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A Local's Guide to Harlem, Where History and the Arts Intertwine

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Harlem Arts Festival co-founder Chelsea Goding gives the lowdown on her neighborhood

The People's Guide is a new series examining New York City's many, many neighborhoods, led by our most loyal readers, favorite bloggers, and other luminaries of our choosing. This time around, we welcome Harlem resident Chelsea Goding, the co-founder and marketing director of the Harlem Arts Festival.

How long have you lived in the neighborhood? My family has lived in Harlem for generations, but I've lived here on my own since 2008.

Tell us something we don't know about Harlem. Harlem is a creative community, and many people know a lot about it. What I think is important to remember about Harlem has more to do with what was happening elsewhere in the early 1900's that led to its development. Predatory lending practices, Jim Crow, and white flight were pushing people of color out of their homes all over the country. In response, we experienced one of the biggest booms in black entrepreneurship that established the Harlem that we know about today. Many people quip that we're undergoing a second Harlem Renaissance, and to some extent, I'd agree that there's a contemporary level of innovation that's inspiring, but it's definitely in response to other factors that the community is facing.

Are there any local customs of note? There's a beautiful tradition of hosting Salons—bringing neighbors together around a meal, art, culture, etc., usually in someone's home. My co-founder has a series he calls FED (Food, Exploration, Discussion) Sessions. Local artist Debra Cartwright hosts dinners in the style that Hughes and Baldwin used to attend. Marjorie Eliot has been hosting an open parlor on Sundays in her brownstone for years. Harlemite Michael Johnson (and his late partner Michael) hosts an annual party for the NYC Marathon in his brownstone along the route. While it's not a salon, Alison Desir founded Harlem Run to bring people together for local headphone-free runs with the theme #takecareofharlem.

What are some hidden gems in Harlem? 67 Orange Street, a speakeasy-style bar in West Harlem, is a definite favorite. Pisticci is a delicious restaurant on La Salle, and La Maison D'art is a beautiful guesthouse and gallery space on 132nd Street between Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Gin Fizz is another tucked-away bar that has great live music and cocktails.

What's a beloved neighborhood joint? This is a tough question! Harlem is so big and we Harlemites have a lot of Harlem pride, so my list is bound to be incomplete. But, some top places are Showman's Jazz Club, which has been open since 1942, and Rao's, which is an East Harlem landmark. Make My Cake is an adored bakery. Then Melba's, Sylvia's, and Amy Ruth's hold down the soul food genre (honorable mention to Londel's and Spoonbread!), and there are recently re-opened loves like Minton's and the Cotton Club. I think the Schomburg Center and the Apollo deserve to be listed here. I wouldn't call them "joints" but they're absolutely community treasures.

Best park? I think the best park is Marcus Garvey Park on 124th at Fifth Avenue, because it's home to the Harlem Arts Festival in the last weekend in June each year. There's the gorgeous Richard Rodgers Amphitheater, a public pool, basketball courts, baseball fields, playgrounds, and "Little Free Libraries." Then the Acropolis, apart from offering a great view of Harlem, has a rich history. Until recently it was home to the oldest standing fire watchtower in the city. The watchtower was removed for repairs, and in its place stands a beautiful installation called caesura, which is a collaboration between artists Jessica Feldman, K. Brandt Knapp, and Jerome W. Haferd, the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association (MMPCIA), the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance (MGPA), and Harlem Arts Festival. This summer, Art in Flux and the MGPA will be collaborating on a series of public art installations in the park.

What is your local transit like? I find getting around Harlem pretty easy. There are a number of trains. The A/B/C/D/1/2/3/4/5/6 trains all run north to south, and then there's a network of buses that go crosstown.

What's not-so-swell about your neighborhood? Depending on where in Harlem you are, these are the usual issues: the prevalence of food deserts, methodone clinics, heightened-to-the-point-of-military-level police surveillance. But I don't pretend that these are coincidental features of the area or the fault of the residents. They're intentionally zoned in underserved communities. To see financial, physical, and social displacement taking place, after decades of local investment despite these factors, is heartbreaking.

What's the neighborhood housing stock like? Again, this depends on who you are and what you're looking for. For some, options about where to live are dwindling, while for others, they're expanding rapidly. In spite of this, Harlem has gorgeous architecture. Some of it dates back to the 1800's when Harlem was a farming community, and some buildings are either brand new or just renovated. A great way to see these places is on the various tours that happen throughout the area. The MMPCIA and Striver's Row Block Association each host great historical house tours in the summer and fall.

Better for buyers or renters? The days of the $1 brownstone are long gone, which creates quite the gulf between those who could buy and those who need to rent in Harlem. Despite your economic status, the community is best suited to long-term residents who are interested in living their lives in Harlem, not just exploiting the housing prices.

Stereotypical residents? From working in the creative community uptown, I see artists everywhere. Harlem has been an incubator for culture and commerce since the 20s, so it makes sense that it's full of creative producers of all kinds.

Most common sight? The number of people talking to each other on the street. I feel like this doesn't exist in other Manhattan neighborhoods. There's a premium on being present in Harlem that screen-based digital isolation hasn't yet eroded. Saying hello to a neighbor, getting to know the people you see during your day, asking genuine questions about each other is expected and valued in Harlem.

The final word on Harlem: My heart is in Harlem, and I think that's true for most residents.

Have a piece to say? We'll be happy to hand over the megaphone.