Harlem: neighborhood revitalization paves way for a new Renaissance

Harlem. The very name of this former Dutch settlement conjures up a contrast in images: the cultural Renaissance years of the 1920’s and ’30’s, when the “New Negro Movement” attracted writers and other literary types from all over the world. The rise of a middle and upper middle class of black Americans. The Golden Age of Jazz, when legends like Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and Jelly Roll Morton could be found playing at iconic venues such as the Savoy Ballroom, Cotton Club, Apollo Theater, and Lenox Lounge.

After the Great Depression and WWII, Harlem experienced hard times. Once glorious buildings grew neglected; crime and poverty soared in the wake of an increasingly disenfranchised community and the social unrest of the civil rights movement. Then, in the late 20th century, Harlem began to get her groove back, and the neighborhood—which stretches north to south from 155th Street to 96th Street–began to gentrify. It’s still a predominantly black community, which is fueling a growing revivalist movement that’s an homage to the historic neighborhood’s cultural past.

Today, you’re just as likely to see beautifully restored brownstones (at newly jacked-up prices), eclectic boutiques, bars, and clubs, and destination restaurants. But some things are still the same. The inevitable downtown hipsters making the trek to soul food institutions such as Amy Ruth’s and Sylvia’s Restaurant. Street vendors hawking everything from incense to dodgy electronics from blankets spread on the sidewalk. Walking up the subway steps, you’re assaulted by a cacophony of sights, sounds, smells–not all of them pleasant. Welcome to Harlem, 2011. A work in progress, but definitely a destination in its own right.

[Photo credit: Flickr user i am drexel]



One of the biggest changes to take place is the December, 2010 opening of the Aloft, Harlem’s first hotel in nearly a century. The goal of the property has been to work with the community, and enrich the neighborhood by partnering with local businesses, which supply everything from grab-and-go food at the hotel’s 24/7 re:fuel, to floral arrangements.

The Aloft, a division of W Hotels, is a contemporary, more affordable sibling to the swanky, upscale chain, with locations all over North America and a growing number of properties throughout Asia, Europe, and Central and South America. The Harlem outpost is centrally-located on Frederick Douglass Blvd. It’s across the street from the 125th Street subway station, which makes getting downtown a snap.

My room was clean, comfortable, and stylish (with free Bliss Spa Products: yay!), with modern, functioning amenities (read: Wifi is free and actually works). If a view is important to you, best to request a room facing the front of the hotel. On the other hand, if you’re a voyeur or exhibitionist, I highly recommend Room 625. One other note: the ground floor xyz bar is seriously popping on the weekend, and not just with tourists, either. Expect loud music and dancing to go into the wee hours; if you’re sound-sensitive, also best to request a room away from the acoustic zone. Or just join the party.

To See and Do

The Aloft is literally steps away from a number of Harlem’s top cultural attractions. Modern art fans will enjoy The Studio Museum on W. 125th, which showcases local, national and international work by artists of African descent. Also nearby is the Apollo Theater, and the Hip Hop Culture Center, which offers everything from youth activities to historical artifacts, exhibitions, and educational programs. The Jazz Museum is another don’t-miss, over on E. 126th.

Eating and Drinking

Considered some of NY’s best, Patsy’s Pizza in East Harlem has been dishing out coal oven-fired pies since 1933. But a flock of new dining and drinking establishments have opened within the last year or so (all within stumbling distance of the Aloft).

Acclaimed Ethiopian-Swedish chef/Harlem resident Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster, named after an infamous Harlem speakeasy, is a homey contemporary restaurant specializing in comfort food that “celebrates the diverse culinary traditions of the neighborhood.” Think dinner or brunch dishes like dirty rice and shrimp; fried yard bird with white mace gravy, hot sauce, and shake; cow peas; and sweet potato doughnuts. Don’t forget to loosen up with a Gin and Juice or The Spicy Lady (Plymouth gin, jalapeno/rosemary syrup, lemon juice, and creole bitters), first. P.S. If the name of the restaurant sounds familiar, it may be because Obama hosted a $30,800-a-plate fundraiser dinner there in March. He liked the corn bread.

Harlem’s first beer garden, Bier International, sloshes up domestic and international offerings. It also serves brunch and lunch, and is family-friendly (how is mom and dad tying one on while the kids eat bratwurst not a family activity?). And yes, Virginia, there is fine dining in Harlem. The 5 and Diamond, which opened last year, is a popular spot offering contemporary American fare. It’s located on Frederick Douglass Blvd., which has been declared by no less than Frank Bruni–former restaurant critic of the New York Times– as the new “Restaurant Row.”

If serious mixology–with a laidback vibe and sexy, Prohibition-era style–is your thing, head to 67 Orange Street. I adore any place with craft-distilled and house-infused spirits, made-to-order juices, seasonal, intelligent, well-made libations, and a lack of attitude. Bar snacks run the gamut from oysters to deviled eggs, orange-roasted duck leg, and stuffed olives (at hard-to-beat prices). The name, by the way, is a tribute to the long-gone Almack’s, one of the first black-owned-and-operated bars in New York City.

Harlem is evolving at a fast pace; best to visit now, while it’s still an affordable, uncrowded, diamond in the rough.

Want to learn how to shake up a refreshing Moscow Mule or other classic cocktail? 67 Orange gives you recipes, right here.

[Photo credits: pizza, Flickr user Pabo76; soul food, Flickr user fiat luxe; brownstone, Flickr user gsz]

Valentine’s Day tribute: Sex museums around the world

Ah, Valentine’s Day. It’s a loaded holiday, one with high expectations. This year, though, I got into the spirit of things: I decided to rustle up a list of the world’s great sex museums. Even if you can’t pay a visit, their websites are informative and loaded with photos of exhibits. And best of all? You can indulge all by yourself, no relationship needed.

Erotic Heritage Museum, Las Vegas
The somewhat bizarre collaboration of a “Preacher and a Pornographer,” this pleasure palace houses over 17,000 square feet of artistically expressive erotica. Behold, ye Larry Flynt and “Ho-Down Mural” exhibitions.

Sex Machines Museum, Prague
Call me a perv, but how cool is this? A museum devoted entirely to the history and display of, to quote the website, “mechanical erotic appliances, the purpose of which is to bring pleasure and allow extraordinary and unusual positions during intercourse.” Okey dokey. There’s also a small theater for viewing old erotic cinema.

Museum of Sex, New York
It may not be the among the best-known of the city’s museums, but this monument to sex education, history, and cultural significance isn’t just for academics. It’s a good time, too. With rotating exhibits and virtual installations on everything from the “Sex Lives of Animals” and “Kink,” to a tribute to American pin-up photography, there’s something for everyone. Don’t forget to stop at the OralFix Aphrodisiac Cafe for an erotic elixir.

Sexmuseum Amsterdam
The Dutch are known for their rather laid-back attitude toward things the rest of the world tends to frown upon, which is one reason they’re so much fun. The famed “Venustempel” in Amsterdam is focused on “the theme of sensual love.” And hey–the four euro entry fee is a lot cheaper than the Red Light District.

Museu de l’erotica, Barcelona
Dedicated to the exploration of erotica in all its various forms: anthropological, archaeological, sociological, artistic, literary, and something called “plastic arts.” Hm. Located in Barcelona’s architecturally stunning La Rambla neighborhood.

[Photo credit: Flickr user SWANclothing]

The Icelandic Phallological Museum, Husavik (northern island)
This collection of over “two hundred and nine penises and penile parts” represents nearly all of the land and marine animals native to Iceland. Not as creepy as it sounds, the museum provides a base for modern research on the study of phallology. If that offends you, please consider the multi-billion-dollar male sexual enhancement/aid industry.
[Photo credit: Elín Eydís Friðriksdóttir]

World Erotic Art Museum, Miami
WEAM is home to the largest collection of erotic art in the United States, including sculpture and art objects. Rest assured it’s a lot more tasteful than what you’ll see parading on Ocean Drive.

Musee de l’Erotisme, Paris
Paris. Sex. Art. Need I say more?

China Sex Museum, Tongli
Located 50 miles outside of Shanghai in a former fishing village, this museum is dedicated to “over 9,000 years of Chinese sexual history,” with over 1,500 exhibits and artifacts. I am most definitely curious about the “Women and marriage” exhibit. Does it have a headache?

Condom Museum, Nonthaburi (approximately one hour from…hee…Bangkok)
The Ministry of Public Health opened this little museum, located in the Department of Medical Sciences building, in 2010. Its purpose is to develop awareness about HIV/AIDS and eliminate negative public perception about condom use (ironic, given that Thailand is the world’s largest producer of condoms).

If all that condomizing leaves you famished, perhaps you’d like to grab dinner at Cabbages & Condoms in Bangkok? Founder Mechai Viravaidya is a sexual awareness activist who has promoted condom use for the last 30 years. Partial proceeds go toward projects for the Population and Community Development Association (PDA). Watch Mechai give a restaurant tour and explain his mission in the below clip. Have a “safe” Valentine’s Day!

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Rome’s Vatican Museums host rare Aboriginal art exhibition

No one can ever accuse the Vatican of acting impulsively. In 1925, over 300 artworks and relics were sent to Rome by Aboriginal Australians, for a papal show. Since that time, the items have been squirreled away, despite being one of the world’s finest collections of Aboriginal art and artifacts, according to a recent New York Times article.

Fortunately, these treasures are now on public display, thanks in part to Missionary Ethnological Museum curator Father Nicola Mapelli. Last summer, Mapelli flew to Australia and visited Aboriginal communities to request permission to display the collection. His objective was to “reconnect with a living culture, not to create a museum of dead objects.” His goal is accomplished in the exhibition, “Rituals of Life,” which is focused on northern and Western Australian art from the turn of the 20th century. Despite the fairly contemporary theme of the exhibition, Aboriginal culture is the oldest surviving culture on earth, dating back for what is believed to be over 60,000 years.

The items include ochre paintings done on slate, objects and tools used for hunting, fishing, and gathering, a didgeridoo, and carved funeral poles of a type still used by Tiwi Islanders for pukamani ceremonies. The collection also includes items from Oceania, including Papua New Guinea and Easter Island (Rapa Nui).

The collection was originally sent to Rome because it represents the spiritual meaning everyday objects possess in Aboriginal culture (each clan, or group, believes in different dieties that are usually depicted in a tangible form, such as plants or animals). The items were housed, along with other indigenous artifacts from all over the world, and stored at the Missionary Ethnological Museum, which is part of the Vatican Museums.

“Rituals of Life” is the first exhibition following extensive building renovations and art restoration. The museum will continue to reopen in stages, with the Aboriginal art on display through December, 2011.

For an exhibition audio transcript, image gallery, and video feature from ABC Radio National’s “Encounter,” click here. The Australian series “explores the connections between religion and life.”

[Photo credit: Flickr user testpatern]

Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento opens new extension

The Crocker Art Museum has been showing the people of Sacramento fine art since 1885. Now it’s finished a $100 million extension that’s added 125,000 square feet of exhibition space. Previously the museum only had 40,000 feet. While the elegant Victorian building has been preserved, a large modern extension behind it allows for much more of the museum’s collection to go on display as well as serve for hosting traveling shows.

Members got a sneak peak yesterday and there’s a free day today. Current exhibitions include Tomorrow’s Legacies, showcasing 125 works that will be bequeathed to the museum, a show about Sacramento artist Wayne Thiebaud, and a collection of Old Master drawings.

The museum is especially noted for its paintings by California’s leading artists, drawings by the Old Masters, and an expanding collection of Asian art.

[Image of old Crocker courtesy user Amadscientist. Image of new Crocker courtesy user ronb76. Both via Wikimedia Commons.]

Top ten art museums you haven’t been to

If you wanna see inside someone’s brain, stick ’em in an art museum and then leave them there for an hour. Some will feign interest for at least 10 minutes and then start looking for the bathroom. Others will politely wander or become transfixed by a certain wall and never leave, others will head straight to the gift shop to try on silly hats. Big or small, art museums offer the truest personality test on the planet.

Because art is famous and expensive (and sometimes meaningful), the world’s most famous art museums have become iconic travel destinations unto themselves. Cultured people the world over have exhausted the Louvre in Paris, burned hours in the corridors of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, and nodded through Madrid’s Museo del Prado (Tick, tick, tick). There are few things Americans will wait hours in line for, but the Musée d’Orsay‘s French impressionism is right up there with Super Bowl tickets and some mattress outlet’s Midnight Madness sale.

It’s nice to know that art still matters, even when the world’s most well-known museums have become their own top ten of cheesy travel status symbols. But true art lovers need not despair–humans have managed to collect art the world over and many a hidden gem are lying in wait for your art-loving eyes to arrive on the spot.

The following list highlights a selection of some of the world’s best art destinations with the least amount of fanfare. (Disclaimer: Just like any person’s taste in art, this list is entirely subjective). What the following museums share in common are their high-quality collections and their pleasant lack of lines going out the door:

  1. Sarjeant Gallery, (Wanganui, NEW ZEALAND) You don’t expect it in small town New Zealand, but Wanganui is the quintessential art haven, with nearly a dozen galleries, live artists’ studios and stately museums. The Sarjeant collection is the largest and most impressive, well worth a day spent in this expressive riverside hamlet.
  2. Philips Collection, (Washington DC, USA) America’s “First Museum of Modern Art” opened in 1921 and houses a bold collection spanning Van Gogh to O’Keeffe. The intimate Rothko Room represents the first collective public showing of Mark Rothko’s famous multi-form paintings. In museum-heavy Washington, DC, the Phillips often gets overlooked by out-of-town tourists. It’s their loss.
  3. Musée Fabre, (Montpellier, FRANCE) You would expect a far more traditional art gallery in southern France, but the Fabre keeps visitors on their toes with a wonderful 500-year spectrum of art, including one of the world’s greatest collections of 20th Century Fauvist art. Like so much architecture in France, the museum itself is a well-preserved work of art.
  4. National Gallery of Art, (Reykjavik, ICELAND) For a country of just 300,000 people, Iceland has a lot of art museums. The largest of these collections is shown in an elegant old ice factory with several floors of soul-stirring Nordic art. It would take you a week to visit all of Reykjavik’s art galleries, but if you only have a day, this is the one to patronize.
  5. Museum of Latin American Art, (Buenos Aires, ARGENTINA) Oh wow, where to begin in Buenos Aires? There’s so much going on in this city, it’s hard to decide, but MALBA is like the ultimate megaplex of Latin American art, helping you realize how little you actually know about world culture. The museum’s gigantic size and vertigo-inducing design adds a punch of awestruck to your gut, whereas the art on the walls will leave you either with dreamy hallucinations or Borges-type nightmares.
  6. Toledo Museum of Art, (Toledo, Ohio, USA) Born from a private collection of local glass industrialist Edward Drummond Libbey, the Toledo Museum is home to an astounding number of high-profile works by 19th-Century European and American greats. The impressive glass collection adds a unique twist to the visit. (Pssstt: I grew up going to this museum at least once a year, and I still consider it one of the best in the world–right up there with any in Paris.)
  7. Heide Museum of Modern Art, (Bulleen, Victoria, AUSTRALIA) Australians are crazy about art, especially in Melbourne. The “Heide” is just a 15-minute ride outside downtown Melbourne, but that’s apparently too far for most tourists. What they’re missing is a creative collection of old Australian houses set up as galleries, bizarre outdoor installations and some downright funky art. Check it out.
  8. Kharkov Art Museum, (Kharkov, UKRAINE) An appreciation for Soviet art is regaining strength both in Ukraine and abroad. While most visitors hit the capital sights in Kyiv, it’s the industrial city of Kharkov that managed to preserve the country’s rich art heritage, from old Orthodox icons to propagandist block prints, epic oil paintings and tender Ukrainian folk art. Honestly, it’s probably the best art museum in the country.
  9. Winnipeg Art Gallery, (Winnipeg, CANADA) Canadians reign supreme in feelgood art experience and the “WAG” (an unfortunate acronym) is no exception. Manitoban art abounds and aren’t you curious to find out what that is? Housed in a sharp and angled stone triangle, the WAG also boasts the largest collection of Inuit art in the world, something the world-famous Louvre generally lacks.
  10. Guangdong Museum of Art, (Guangzhou, CHINA) Despite all the art that got stolen by foreigners and/or ruined by the Cultural Revolution, there is still some Chinese art left in China. In fact, even as you read this, new Chinese artists are producing new Chinese art . Shanghai and Beijing and Hong Kong are more famous and perhaps more impressive, but the Guangdong in Guangzhou is gaining worldwide notoriety for its fresh repertoire and independent spirit. (Why do the industrial cities get the good stuff?)

OK, I realize there are a lot more wonderful and obscure art museums out there (feel free to add your suggestions in the comments). The point is, when adding art museums to your bucket list, think outside the box. Some of the world’s greatest paintings are not in London or Paris. They’re in Winnipeg or Toledo.

(Photo: Flickr Henry Bloomfield; 2 Dogs)