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Barry Pollack's "Going Places"

New York City's Harlem and the Top of the Park
Another Bite of The Big Apple

I'm in love with Manhattan. We've had a long relationship over the years. We've shared laughs and tears on Broadway and Times Square. There were intimate glances and wild times in Soho and Greenwich Village. I've succumbed to her pricey glitter on Madison Avenue and stealthy discounts on Canal Street. Romance was a carriage ride through Central Park or a Circle Line cruise around the island. She gave me a rush of patriotism in the ride across the Bay to the Statue of Liberty. And boy can she cook. She makes the world's best cuisine or you can fall in love with her street vendor odors, hot dogs and soft pretzels in summer and roasting chestnuts in winter.
I love Manhattan - but just when you think you know someone well, you discover there's so much more to know. On my most recent trip there I discovered there's an entire Manhattan to love above 100th Street.
Now I've been above 100th before. Once, several years ago. I took Bus No. 4 to 190th Street to visit the Cloisters, a monastery re-assembled from several medieval French cloisters in Fort Tryon Park. There you can take a trip to old Europe without leaving New York City. Meandering through gothic chapels and weathered stone halls, you'll discover an extraordinary collection of medieval art. On the way to the Cloisters, I saw a crowd entering a grand old movie theatre annexed into a church with its marquee advertising a service by Reverend Ike. We hopped off the bus and went inside.
The service included gospel singing and dancing with talent that surpassed some Broadway shows. It was a lucky detour but you can find that same "gospel" high with companies today that offer guided tours of Harlem's spiritual experiences (212-391-0900).
Since that soul side trip, several years ago, I've cloistered myself in Manhattan - south of 100th. But on my most recent visit to the Big Apple, I thought I'd check out the new Harlem and took a subway to 125th Street.
Harlem is home to a large segment of New York's Black and Hispanic communities. It has for many years been the symbol of much of America's black heritage. Its heyday was in the 1920's when jazz greats drew crowds of every color and the Cotton Club was home to Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway. In the 60's it was a hotbed of civil rights activism. By the end of the 20th century, however, it had become a symbol of urban blight and crime. Today, however, it is undergoing a new renaissance. Former President Bill Clinton set up his offices on 125th Street. The Apollo Theatre, also on 125th, was recently remodeled and hosts new live shows as well as its famous "Amateur Night." And, though I can't honestly say I'd feel comfortable walking its side streets at night, during the day I felt as safe in Harlem as anywhere else in Manhattan.
Also called Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, 125th Street is the heart of Harlem. Besides Clinton's office and the Apollo Theatre, it's a major shopping area with discount stores, street vendors, and fashion boutiques. At the corner of 125th and Frederick Douglass Boulevard is Harlem USA, a major shopping center that also houses the Hue-Man Bookstore with perhaps the world's largest collection of African-American literature and books. The Studio Museum of Harlem (144 W. 125th) houses a permanent collection of African-American and traditional African art and displays the work of emerging artists as well. Djema Imports (70 W. 125th) sells African fabric and handicrafts. And just off 125th is Triple Candie (461 W. 126th), an art gallery in an old brewery, where I saw a fascinating exhibit of contemporary art.
Sylvia's (Lenox and 126th) is perhaps Harlem's most famous soul food destination. It is renowned for its BBQ ribs, fried chicken, candied yams, and collard greens. But it now attracts tour buses as well as locals and if it's too crowded, you might try Amy Ruth's, another modest soul food restaurant on Lenox Avenue and 116th Street.
If you meander west, you'll discover the answer to that age old question: Who's Buried in Grant's Tomb? Overlooking the Hudson, on 122nd Street is Grant's Tomb. Dedicated in 1897 to the Civil War hero and president, it is the largest tomb in the U.S. It's somewhat reminiscent of Napoleon's tomb at Invalides in Paris but aside from the tombs of Grant and his wife, there's not much more to see there.
By bus or foot, head south. On 116th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue take a detour into the campus of Columbia University. Like New York's parks, Columbia's campus and majestic buildings are an idyllic getaway in the midst of a clutter of stores and high-rises.
On 112th Street, you'll come upon the Cathedral of St. John the Devine. Said to be the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, it is the seat of the Episcopal Church of New York. Inside it's vast, with towering granite pillars, stained glass, tapestries, sculptures, and marble niches that not only pay homage to the church's holy figures but to American icons like Lincoln, Washington, Einstein, and Martin Luther King. Next to the church is a curious and comfortable garden park with the "Peace Fountain", a fantasy sculpture that celebrates the triumph of good over evil.
Frederick Douglas Boulevard turns into Central Park West at the corner of 110th Street. There you'll find the top of Central Park which I discovered is more wooded, lush, and picturesque than the bottom of the park that abuts the Upper East Side's pricey hotels like the Plaza. If you stroll east, you'll soon come upon Harlem Meer (Dutch for lake). The Meer is stocked with fish for catch-and-release fishing. At its edge is The Dana Discovery Center, one of the park's visitor centers, which provides fishing poles and ecology lessons if you're so inclined.
The Meer is home to several of the park's unique attractions. At its west end is the Lasker Pool and Skating Rink - home to the only public swimming pool in the park in the summer and its only ice skating rink in the winter. At its mid point is a plaza where jazz concerts and other events are frequently held. On the day I visited, I got down with a great Salsa band. And at its southern end, from 104th to 106th Streets, is the Conservatory Garden - Central Park's only formal gardens. It's a perfect place for a leisurely stroll, a good book, a nap, or a wedding. The central Italian-style garden has a formal green lawn surrounded by groomed hedges. The French garden is made up of a circle of tiered flower beds with a fountain with three bronze dancing nymphs sitting in its center. The English garden, a little further south, has a reflecting pool filled with goldfish and water lilies and a bronze of two children at play.

As you head back to perhaps the more tourist tread streets of New York "south of 100th," one more stop seems relevant. On Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street is the Museum of the City of New York. Here you'll find fascinating photographs and memorabilia chronicling three centuries of New York and American history.
After several decades and dozens of trips there, I've learned you can never taste all of The Big Apple.