Our Greeter and leader, Arnold Strauch, met us inside the subway station at West 135th Street. He wanted us to feast our eyes on two exuberant murals made of mosaic tiles: The Village of Harlem and Black Manhattan.
Then, with impish glee, he confessed what we’d see outside: wide streets, short buildings and SKY. Was he ever right! With no skyscrapers to hamper our view, we saw a lot more sky.
Our first stop was the Harlem Hospital complex on Lenox Avenue. In one building was a massive mural, Recreation in Harlem. It was painted in 1937 by Georgette Seabrook. Her lighthearted view of community life has women chatting, children playing, and a choir singing.
On to the awe-inspiring Schomburg Center, the biggest collection of African-American research in the country. The exhibits focus on iconic moments in African-American history. When we visited, the main exhibit was BLACK POWER!, complete with clenched fist logo, and pictures of Angela Davis and Malcolm X.
Arnold pointed out that Central Harlem has a huge number of churches and beauty salons! He also told us in the early 1900s, Harlem had 175,000 Jewish residents, second only to the Lower East Side.
On West 138th Street is the Abyssinian Baptist Church, one of Harlem’s most famous. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and Jr. were pastors there; Fats Waller played the organ there; and Nat King Cole was married there.
Arnold’s favorite part of the tour was next: The Saint Nicholas Historic District, also known as Striver’s Row, a collection of aristocratic row houses on 138th and 139th Streets between Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
The neighborhood in the late 19th century was mostly upper middle class whites. The buildings were designed by noted architects such as James Brown Lord and Stanford White. If you lived on Striver’s Row, you knew you’d arrived.
With the economic depression of 1895, Striver’s Row lost its white strivers. The developer wouldn’t sell to African-Americans, so the buildings sat empty for years. In 1920, the homes became available to black doctors, lawyers, political leaders and artists, including Eubie Blake, Marianne Cooke, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
We soon found ourselves going from the sublime to the delicious. Between 134th and 135th Streets was an institution almost as esteemed as Striver’s Row: a big beautiful International House of Pancakes. We took this as a metaphor for an outing that was sweet, satisfying and worth savoring every minute.