With their project NYC12x12, journalists Christina Horsten and Felix Zeltner take a new look at New York City. Together with their daughter Emma, the couple moves to a new district every month for one year, sharing and documenting their experiences in our column. After their first installment on smart magazine, we check back for part 2 of NYC12x12: How to navigate a new hood in a big city.
Every time we move into a new apartment, we also somehow, in a small way start a new life. But with all the exploring it entails, starting from scratch doesn’t always come easy. Harlem, however, turned out to be different: Here, we stumbled across a welcome surprise – Neal and Daniel’s list.
Shortly after moving into our new studio digs, we found a two-page document affixed to our door with a yellow stickie. “Hi Felix and Christina,” it said. “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 had met Neal and Daniel through a previous landlord. They welcomed us to the house and recommended the Levain Bakery, a spot well-known for its excellent cookies. Full disclosure: These were probably the best, freshest, and largest chocolate and walnut cookies we had ever tasted in all our lives. To thank Neal and Daniel for the tasty tip, we left a bag of cookies on their doorstep.
The lovely duo had obviously decided to note down their collected Harlem must-sees accumulated over a decade, divided into “food,” “walks,” and “oddities.” It was the best thing that could have happened to us – we didn’t know most of these spots.
So, we started with some Jamaican chicken at a pop-up restaurant in a small alleyway between the Malcolm Shabazz Market and the Harlem Community Art Center, followed by delicious pizza at Babbalucci’s and, finally, soul food courtesy of the BLVD Bistro.
Next up: the walks. We caught sight of the Keith Haring triptych at St. John the Divine’s Cathedral and the stunning architectural memorials of the Astor Row and Strivers Row residences. What a gift!
Harlem: living room jazz and outdoor gyms
Most of the time, though, it’s up to us to find what makes a new neighborhood unique – and by now we’ve developed a relatively routine, tried-and-tested system. My wife Christina, a correspondent who’s been studying the New York Times religiously every day for the past five years, has accumulated a large archive of articles – most of them stored in her own head. Wherever we go, she immediately comes up with places and stories on every neighborhood.
In Harlem, Christina’s radar took us straight to living legend Marjorie Eliot. Every Sunday, the old lady hosts free jazz concerts in her own apartment. Visitors flood her living room, spilling all the way into the hall and stairwell. After Marjorie has handed out juice and cookies, everyone gets mesmerized by the skilled quartet, featuring the host herself on the grand piano.
Whenever we move, my first quest on waking up is to scent out a suitable jogging route. Sometimes, this takes me past outdoor gyms – the most authentic way of keeping fit in NYC. Then, I look for a decent café. Our current neighborhood, the East Village, has enough caffeine joints to let me try a new one every morning.
This is also where we meet the area’s different tribes, including artists who work downtown at one of the East Village theaters, but gather at Abraço for the day’s first espresso.
Books, apps, and walks serve as sources
Books also help us navigate the city’s different hoods. And while we obviously couldn’t pack too many paper-based reading materials, we found the following guides indispensable: The Big City and Its Little Neighborhoods, New York Originals, Hidden Bars and Restaurants, and the recently released Food and the City.
For example, tips extracted from our small library have led us to “Manic Panic,” the hair color empire of sisters Tish and Snooky in Long Island City, to a rarely open cemetery park tucked away in the East Village, and to Manhattan’s highest natural point, hidden in a Washington Heights playground way up in the island’s northern parts.
Naturally, we also google like crazy for things like the “best playgrounds on the Upper West Side,” “best yoga in Chelsea,” or “best coffee in Mott Haven.” Apps like Yelp and Google Maps have proven surprisingly useful.
What’s more, we tend to walk as much as possible – occasionally following one of the freetoursbyfoot routes available for many districts. The East Village, for example, features the city’s largest concentration of community gardens; tiny oases thriving on the ruins of abandoned buildings.
Generally speaking, though, it’s the New Yorkers themselves that help us to get to know a new quarter. Among others, the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association), which runs countless of centers and sporting facilities in all New York districts and across the entire United States, has become a firm fixture and our second home.
By now, the “Y” has become a family member of sorts. At the Harlem Y, for example, we trained with Mike, a singer and playwright who sings throughout his classes and leaves everyone with a huge smile on their face.
South Bronx: an intense neighborhood dinner
To give something back, we always host our own monthly neighborhood dinner. In a way, that’s the best thing about our project: We get to invite friends who live in the area, our current neighbors, and folks we have heard about or people that were recommended to us. Then, we ask them to all get talking.
Our most intense neighborhood dinner happened in the South Bronx. The discussions got so involved and extensive that we almost forgot the food. The district is actively struggling with advancing gentrification and the inevitable real estate sharks this attracts. But there were also bright spots, like Noëlle Santos’ idea to open a bookstore: Her Lit. Bar would be the Bronx’s only existing general interest bookstore.
“There was a time when I measured my success by how far it took me away from the Bronx,” Noëlle reveals during our dinner discussions. “I got to appreciate the Bronx only recently – it was a long journey. When the local Barnes & Noble bookstore closed last year, I almost had a heart attack. I live right next door; Barnes & Noble was like my local bar. No matter if I was stressed or happy – I could simply pop into the store and open a book. There are 1.4 million people living in the Bronx – and just a single bookstore? I knew straight away that I would have to open a bookstore of my own.” And Noëlle plans to realize her ambitious project before the year is out.
Click here to read the first article of this series.