Nearly a century ago, Harlem’s literati, artists, musicians and intellectuals launched a movement that would forever change the course of American culture, bringing black arts and innovation into the mainstream and amplifying the call for civil rights.
As a creative hotbed, Harlem fostered ingenuity in all cultural spheres: W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston in literature; Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller in music; William H. Johnson, Aaron Douglas and Jacob Lawrence in visual arts and Paul Robeson and Ethel Waters to the stage, among others. Harlem bred the National Urban League and NAACP, whose missions still resonate today, and served as a base for several civil rights figures.
Although the New York neighborhood has evolved, many of Harlem’s monuments still stand and a number of tours are available. If you’d rather see Harlem solo, though, here are five spots you have to hit.
1. Langston Hughes House
Prolific poet and playwright Langston Hughes’ mid-century home was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Hughes used third floor as a writing studio he died in 1967, leaving behind a legacy and his typewriter. Last summer, a movement to save the brownstone sparked, and now it houses the i, Too, Arts Collective. The house is open to visit for free during select hours on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
2. Sugar Hill District
Photo: Beyond My Ken, CC-BY
In the 1920s, wealthy African-Americans conglomerated in Harlem’s Sugar Hill district, which is famous for its rowhouses built in Queen Anne, Romanesque and Renaissance Revival style. You’ll also find a number of parks and community monuments like Johnny Hartman Square. Some of Harlem’s greatest minds occupied the Sugar Hill district, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Cab Calloway and Roy Wilkins.
3. Hotel Theresa
Located between west 124th and 125th street, the 13-story Hotel Theresa protrudes from the heart of old Harlem’s commercial district. Completed in 1913, Hotel Theresa evolved, becoming the “Waldorf of Harlem” and hosting celebrities who performed at the nearby Apollo Theater. Later, civil rights leaders including A. Philip Randolph and Malcolm X had offices and planned movements such as the March on Washington there.
4. Apollo Theater
Photo by Shahar Azran/Getty
Originally a burlesque theater, the Apollo Theater served as a launchpad following a re-opining in 1934, escalating artists including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan into stardom. After the Renaissance, the Apollo continued—and still continues—to showcase household artists including Aretha Franklin, the Jackson Five, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Wonder, and today the venue is just as vibrant. See the next big performer on a Wednesday amateur night, a draw that dates back to the 1930s.
Photo by Keith DeBetham, CC-BY
Founded as a nightclub in 1938, Minton’s Playhouse birthed bebop and tremendously helped foster Harlem’s jazz scene and the modern jazz movement. While Minton’s regular performers included Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, the venue also hosted greats such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Carmen McRea. The club closed after it was razed by fire in 1974, but reopened with a nod to its legacy in 2006. Today, Minton’s features live music during dinner from Wednesday to Sunday and weekend brunch. To make a reservation—you’ll need one—visit their website.
Sarra Sedghi is Paste Food’s and Paste Science’s assistant editor.