Harlem – to many, that notorious area in New York is one of the most dangerous places. Ghetto, place where no white man should go. Place where I too was warned about before my first trip to the city. It was a place that was not safe, unless you were in a moving vehicle and did not stop no matter what, they said.
It is true that Harlem has deserved it repautation back in the days. The area spreading north of Central Park in Manhattan was for decades a pain in the butt for NYPD, the crime rates high, streets full of gangs and drugs – an area that not many should visit.
And of course that is the area we chose as the place to stay on our recent trip to New York. Until this time, I had always stayed at the southern parts of the city and this time we wanted something different. So we chose Harlem. Many people told us we were insane, asked if we really wanted to get in trouble on purpose. Some said we were plain stupid to be doing something like that, because Harlem is notorious. It is for black people. But naturally, we had done our homework and knew better, the area did not live to its reputation any longer.But no matter how hard we tried explaining the current situation, the prejudices stayed strong.
During the six day-trip we had time to walk on the streets of Harlem quite a bit. The area turned out to be surprisingly large and versatile. Sometimes the streets were nice and pretty, almost like any street in upper west side. Sometimes they were more rugged, framed by worn out buildings, and just like I had imagined Harlem to be – full of life and black people shouting ”bro” every five seconds to their mates. Yep, sometimes the stereotypes match the reality, but only in a positive way I have to say.
We walked hours on the streets, sometimes even after midnight, but not once did I feel unsafe.
According to the locals, the area has cleaned up dramatically over the past decade as the rents have rocketed. Yes, the ethnical profile of the people still differs from the downtown neighbourhoods, but crimes have become more rare. Surprisingly, there is a lot less crime in Harlem these days than in the areas south of Central Park according to the crime statistics of the first quarter of the year. Sure it can be that the crimes in Harlem are more violent than the ones in the more touristic areas, which most probably is full of petty crime, but then again, it is more likely that the more violent events are between two people who already know each other, thus not having big impact on tourists.
Even though I strongly think Harlem is far from that horrible, notorious area it used to be and one that many people think still is, I would not claim it to be totally safe. On our first day we were greeted by a drug addict raging to two patrols in front of our building. On another day, we passed by a church with three patrols in front of it, guarding the building fully armed. Turned out it was cash for guns-day. We must have seemed slightly amused as we realized the situation as one of the officers courages us too to get our guns and exchange them to cash. Apparently it had even been rather busy in the morning, although we did not see any potential clients nearby at that time. So yes, there are guns and crime in Harlem too, but you really do have a hard time finding an area free of those basically anywhere in the world.
I personally did like Harlem a lot. The ragged, sometimes slightly outworn areas were full of life and character. It was like a different world from the upscale, polished downtown areas full of tourists and shiny buildings. This was real, this was different. Here, the traffic was light, people were not rushing all around. There were plenty of nice little cafes and diners, and I have to admit, it was interesting just to walk around, observing peoples behaviour, maneuvers and style of interaction. It was different, it was fresh. Instead of being scared for my safety, I felt like I had found yet another wonderful side of New York I had not known before. Staying in Harlem really was a good call.