The next stop was Riverside Church at 120th & Broadway. Despite the mention of a free guided tour here, nobody got off. Nor did anyone take any pictures. Just about everybody on the bus had a digital camera in hand, but no one was using them. And nobody had hopped off or on the bus since 72nd Street.
We turned on Riverside Drive and headed up past Grant’s Tomb. Had there been any Americans on the bus, there may have perhaps been at least some interest in this stop, especially since it was a free attraction. But the guide had to explain to these passengers who Ulysses S. Grant was, and even after hearing that he was the Union General in the Civil War and a former President of the United States, still nobody was interested.
Now we were heading into my neighborhood. In fact, I usually park my car near Grant’s Tomb, and when looking down at my car as we passed by, I wished I was in it instead of on this bus. My son’s daycare, Red Balloon, was also right down the hill from where we were as we approached the viaduct, and I’m sure he would have enjoyed being on this bus more than me if only because it is a vehicular oddity that he sees from our living room window.
On a clear day such as this you get a beautiful view of the Hudson and the George Washington Bridge from atop the viaduct, but, again, it was difficult to see out of these dirty windows. Perhaps that wasn’t such a bad thing when we made a right and rolled down 135th Street. As we approached Broadway, I broke the no cell-phone rule to call my wife to let her know that the bus was coming by the building and to get out the camera. Fortunately, I was not caught.
The guide said that we were now entering Harlem, which she claimed was built because working class people came to live here. Not exactly the way I understood it, but at this point I realized that just about every word that came out of her mouth was rubbish and that we were all being taken for a ride. She made no mention of being on the border of Hamilton Heights or of Washington Heights being twenty blocks to the north or that George Washington’s headquarters had been there and that it had been a strategic and very important area during the American Revolution. Instead, she mentioned that Madame Alexander’s Doll Factory was the next stop and how it had been a very popular stop during the holiday season.
We stopped at a red light at my corner. I looked up and waved at our apartment. I couldn’t see if my wife was at the window, and I wasn’t sure if she would be able to see me, but she did snap a couple of pictures and I was able to identify myself when I saw them later.
Heading down Broadway we made a right on 131st and stopped in front of the Doll Factory. Nobody got off. Besides mentioning that it had been a popular stop during the holidays, the guide had made no other selling points as to why this doll factory was so wildly popular or even who Madame Alexander was or what kind of dolls were manufactured there. Nor did she mention the free gift that David had told me about. Despite the incompetent salesmanship, it still occurred to me what an amazing source of customers these tour buses could be. If she had been a better tour guide, she probably could have convinced at least a few people to get off and check it out. Multiply those few by buses running by every half-hour all day every day, and that has the potential to add up to a lot of outside money coming in to Harlem.
A good tour guide can excite and entertain people and make tourism fun, but Madame Tour Guide was actually making New York City seem like a boring place. It was as if you already had to know what to look for in dreary old Manhattan, and if you didn’t, this lady sure as hell wasn’t going to tell you. For the most part I was amused at her ineptitude, but then she went too far. As we pulled away from Madame Alexander’s and stopped at the corner of 12th Avenue, with Dinosaur Barbecue on our left and one of the great successes of Harlem’s redevelopment right in front of us in the “Meatpacking District” or “Viaduct Valley” or whatever you want to call it, she actually said, “we’re now in an industrial area that’s not too appealing”. This was a slap in the face to my neighborhood and a disservice to every paying customer on this bus. Why did she not mention that Dinosaur Barbecue is one of the more popular eateries in Harlem and that people come from all over the city to eat here? It was lunchtime too, and some people may have wanted to get off and experience some great American barbecue and one of the unique and wonderful establishments in Harlem. This was getting more bizarre by the moment.
We headed down to 125th, where we made a left and were now heading east. To our right was the Cotton Club, which, like Floridita Tapas (a very nice restaurant up the block), is at a horrendous location for a restaurant or club. How successful would either of these two places be if they merely moved to a more central location on 125th Street near the Apollo? The guide mentioned that this was not the original Cotton Club, which was located on Lenox, and that sometimes they have gospel services there. I pass this place every day on my way to pick up my son from daycare, and I just shake my head that they put it right here on this awful triangular island and make it look about as welcoming as a Mason lodge. This could be one of Harlem’s crown jewels, but instead it is a tiny island lost in the sea of Columbia’s expansion project. If anything, Columbia would be doing the owners of the Cotton Club a favor if it were to displace it. Even Columbia’s most vociferous critic Nick Sprayregan, who has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money fighting Columbia’s potential use of eminent domain to acquire property and displace businesses and residential buildings, might even agree.
We hadn’t even crossed Broadway before the tour guide started talking about the Apollo. Granted, there is not much to talk about between the Cotton Club and the Apollo, and a lot can be said about the history of the Apollo and what an important landmark it is. But, true to form, all she said about it was that every Wednesday night was amateur night, and that John Lennon and Yoko Ono were regular performers there in the 70s. She did not mention James Brown, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Diana Ross, or any other performers who made the Apollo one of the most legendary performance venues in the United States. She also failed to mention the recent tributes by fans of Michael Jackson upon the news of his passing, which is something I’m sure the Europeans would have been interested in because he was far more popular there than he was in the States during the later years of his life. But no, it’s just the Apollo, and that’s all you need to know.
By the time we crossed Broadway she was already done talking about the Apollo and had changed the subject to American culture and how it is common to tip people here, including tour bus operators, and that tips are not included in the price of the ticket. This was just despicable. Charging 44 bucks for this ticket, doing a disservice, and then outright asking for a tip? This woman was out of her mind.
Ten people got off at the Apollo, and a few got on. To my pleasant surprise, this was as popular a stop on the tour than any of the others. On a cold day such as this, 125th Street actually seemed like one of the livelier streets compared to some of the others that we passed in Midtown and on the Upper West Side. But I knew that this was it, that those who got off were merely going to cross the street, look at the Apollo, maybe spend money to take a tour, snap a few pictures, and get back on the bus. Where else would they go? Jimmy Jazz? Duane Reade? The new Applebee’s? Maybe they’ll take a look at what the sidewalk vendors are selling since they are the only retailers on 125th Street that sell items unique to Harlem that visitors may potentially be interested in. However, because they are on the cold street and not in a warm physical store where you can walk in and browse, vendors are not likely to be a significant recipient of tourist spending. Even if they were, street vendors do virtually nothing to help the local economy.
If only there was somewhere else to go. If only they could get off the bus, look at the Apollo, and then head into “The Hue-Man Bookstore”, a big store like Barnes & Noble (but locally owned, not corporate like Barnes & Noble) where you could go in, buy books about Harlem, souvenirs, CD’s, photos, art, posters, coffee, snacks, and maybe have an area where a small jazz ensemble can play. A big locally-owned bookstore could also host annual events in conjunction with the Apollo. If a business like this showed signs of success, others would follow. Perhaps a little club or restaurant would open next door where you can slip in and have a drink and a bite to eat before hopping on the next bus. How about a nice soul food restaurant that advertises “Authentic Harlem Soul Food”? Outsiders would be thrilled to eat at a place like this, especially if they have never heard of or don’t know where Sylvia’s Restaurant is. What about an art gallery for local artists (there are many great ones already here). Or, how about, “The Harlem Jazz Club” or something like, The Blue Note down in the Village? Or, imagine if the Cotton Club was right here? And perhaps someday there will be a nice locally-owned hotel in that big ugly lot next to the Apollo, the most valuable piece of commercial real estate in Harlem, which will bring more big name acts to the Apollo and inject more outside money into the local economy. Gray Line buses would be thrilled to partner with businesses such as these, which would do phenomenally well if they actually existed and create significant job growth in Harlem. And, contrary to popular belief, these businesses would be enjoyed by local residents as well.
Instead, the tendency of some local residents has been to do nothing but complain about how Harlem is changing. This complaining scares off local entrepreneurs who want to open something unique that may benefit Harlem. These are the business owners who should be embraced because they actually care about the community, but if they hear complaints from residents who don’t want Harlem to change anymore, they may decide not to move forward. This in turn leaves the door open for corporations who don’t give a damn about the community to open chain restaurants and clothing stores. This is how Harlem will lose its soul for good. Trying to keep Harlem from changing is essentially giving up control as to how it will change. No neighborhood in New York City is immune to change; that’s the way this city has always been, and that’s the way it will always be. Fighting change does more harm than good. Instead, local residents and business owners should be proactive in focusing their energy on the kind of change they would like to see rather than allowing corporate America to do it for them. Seek out local entrepreneurs who may be interested in opening a business here and work with them to make it happen. Work with existing local business owners to help them improve the goods and services they offer. Local businesses must do more than sell inexpensive products in un-kept stores. The term “Uptown” should have a classy connotation; vibrant culture, good food and good music. Unfortunately, no one has taken up the challenge to change this association; whoever does will be very successful. Harlem has the chance to be a New Orleans-like neighborhood right here in New York City, but the opening of Applebee’s is only the latest sign that Harlem is turning into a corporate landing pad. Right now there is still an amazing opportunity to take advantage of the Harlem brand and build something unique that will attract people from all over the world, but this has to happen before there is a Starbuck’s on every corner and McDonald’s in between. It would be a travesty if 125th Street turned into a generic shopping strip like Steinway Street in Astoria, which ten years ago had similar kinds of stores that 125th Street has now. Today Steinway Street is mostly all corporate retailers, and most of the money made there goes right into the pockets of corporate executives who live nowhere near Astoria. Tourists and residents alike would enjoy something unique and representative of Harlem, not things you can find anywhere in the country like Applebee’s or Old Navy.
When the big double-decker buses come to Harlem, it is hop-on, hop-off, and hop-on again. No money is spent. Tourists with money to burn come and go and wind up spending their cash in Times Square. What a waste.
I wanted to see the rest of the Harlem tour, so I stayed on the bus. The tour guide mentioned that Bill Clinton’s office was right up the block and pointed out the statue of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in the plaza, explaining that he was the first African-American elected to Congress from New York. We then turned right on the street that bears his name and headed south before swinging a left on 122nd.
Of course, one of the signature features of Harlem is the beautiful brownstone townhouses. There is a nice row of them on one side of 122nd between ACP and Lenox, but she did not point them out or even mention the word “brownstone”. Instead she started talking about how Lenox Avenue was also known as Malcolm X Boulevard, named after a civil rights activist who “unfortunately got shot here in New York City”.
We turned right on Lenox and headed south. The guide mentioned that this part of Harlem used to be a German-Jewish neighborhood and then pointed out the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque at the corner of 116th. Yet, she failed to mention any of the dozens of new condominium developments in Harlem, which is the biggest story in Harlem over the past decade.
We turned left and headed east on 116th Street and asked if anyone wanted to get off at the Harlem Market (meaning the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market). This could have been her salvation. She could have mentioned that this was a place where you can buy traditional African crafts and textiles and souvenirs, and that it is perhaps one of the most tourist-friendly places in Harlem. Instead, she merely asked if anyone wanted to get off here. For all they knew, the Harlem Market was a grocery store. Needless to say, nobody got off. This was also an opportunity to mention new development, as we were right next door to the Kalahari, one of the biggest new condo buildings in Harlem and one of the only LEED-certified green buildings. But, as far as she was concerned, it wasn’t even there.
We turned right on Fifth Avenue and continued heading south. We were told that somewhere to our left was Spanish Harlem, but that before it was Spanish it was Italian, and now there are a lot of people from “The Orient” living here. The Orient?
And that was it for the Harlem part of the tour. We headed down Fifth Avenue and swung around the traffic circle at 110th Street. She mentioned that yes, Central Park was right there, but she made no mention of the Harlem Meer or the Conservatory Garden, which I personally think is the most beautiful feature in Central Park. As we approached East 105th she asked if anyone was getting off without mentioning where we were or why anyone would want to get off here, even though the garden was right there. I raised my hand, and a few people looked at me wondering why I would get off here since the guide didn’t say anything about it. She then shouted down to the driver that someone was getting off here, but he must not have believed her because he kept on going. She again yelled at him to stop, and finally after East 103rd, he did.
I stooped low and made my way down the narrow aisle simultaneously trying not to hit my head or hit someone with the heavy camera dangling from my neck. The tour guide was already downstairs waiting for me at the door with an expectant smile. She appeared to be fighting the urge to hold out her hand for a tip. There was a back door like the exit doors on an MTA bus, so I went for those hoping to avoid having to pass by her in the front, but these were locked. She smiled as I approached as if to say that this was the only way out and to see if I was going to take her suggestion to heart about how they tip tour bus drivers here in America. To her consternation I smiled back at her as if to say I wasn’t onto her little scheme and said with my best New Yawk accent, “Thanks for ‘da ride, lady.” She looked confused, but said nothing.
On the sidewalk, overlooking the Conservatory Garden, still beautiful even without its summer bloom, I turned back in the direction of Uptown. Many of my former fellow passengers were looking down at me through the dirty glass wondering if I knew something that they didn’t or if I was just a helplessly lost soul in the great big city. I smiled back at them and waved to show them how great it felt to no longer be trapped on that horrible bus.
I caught the M4 bus at 110th. Ah, the good ol’ M4. It was nice and warm inside, unlike the bus I had just been on. It was quiet—no tour guide here, and no one asking for tips. The windows were clean, and I had an unobstructed view of Central Park all the way across Central Park North as we headed west towards Broadway. Oh sweet Harlem, it’s good to be home.