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A Walking Tour of NYC's Harlem

ED GORDON, host:

This is Ed Gordon and this is NEWS & NOTES.

This is the 30th annual Harlem Week, the beginning of what's developed into a monthlong celebration. For more than a century, this area of New York City has been a cultural, political and residential magnet for the African diaspora. Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes and Malcolm X all found inspiration and refuge here. Lately, Harlem's also attracted new commercial development and infusions of money and energy from growing numbers of people who choose to call it home. Our correspondent, Farai Chideya, toured the unofficial capital of black America with a resident who knows it well.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

I'm standing at the corner of 120th Street and Lenox Avenue in the historic neighborhood of Harlem, New York City, hooking up with Brian Keith Jackson. He's the author of "The Queen of Harlem," one of his three novels.

Good to see you.

Mr. BRIAN KEITH JACKSON (Author): Hello. Welcome.

CHIDEYA: A lot of people have this very historical idea of what Harlem is. It comes from the portrait of the jazz artists on the stoops. What is it today?

Mr. JACKSON: I think it's an extension of that. It's a celebration of that but it's also, like any good heritage, we are bringing something new and exciting to it. You can go anywhere in the world and say, `Harlem,' and people know it's about culture.

CHIDEYA: So where are we standing right now?

Mr. JACKSON: We're now at Settepani Cafe, which is a relatively new cafe in the neighborhood, and it's, like--a lot of creative people come out and gather and kind of share ideas and stories with one another.

CHIDEYA: This looks more like a black version of the Village, or something.

Mr. JACKSON: In a way, it is. It's just--there's this notion that `Oh, you have to do something a certain way if it's in a certain neighborhood,' and I think this gives us an idea that you can do anything. Where--we've traveled all over the world, we've been exposed to things. And why not here in Harlem? And it's owned and operated by the black people. And that's exciting.

CHIDEYA: All right, well, let's go right inside.

Mr. JACKSON: All right.

Ms. LEAH ABRAHAM: My name is Leah Abraham, and my husband, who's my partner, is Nino Settepani, hence the name, Settepani Bakery.

CHIDEYA: We're sitting here in your cafe. It's very elegant and lovely. How did you and your husband decide to open it and when did it open?

Ms. ABRAHAM: We've been operating almost four years. Decided to open it just pure heart. We didn't do too much study in the neighborhood. To me, Harlem is really the soul of the city. I'm not from New York, and I have really grown to love this neighborhood.

CHIDEYA: Thanks for spending some time with us.

Ms. ABRAHAM: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So now we're walking down 120th Street and these are some gorgeous gracious homes. We're standing in front of one of the few buildings that hasn't been renovated yet but I'm sure it's on its way. What's been happening with real estate here in Harlem?

Mr. JACKSON: Well, when I wrote "The Queen of Harlem," most of these town houses looked exactly like that one, the--boarded out, basically, the shell. And now that shell probably starts at $650,000. this is before you even do anything to it. You're just buying the architecture. But, as you can see, the detail and the grandness of it, it's just amazing. That's what drew me to the neighborhood, and my novel is set on this block.

CHIDEYA: So tell me a little bit about your novel, "The Queen of Harlem."

Mr. JACKSON: Black people are very vast. But somehow, along the way, we have not been able to really show that in our world. So Mason Randolph, this guy who's deferred from law school, at Stanford, has been traveling around the world, and ends up in Harlem, and he is questioned about not being black enough. And so they call him Theo Huxtable. They do all these things. And I think it's very painful when you look at people who have your same skin and then they question your blackness. So he changes his name and moved to Harlem and lived in one of these town houses with this woman that he called `the queen of Harlem,' because she was a bit of a socialite. And so he took on a new identity. He became black.

CHIDEYA: Well, in a way, Harlem is taking on a new identity, a new form of blackness. Do you think that the old Harlem or the various old Harlems will still live underneath the new one?

Mr. JACKSON: I think when you have something as large as Harlem, there's a lot of myth to it and so the myth will always be a part of it, but I think what is new is the vibrancy. This building right across here, this was all just knocked down and now they're condos. You know, some people can say, `Oh, it's changing,' but would you prefer that building to look in disarray?

CHIDEYA: So we're back on Lenox Avenue and I'm seeing some incredibly cute T-shirts, bags, fashion items. Where are we?

Mr. JACKSON: We're at Harlemade, and the shirt I have on today, actually, is from Harlemade. Again, it's black-owned, it's people saying, `No, we believe in this neighborhood. Instead of doing this downtown, we can embrace ourselves right here in Harlem.' And this is one of the places I support.

CHIDEYA: All right. Let's take a look.

Mr. KEVIN McGRUDER (Co-Owner, Harlemade): Hello.

CHIDEYA: Hi. How are you?

Mr. McGRUDER: Good. How are you?

CHIDEYA: I'm fantastic.

Mr. McGRUDER: Welcome.

CHIDEYA: This is--this looks great.

Mr. McGRUDER: Thank you. I'm Kevin McGruder. I'm one of the co-owners of Harlemade. I have two partners. And we've been open since November 2000, so we were one of the early independent stores in this strip, and a lot has changed since that time, for the better. A lot of new places have opened up and...

CHIDEYA: You have here this really incredible sense of the old and the new. You reference a lot, and have a lot of images of old Harlem, and yet you have this hip-hop sensibility as well. How do you blend the old and the new?

Mr. McGRUDER: My interest is Harlem history and my partner, Murphy Heyliger, he is very in tune with the hip-hop sensibility, and what people are doing now, and then our third partner, Patricia Alfred, she is fairly new to Harlem and so she brings a different perspective, and so that really--I think that's what you see.

CHIDEYA: So before we leave you, besides your own store, what's your favorite thing in Harlem, whether it's a street corner or a restaurant or a park?

Mr. McGRUDER: Probably the Harlem Week Festival when everybody's on the street, just seeing people like you haven't seen in a long time. You just get a real sense of Harlem as a community, families, you know, children, just out having fun, people selling food and, you know, it's just such a great activity.

CHIDEYA: Well, thanks a lot.

Mr. McGRUDER: Anytime.

CHIDEYA: Well, Brian, this has been a fun little circuit. We're just going to take up a little bit more of your time. Where are we now?

Mr. JACKSON: That structure that you see being built is the gallery and artist studio of the husband of Bette Midler. Everyone is working hard to make sure that culture and human nature continues to thrive in this area of town.

CHIDEYA: Do you have any plans to base anymore work right here in Harlem?

Mr. JACKSON: My new novel that I'm finishing up now, some--one of the characters does live in Harlem. It's--once it's in you, it's forever in you. And that's the good thing about it.

CHIDEYA: Thanks a lot, Brian.

Mr. JACKSON: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Farai Chideya, NPR News.

GORDON: Brian Keith Jackson is author of "The Queen of Harlem." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Farai Chideya
Farai Chideya is a multimedia journalist who has worked in print, television, online, and radio. Prior to joining NPR's News & Notes, Chideya hosted Your Call, a daily news and cultural call-in show on San Francisco's KALW 91.7 FM. Chideya has also been a correspondent for ABC News, anchored the prime time program Pure Oxygen on the Oxygen women's channel, and contributed commentaries to CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and BET. She got her start as a researcher and reporter at Newsweek magazine. In 1997 Newsweek named her to its "Century Club" of 100 people to watch.