I have visited Harlem numerous times in my life but never really as a tourist. So there I was recently on a big tour bus, heading uptown on a sweltering day, escorting a group of French executives and feeling I was exploring the neighborhood for the first time. We went with the New York Visions Travel Group on the Harlem Spirituals Gospel Tour.
The architecture was majestic, the history epic, but to see the area fixed up and yet still tattered on the edges was uplifting and depressing at the same time. I really got to absorb the information as I was doing some translations into French…stories of freed slaves, rent parties, jazz, the crack years and now the resurrection of the famed quarter.
Our guide was an animated actress/French expat who, despite her arrogant attitude, gave a great tour. We made a pit stop at the Schomburg Library, a public library that is a research center for Black Culture. My dad had done research there in the ’70s and ’80s and I had vague memories of visiting as a child. Then we headed to a church to witness and participate in a gospel-music-infused service.
I have always been intrigued by these tours, but as a native New Yorker I felt odd about it. It seemed voyeuristic, and quite frankly I felt it was a bit tacky. The French and Italians ate it up though, and the church was making a good living, so it seemed harmless, even a potentially good way to share black culture with tourists. The service itself may have been staged for the visitors, but the players were mostly recovering addicts who had been saved.
There was something spiritually uplifting about their voices and stories. I was reluctant, but got into it and enjoyed the whole experience immensely. It was hot, and with sweat pouring down my back I decided to join in with the show, singing, swaying, clapping and amen-ing, giving the clients the best of American culture…after all, they seemed to love jazz/gospel and black history passionately and I wanted to support that.
After the sweat dried a bit, a fried-food fest followed at a nearby eatery. We stopped in front of the famous Apollo Theater for photo ops and got to ogle the Clinton Foundation headquarters. I took a small group shopping on 125th street for bargains. I still have mixed feeling about the whole thing but I’m glad the folks are making a decent living. It was, despite my misgivings, a truly American experience for foreigners and well worth the price of the ticket.