June 8, 2007 – Harlem is the capital of every ghetto town.
Today was my day in Harlem. I didn’t spend too much time there, but I had my experience. Mario and I got up really early today (9:30!) and took in an early showing of Hostel Part II. After that, we had to come back home for laundry and stuff, but we had to make it [...]
Today was my day in Harlem. I didn’t spend too much time there, but I had my experience.
Mario and I got up really early today (9:30!) and took in an early showing of Hostel Part II. After that, we had to come back home for laundry and stuff, but we had to make it to Harlem in time to have lunch up there and get Mario off to work on time.
We took the 6 all the way up to 125th Street, which is now pretty much the main drag up there these days. It’s where all of the stores and fast food joints are.
Harlem has been, since the early 1900s, the center of life for black people in NYC. (Before this it was mostly white people living there. But conditions got worse for black people in other areas, so they migrated north.) Since then, it’s been a little shaky for those of us who are pigmentally challenged. But fairly recently, Michael Jordan has been buying everything up and turning it into a much safer place, especially along 125th Street and Malcolm X Blvd (formerly Lenox Blvd.).
These days it’s a little hard to see anything that’s left over from the Harlem Renaissance in the 20s. 125th Street is ALL discount shops and dudes selling bootlegs of all kinds. Movies, cds, books, incense…it’s all here right on the street. Just about every foot of sidewalk space right up against the road is full of tables full of cds and books or little plastic sheets full of movies. (That’s so they can quickly roll ‘em all up if somebody tries to bust them.) Right off the 6 train, there’s a bunch of crap that looks like it was found on the side of the road…and some dude was selling it! There were video tapes, old paperbacks, a really old black and white tv…all kinds of shit that there’s no WAY anyone would actually buy. But there it was, just waiting for a buyer.
Mario and I actually had a destination, though. We were headed to Sylvia’s.
Sylvia’s is a family owned restaurant (open since 1962) just off of 125th on Malcolm X. It’s slogan is ‘The Queen Of Soul Food’…and I agree. It was fucking amazing! I had catfish, which was really good, but the mac cheese and candied yams were beyond perfect. I could have eaten them all day long and been perfectly happy. Of course, I would also be about twice the size that I am now, so I won’t do that.
Mario let me try his smothered pork chops. I’m not usually partial to pork chops, but WOW, were they good.
He told me that there are people at work who won’t go to Sylvia’s because it’s become too trendy and it seems to be ‘only for tourists’ now. Fuck that. GO! I love Hoover’s back home, but Hoover’s is hardly worthy of eating the leftovers from Sylvia’s. Mario and Michelle went for Thanksgiving this year. They had a two hour wait and said that it was all worth it.
There’s one in Atlanta and they sell stuff in grocery stores now, I think…but the only way to get the real thing is to venture into Harlem and eat at the place that Bill Clinton loves. (His office isn’t TOO far from here. Mario thinks it’s somewhere on 140th Street.) Trust me and thank me later.
Anyway, Mario had to take off for work and left me all alone in the middle of Harlem…which isn’t nearly as scary as it sounds. There were probably just as many people in business suits as there were dudes in gangsta uniforms. (And, yes, that’s pretty much what that is these days. I actually wonder how many people dress that way because they feel like they have to.)
I walked up 125th to check out the Apollo…’cause I had to.
The Apollo hasn’t always been the center of black entertainment in Harlem that is is known for being. When it first opened, it was a ‘whites only’ establishment. The first incarnation wasn’t even in this building!
But in 1913, a couple of Jewish families opened it back up on 125th Street where it stands today. And it wasn’t until 1934 (and two or three owners later) that black people were allowed inside. One of the first performers on African American Amateur Night was Ella Fitzgerald.
Throughout the years it’s amateur night (and the radio show, ‘Showtime At The Apollo’) has helped launch the careers hundreds of black performers, including Michael Jackson (with the Jackson 5, of course), Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, Lauryn Hill, The Supremes, Billie Holiday and, of course, James Brown, who recorded his landmark album ‘Live At The Apollo’ there. When James died late last year, his body was brought to the Apollo for a viewing.
In the 60s and 70s, the crowds stopped coming and the theatre started to fall apart. But in 1983 it was given landmark status and things started to turn back around. It was fully re-opened two years later and, just recently, they’ve started to refurbish the whole thing. When I was here last time, the marquee was covered in plastic. Now they have a nice, shiny LED marquee! President Clinton (among other important folk) were at the dedication. It kick-started the most expensive refurbishment of any theatre in America.
I’m glad the Apollo has come back. I’ve never been inside, but I always feel happy when I see it and think of its place in history. I may be one of the whitest men in the world, but somewhere deep down in there is a black soul.
Ok. Maybe not.
After that, I walked back to the subway, got on the wrong one and went WAY downtown from where I actually wanted to go: Lincoln Center.
I hopped back on the train and went there to get some daytime shots that wouldn’t be so fucking blurry. Damn my camera’s nightvision!
The rest of the day was basically just walking down to Times Square again (FUCK, it’s full of people during the day!) and heading back home.
(St. Paul’s–don’t know if it’s significant in any way, but I liked the mural here.)
(Hearst Tower. It was really hard to get a good picture because of all the damn signs and lamps around the block. I did my best, though.)
If you’re wondering why I went all the way down to Times Square just to turn around and go back home, this is why:
The Brill Building may not have a lot of significance to those people walking by it everyday, but their lives would actually be a bit different if it hadn’t existed.
It was behind these doors that just about every popular song released in the rock era before The Beatles burst onto the scene was written.
Here’s just a few of the teams on songs that came out of here and Aldon Music right next door:
Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller: ‘Hound Dog,’ ‘Yakety Yak,’ ‘Ruby Baby’
Gerry Goffin and Carole King: ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,’ ‘Take Good Care Of My Baby,’ ‘Some Kind Of Wonderful,’ ‘The Loco-Motion,’ ‘Up On The Roof’
Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil: ‘On Broadway,’ ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,’ ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ (with Phil Spector),’(You’re My) Soul And Inspiration’
Burt Bacharach and Hal David: ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,’ ‘What The World Needs Now Is Love,’ ‘I Say A Little Prayer, ‘(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me’
Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart: ‘Last Train To Clarksville,’ ‘(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone,’ ‘Come A Little Bit Closer,’ ‘The Monkees Theme’…in fact, a LOT of Monkees’ songs.
Neil Diamond: ‘I’m A Believer,’ ‘A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,’ ‘(Look Out) Here Comes Tomorrow’…strangely, all recorded by The Monkees, too.
Phil Spector: before he became a gun-crazy lunatic, he was a gun-crazy genius producer/writer. He wrote ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’ and co-wrote a lot more. He was more of a producer, though.
All of them had cubby holes somewhere behind these doors. They would churn out hit after hit, day after day. There was a competitiveness between all of them that kept them writing better and better songs. And it wasn’t until The Beatles showed up writing all their own songs (although, they would cover songs written here) that the Brill team would either disappear or start recording their own songs. Some would go on to bigger stardom (Diamond, Bacharach, King) while others would keep writing for Motown (Lieber and Stoller).
Ok. Enough music history. But it’s hard for me to stop once I get going, especially when I’m in the presence of something so important to something so important to me. I had to get home.
(Smog or clouds? You decide.)
It was really fucking hot, so I took my time. I was actually going to take the train, but I had made my way to Grand Central (to buy the book about New York movies…I’m a horrible person) and gotten a mocha at the little kiosk at in the Dining Concourse. Then I went to the actual train station and, once again, FUCK, it’s full of people during the day!
(Remember all the people dancing around here in The Fisher King? It was nothing like that.)
I didn’t want to deal with all of those people with my coffee, so I just walked home. It was cooling down (rather rapidly, actually), so it wasn’t too bad. Just humid as all fuck…of course.