harlem of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Its rich past is decorated through streets named after the industrial and institutional titans that have shaped the city: Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd, Adam Clayton Powell Dr., Malcom X Blvd., and the unfortunately lesser recognized, Sylvia P. Woods Way, aka 126th St..
In the present, you hear the noise emanating from the AMC Magic Johnson Harlem 9, the people crowding chain stores ushered in through gentrification, and the stands of handcrafted essential oils, natural remedies, and, of course, Harlem swag. The future stands out and looks flashy but perhaps, slightly problematic. For example, the Whole Foods you spot as you ride the crosstown bus cannot be ignored with all the backlash it has received. Further along, Shake Shack, Chipotle, Taco Bell, new luxury-like apartments, and high-rises scream gentrification and look tempting surely, but out of place when juxtaposed with store closing signs on thrift stores and cheaper retail options you remember frequenting.
At once, brownstones where you grew up are whittling down and the reminiscent scents like Amy Ruth’s Chicken and Waffles and Sylvia’s Peach Cobbler fly through the air. Regardless of whether you treat Harlem’s tomorrow with praise or vitriol, or whether Harlem’s institutions of the past still hold dominion over your perception or are slowly retreating from view, their presence cannot be denied. Through a look at the city-like neighborhood of Harlem today, a vision of a beautifully complicated, post renaissance, and perhaps pre-revolution backdrop of sights, smells, tastes, and faces becomes more and more clear.
Through this picturing you see a food scene with an authentic, humble beginning in mom and pop shops, accompanied by a grand and simultaneously clashing rise of big chains. So, CCNY food adventurer, as you step out of the NAC, where will your tastes lead you?