Travel: Welcome To New Harlem!

The intrepid tourist can find charm, spirit and soaring music in New York's notorious ghetto

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He lived there for years, and New Yorkers even named a street in his honor. But these days would dapper Duke Ellington feel at ease taking the A train 2 1/2 miles north from midtown Manhattan to black Harlem? Not if he believed the vision this New York City community conjures up in the minds of apprehensive whites: a postnuclear landscape of poverty and blight, where crack dealers plan gang wars in cratered tenements. To most Manhattanites from the wealthy southern part of the island, Harlem hardly exists, except as an old, obscure head wound -- the beast in the attic, a maximum-security prison for the American Dream's unruly losers. Why would a white person go to this Harlem, except to buy drugs?

Now pose the question to a white European visiting New York City, and brace yourself for a surprise. He will inform you that black Harlem is one of the city's main attractions; that its 330 years echo with history, beauty and drama; that its imposing, if often scorched, architecture tells tales of the exuberant black metropolis that flourished in the 1920s; that in no other New York City district can you find the vitality and graciousness of Harlem on a , good day. Maybe, too, the foreigner wants to brag to friends back home that he saw Harlem and survived. Sure enough, on a bus trip run by Harlem Spirituals Inc., the black guide announces -- in German, the language of many of the passengers -- that they are passing the spot "where the late son of the late Senator Robert Kennedy was suspected of buying drugs."

So on a spring morning, dozens of Europeans and Asians line up for excursions through Harlem, which sprawls northward from the top of Central Park for about 50 blocks. They gasp at the area's high and low life and attend a joyful church service. Typically, few of the tourists are black; fewer are New Yorkers. On a recent trip, one of these few spoke with a librarian at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and was complimented on his good English. When the downtowner asked if many New Yorkers took such tours, the librarian smiled: "Honey, you're about the first."

Is the white American who avoids Harlem missing something? Yes: for starters, a poignant and profound social textbook lying open for study in the heart of a great city. One gazes at block after block of abandoned brownstones -- their fronts corked by arson, their doorways cemented shut, their empty windows gaping like a skeleton's eye sockets -- and realizes that agonizing irony is Harlem's chief industry. Perhaps, then, the European tourists are seeing things. Yes, they are: spectacular things. Any tour of Harlem compresses into a few square miles the melodramatic contradictions of urban life. Horror dwells in the basement of propriety. Hope is just around the corner from drugs and decay.

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