Surely, for those of us moving to New York after years in various postings in Africa and Asia, the first barrier to making the most of our new surroundings is coming to terms with the high apartment rental costs in this city. Finding a tolerable balance between rent and commuting time and proximity to lifestyle preferences becomes important as New York has so much to offer.

Arriving in New York in 2016, unconstrained by considerations of locating our home close to schools, we opted for life in Harlem. We rented an apartment in the south-western corner close to Central Park, requiring a Metro change at Penn to get to the UN for the ‘working spouse’ and convenient for the ‘dependent spouse’ cycling Central Park or enjoying a stroll to a local café. We remained in New York for just two and a half years during which our love of Harlem life never waned with its richness and diversity making it all the more difficult when we finally said our goodbyes.

The ‘dependent’ one quickly located a favourite café – Il Caffe Latte on Malcolm X Boulevard, and the occasional cycle to its sibling on 145t​h ​West in upper Harlem (with the pleasant cycle home through the beautiful City College of New York campus) – that offered not just great coffee (and food) but friendly staff and no wifi, meaning unfussed reading time due to tables free of squatting students, and an ideal place to meet friends.

Of course, Harlem means evening live music venues within easy walking distance such as Silvana’s and Shrine, Ginny’s (basement of Red Rooster) and Paris Blues and, especially wonderful, Lenox Sapphire on Thursday evenings, where the person who just served you drinks might then take the mic to sing several songs with the band, in a small venue exuding a real sense of local community camaraderie.


Harlem Meer, Central Park

African American Day Parade in Harlem. Photos: Robert Johnson

Cultural diversity is central to New York’s character, and Harlem is no exception. The established African American community – and students at Columbia University just across the pleasantly linear Morningside Park in Upper Westside – are clearly under pressure as the gentrification, and renovation of larger buildings for wealthier tenants continues apace. The area around 116t​ h​ and Frederick Douglass Boulevard and beyond includes a rich mix of various Francophone West African communities that morphs eastwards into a Hispanic – including a large Puerto Rican – population. Everywhere, the African-American communities are vibrant and varied in being a part of the changing social conditions. For us, encounters with so many ethnicities on the streets, in shops and on public transport provided a pleasant sense of neighbourhood and community. Special mention needs to be made of the annual (September) African American Day Parade that commences from the southern end (111t​ h Street) of Adam Clayton Powell; an exuberant celebration of that amazing cultural richness and diversity that makes Harlem such a wonderful place to live.

Some other highlights worth mentioning are the Harlem Meer in Central Park’s north-east corner and lovely rugged woods in its north-western corner, proximity to the Hudson River cycle path/Riverside Park, walking or cycling the tree-lined streets of Harlem’s brownstones, and the easy public transport commutes to the Met’s Cloisters, the evening public offerings at the American Museum of Natural History’s planetarium, the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx and Pelham Bay Park (‘discovered’ thanks to a NYLESA event!).

We could list all our nice ‘finds’ in Harlem, but the real pleasure is in their discovery, including bookshops, museums and galleries, restaurants, parks and, of course, cafes and jazz venues.

By Robert Johnson, former NYLESA member