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How we find our way in a new NYC neighborhood each month

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Books and websites are helpful, but the people in our neighborhoods have been the best resource

Journalists Felix Zeltner and Christina Horsten are the brains behind NYC12x12, a project in which they move to one New York City neighborhood each month, living in different areas of the city for one year. They’ll be blogging for Curbed during their journey, sharing insights and anecdotes from their travels through the five boroughs. Read on for Felix’s second dispatch, and check back for more insights from their NYC exploration.

"How do you explore a new neighborhood?" is a question we get asked often, and while it’s not always easy, we have a few tried-and-true methods of finding neighborhood gems. It’s a lot of research, and after a month we have barely scratched the surface.

But we try our best, and my wife Christina is a master. Partly due to her job as a New York correspondent for a German newswire, she religiously reads everything concerning New York and rips out articles that turn into discoveries. For Harlem, she dug out a recent piece by New York magazine about African restaurants, which introduced us to Somalian and Pan-West-African kitchens.

Trumpeting in the rain #harlem #nyc12x12 #newyorkcity #nyc #wallart

A photo posted by NYC12x12 (@nyc12x12) on

Then there was the old New York Times piece that brought us to an apartment in Washington Heights, where the graceful Marjorie Eliot hosts jazz concerts in her living room every Sunday, free of charge. The crowd spilled out of her living room into the hallway of the building, with everybody listening silently.

We have a stack of books like The Big City and Its Little Neighborhoods, New York Originals, and the recently released Food and the City, which reveal great discoveries in every borough. To find more, we do extensive Googling of best-of lists and just recently found really good self-guided tours.

We also use apps, e.g. Google Maps, Yelp, and The Scoop, a somewhat neglected New York Times product that attempted to have staffers recommend their favorite places. ("Oh, you are the one person using it!" a NYT journalist once exclaimed when I told him that I love the app.) The restaurants are mostly too expensive for us, but the bars and cafes never fail—the Times has its own coffee critic who turns followers into coffee snobs. In Harlem, it led us to the greatness of Lenox Coffee and Double Dutch Espresso.

And then there are the people, who’ve been perhaps the most invaluable resource when wayfinding in a new neighborhood. Here’s an example: we found a printout on our doorstep just a few days after we had met our neighbors for the first time. On top there was a handwritten Post-It note. "Hi Felix and Christina," it read. "Here’s a list of a few recommendations in Harlem. Hope you guys find a few gems on here—many I’m sure you’re already familiar with. Have fun exploring!—Neal and Daniel"

We’d met Neal and Daniel through our current subletter, Maxim, and they tipped us off to Levain Bakery, where you can buy the most delicious fresh cookies. We left a cookie at their door with a thank you note. And then this sweet couple sat down in front of their computer, compiled what they’ve learned from almost a decade of living in Harlem, and shared it with us. The two pages, held together by a paper clip, contained a list, separated into "food," "walks," and "oddities." Their estimate of our knowledge was wildly exaggerated—we had never heard of most of these places.

We started with the food: Jamaican jerk chicken at the pop-up outdoor restaurant tucked in a little alley between the equally amazing Malcolm Shabazz Market and the Mist Harlem art center; pizza at Babalucci; and soul food at BLVD Bistro, all of which wowed us.

Next up are the walks: We’re excited to see the triptych by Keith Haring at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and the architectural gems along Astor Row and Strivers Row.

Another great community resource—and a place to find things to do in every new neighborhood—is the YMCA. It already feels like a companion. We signed up with the Y in Brooklyn because they offer free childcare, but by now we have seen many of their awesome facilities. At the massive Harlem Y, you find more fun in the classrooms than anywhere else—ever heard of Dancelates?

And last but not least, we walk—an actual, aware, conscious walk, along with the occasional run. A reporter from Chinese television recently interviewed us and asked if we walk around a new neighborhood in concentric circles. We don’t—yet.

From strolling through our current neighborhood near Malcolm X Blvd, we learned one thing: We’re surrounded by some of the most beautiful people in this city and probably on earth. We never felt so underdressed as during Eid, the Muslim holiday, when the area around 125th Street transformed into a West African catwalk.

And we feel humbled every day, especially on those bright early mornings, when the sidewalk in front of our house is filling with glowing sunlight and people who are timelessly, effortlessly stylish.

Hopper? Harlem! #nyc12x12 #harlem #newyorkcity #nyc #nyneighborhoods #sunset #clouds

A photo posted by NYC12x12 (@nyc12x12) on

One Instagram follower asked us if we can post Neal and Daniel’s full list online, and we promise to ask them once they’re back from vacation. Meanwhile, we would love to hear your ideas about exploring New York City’s neighborhoods. Any books, websites, or feeds we missed out on? Any institutions or people we should know about? Drop us a line, and we’ll share it here next time around.

By then, we will also have found a place to stay in October; we’re still looking, with a bit of nervousness, after two options suddenly fell through. You can also follow us to see how it went, on Instagram, Twitter, and through our newsletter. Or come join us on our final days here in Harlem, when we'll follow the last bit of advice on Neal and Daniel’s list: "Take a bottle of wine down to the stoop and enjoy the fall evening."