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Meet 125th Street

When I began my walk on 125th street in the spring of 2017, I experienced a feast for the senses. Starting from the very first block on the east side, I was caught by the smell of chicharrón wafting from Lechonera La Isla, a Puerto Rican restaurant that has been around for over twenty years. This encapsulated much of what amazed me about 125th Street as I explored and got to know the people. It is rife with businesses that have been around for decades and withstood the many changes and challenges that Harlem has faced, from riots during the Civil Rights Movement to the gentrification and rising rent of today. Many of the shops are small businesses, the kind that might be overlooked in favor of some of the bigger chains and attractions on the West Side of 125th, but they are pieces of living history.

125th Street is also, in many ways, a perfect example of the diversity and cultural blending that is characteristic of the entire city, and Harlem especially. The sounds of people chatting in Spanish overlapped with the various African dialects being spoken by women dressed in colorful, traditional outfits. Incense burned on street corners and an eclectic mix of reggae, merengue, and Afrobeats played from speakers outside of some of the small shops. More amazing still was the presence of street vendors lining the sidewalks. Precisely because of the spike in rent for retail spaces, many business owners have chosen to get together and fit four or five businesses in a single storefront. Others avoid the question of rent entirely by setting up tables covered with their wares outside, creating a street market atmosphere.

As I have found on each street I have walked thus far, 125th has its fair share of hidden gems and unexpected delights. In addition to the beautiful churches that I encountered and FDNY Fire Engine 37, Ladder 40, where I was welcomed inside, I was intrigued by the multiple floors at Demolition Depot. Owner Evan Blum has been doing his part to preserve New York’s architectural history by restoring and making art out of pieces of abandoned buildings since 1970. Farther down the street was the Caribbean Cultural Center, where I was fascinated to learn about the programs not just for displaying art, but also for educating others on the African diaspora and its role in art and culture today.

My attention was drawn to the numerous African hair braiding salons and barber shops tucked away on the second floors of buildings or set up right outside on the street. One of the women I spoke with, who was happy to give me a flyer for her business and tell me a bit about her work, explained that many of these makeshift salons pop up during the warmer months, when it is easy to advertise and attract passersby. Many of these pop-up salons disappear in winter. Many of the other street vendors are also at the whim of the weather when it comes to maintaining their business.

Since 1974, multi-talented Mahmut Mavruk, owner of the Harlem Art Cafe, has created a space for emerging artists and art lovers alike. His art gallery/cafe frequently holds events to keep the neighborhood’s interest and involvement alive. Across the street, my eye was caught by the colorful fabrics displayed along the walls of Bola International Boutique, which has been in Harlem since the 1990s and is run by Bola, a lovely Nigerian native who creates new clothes modeled off traditional African patterns and styles.

Having walked the entirety of the east side, I found respite and a quick sugar boost at Piece of Velvet, a cheery bakery specializing in all things red velvet. The farther west I went, the more I encountered well known chains, including the recently opened Whole Foods, Starbucks, Mattress Firm, and Bed Bath & Beyond. There were also multiple mobile phone stores, pharmacies, banks, discount clothing shops, and fast food places. It was thrilling, however, to reach Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and catch sight of the legendary Apollo Theater, where some of the world’s greatest performers have graced the stage. It was the first of several venues on 125th renowned for their illustrious musical histories. Showman’s Jazz, established in 1942, is another Harlem staple and an essential stop for all lovers of jazz and blues. A few doors down, I wandered into Capsule NYC, a high-end yet relaxed clothing and sportswear shop that has quickly gained fame among both Harlemites and celebrities.

In the final blocks of the street, the chains once again gave way to an assortment of salons, dollar stores, and delis, and the sidewalks became less populated with street vendors. There was still one more historic find awaiting me at the end of my journey: the Cotton Club, which has been showcasing the best of Harlem jazz since it opened in 1922. It was the perfect way to finish off the day, representing the cultural legacy and historical significance of 125th Street within Harlem.

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