Two fine old institutions, one appealing to the soul, the other to the stomach, will introduce you to the spirit of Harlem. You can experience them in half a day – provided the day is a Sunday, and you are willing to make an early start to attend one of the Gospel services at 9 or 11am at the Abyssinian Baptist Church.
Ethiopian seamen founded the congregation in lower Manhattan in 1818 (choosing the ancient name of their homeland). Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Sr moved the church to its beautiful neo-Gothic home in 1923; his son, Adam Clayton Powell Jr, became the first black congressman in US history. Abyssinian is still a vigorous voice for social justice, and the church also puts on one heck of a show when the beautiful sounds of the choir ring out in a sanctuary lit by a sea of stained glass. Visitors are asked to wait for admittance in a special queue and to dress appropriately – that means arriving early and wearing your Sunday best if you expect to fit in with the congregation.
Sylvia’s Soul Food (328 Malcom X Blvd, tel: 212-996-0660), several blocks south, serves a post-service brunch of such stick-to-your ribs basics as fried chicken and sweet potato pie. Sylvia’s has been a Harlem institution since it opened the restaurant in 1962, and is still run by Sylvia Woods, the ‘Queen of Soulfood,’ and her children and grandchildren.
You’ll need to walk off that meal, so head back up Adam Clayton Powell Jr Boulevard to 138th and 139th streets, collectively known as Strivers’ Row. Some of New York’s most beautiful blocks were built for wealthy whites in the 1890s but, as the neighborhood became black, were sold off to black middle-class professionals known as ‘strivers.’ Today, Strivers’ Row is prime real estate, and you will easily see why.