Cotton Club is located in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan.
Like any neighborhood in New York, Harlem's boundaries are often contested. For our purposes—and we should know—Harlem extends north from 110th Street (the northern edge of Central Park) to 155th Street and from the East River west to the Hudson River, with the notable exception of Morningside Heights, the bubble around Columbia University that carves out a considerable and beautiful portion of Harlem to the west of Morningside Avenue and south of 125th Street. Many consider Fifth Avenue the dividing line between Harlem and Spanish Harlem, but much like the West Village is simply a division of Greenwich Village, we will not make the distinction here.
While many of New York City's neighborhoods have histories that reach back to the settlement of the East Coast, Harlem is perhaps the neighborhood that best encapsulates the 20th century, a dynamic place with ever-changing demographics, always moving with—or a step ahead of—the country's cultural and sociopolitical pulse. Visitors to New York may have a vision in their heads of Harlem as it was during the 1920s and '30s, a vibrant era known as the Harlem Renaissance, when jazz and bebop took a torch to the rulebook of mainstream music and paved the way for the Beat Generation. Like Greenwich Village in the '60s and the Lower East Side in the '70s, that period may be Harlem's best profile, but it's far from the only one.
In its heyday, when over 125 venues vied to entertain those between Lenox and Central Avenues, Harlem was the undisputed home of jazz, with legendary clubs and lounges like The Apollo Theater, The Cotton Club, the original Lenox Lounge, Minton's Playhouse, and the long-gone Savoy holding complete sway over the music scene. The neighborhood was also a hotbed of poetry and theater, with figures like Langston Hughes and production companies like the National Black Theater, the Harlem Suitcase Theater, and the American Negro Theater staging the best in African American plays.
The highs and lows of Harlem life, particularly tougher decades following the Harlem Renaissance, when very little development took place and the aforementioned theaters were all razed or turned into churches, still managed to contribute to the historic value of the neighborhood. Many of Manhattan’s finest and most elegant homes can be found in several districts of Harlem, including the Hamilton Grange area, the Mount Morris district, and Strivers' Row. In addition, the 1802 home of Alexander Hamilton at 87 Convent Avenue, between West 141st and West 142nd Streets, merits a visit. It's worth visiting the nearby City College campus to see the beautiful Harris and Shepard Halls, not to mention the spectacular views from the escarpment of St. Nicholas Park.
During the late 1980s and early '90s, Harlem underwent another renaissance—perhaps more a Harlem Revival than anything else—when the city removed long-unused trolley tracks, laid new water mains and sewers, installed new sidewalks, curbs, traffic lights, street lights, and planted trees along its central shopping district, West 125th Street. National chains opened branches on the main drag for the first time; The Body Shop, for example, opened a store at Fifth Avenue and Ben & Jerry's opened a franchise across the street that employed formerly homeless people. The revitalization of 125th street continued apace in the late '90s—and has only sped up in the two decades since—with the construction of a Starbucks outlet in 1999, the first supermarket in Harlem in 30 years, the Harlem USA retail complex in 2000, and a new home for the Studio Museum in 2001. That was that same year that former president Bill Clinton moved into office space in Harlem, raising the neighborhood's profile as an up-and-coming part of Manhattan, a rare thing for anything above 110th Street. Of course, the inevitable downside of gentrification has been the creeping homogenization of the neighborhood, with local businesses and residents facing rising rents and potentially being priced out of their own neighborhoods, although the further east you are in the Harlem, the lesser the effects seem to be, and if anything good can be said of Harlem's rapid development, it's that it has returned Harlem to the dynamic, mixed neighborhood it was during its greatest eras, albeit with a few too many coffee shops.
No trip to Harlem would be complete without visiting its numerous museums, churches and mosques, restaurants and music venues. Some of the many highlights include the African American Wax Museum, the Black Fashion Museum, the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Lenox Lounge, as well as the Gatehouse Theater at 135th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, which opened to much fanfare in 2006. In addition, several tour companies feature special offerings, such as gospel tours, and soul food and jazz outings.
Speaking of soul food, Harlem's most famous cuisine, the legendary Sylvia’s Soul Food is still kicking in Harlem, alongside local favorite pizza parlor Patsy's and the impossible-to-get-a-reservation sauce joint Rao's, where regulars own their tables like timeshares. Since Dinosaur Bar-B-Que first came to Harlem over a decade ago, many new chefs have brought their culinary visions to the neighborhood, and now modern foodie havens like ABV, The Cecil, and Red Rooster have become the rule rather than the exception.
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