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Harlem Walking Tour Showcases Rich African American Culture - 2002-08-07

The Harlem section of New York has had its share of problems. But even in its darkest days, its reputation as the center of African American culture has made it one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. One of the best ways to experience Harlem is to take an organized walking tour. James Donahower recently did just that and, as part of VOA's ongoing "Harlem Series."

The first stop on the "Harlem Heritage Tour" is the legendary Apollo Theater.

The careers of Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, and Michael Jackson, were all born at the Apollo, and tour-goers are given an opportunity to take the stage in a mock version of the theater's legendary "Amateur Night".

The Apollo is under reconstruction, as is much of Harlem nowadays. The neighborhood surrounding the key stops on the Harlem Heritage tour, the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the mosque where black activist Malcolm X preached, the home of the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton is rapidly changing. Nationally known companies like Starbucks and Disney have recently opened shops in Harlem, which just a decade ago was often overlooked as an investment opportunity.

Harlem Heritage Tours director Neal Shoemaker includes these major retailers in his tour, with something of a sardonic twist.

"So Harlem is changing quite a bit when you get Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse coming to your neighborhood," he explained. "The thing about that, is that when Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse come to Harlem, the price of the real estate goes up quite a bit. Nowadays, who knows if blacks will be able to stay because of the high cost of doing business here?"

Like Mr. Shoemaker, Michael Henry Adams weaves social commentary into his private walking tours of Harlem. He is the author of Harlem Lost and Found, a book that celebrates Harlem's rich architectural history. He compares Harlem to other U.S. cities and neighborhoods.

"If you look at a place like Georgetown, or Charleston, or Savannah, communities which were in the 1930s primarily black communities, which had been abandoned by whites, the great architectural treasures of those cities were preserved, in essence, by poor black people who lived in rooming houses that were made from these grand old places. Well, that's essentially the situation in Harlem," he said.

As buildings are restored and real estate prices skyrocket, people like Neal Shoemaker and Michael Henry Adams worry that Harlem's storied past will be sacrificed to its future. Mr. Adams says he fears Harlem will become a largely white community on the road to saving its "built environment", something he finds especially ironic considering that Harlem is the African American cultural capitol.

Mr. Adams fights daily battles to preserve Harlem landmarks from being trampled by the march of progress. He remembers seeing some chairs and tables piled on the sidewalk outside the now crumbling Renaissance Ballroom and Casino, where Harlemites celebrated birthdays and weddings in the 1920s. He later came across the furniture on sale downtown.

"The chairs for about $50 each, and the tables for about $250 each. It isn't that great an amount of money, but these were tables were Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston and Countee Cullen and all of these luminaries had sat," he explained. " And they were just thrown in the trash. It's just shocking."

For many people on the tours, the sights and the social history are absorbed with equal relish. Renee Watson Johnson came from Los Angeles with a group of young dancing, acting, and singing students.

"Most of them have never been to New York, and we wanted them to come the city where culture started. We grew up in Harlem, and we wanted to give them the New York experience," he said. " We thought it was important for them to take this Harlem Heritage Tour to find out where a lot of the artists came from in New York, and the influence they've had on people around the world. "

Ms. Johnson says that Harlem looks to her much as it did when she was a child a vast improvement over the "war-zone" she says she saw when she visited 10 years ago.

Her students seem similarly appreciative of the Harlem Heritage tour and its themes. Jacqueline Whatley is making her first trip to New York.

"I didn't know so much about the black culture in Harlem before. I know more about it now, and I definitely feel a closer connection to black people in general all over the world," she said.

Both Neal Shoemaker's and Michael Henry Adams' tours are popular, and booked up well in advance. Mr. Adams playfully suggests that all interested parties should book now, before all signs of Harlem's rich cultural and architectural past disappear.