I took this tour many years ago. It might have a changed a bit since then, but the overall experience is the same.
Harlem Gospel Tour 690 8th Ave., NYC 10019, (800) 660-2166, (212) 391-0900. A new day is dawning in Harlem. The place is hot. Especially with Europeans. However, most out-of-towners don’t get there on the famous A train. Instead, thousands of tourists--mostly Europeans--head uptown each week on various organized tours. Because I am interested in attending a Gospel church service, I choose the “Harlem on Sunday” tour.
The chaos of boarding behind us, our bus heads up the West Side into the high street numbers beyond 110th Street, where Harlem officially begins. The border is obvious--the green stops and the graffiti starts. Though this is the English-speaking tour, everyone except me and my companion are foreigners. They hail from Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland (home of the original Haarlem), and Japan. Our charming guide, Mahalia, a young Haitian woman with a dry sense of humor, fills us in on Harlem’s history, telling us that until the 1830s it was a little village buried deep in the north country of Manhattan. Then, speculation turned it from an extension of Central Park into a concrete jungle.
In Harlem Heights we get off the bus to view Alexander Hamilton’s meticulously kept house and run into some notorious local color--an African-American panhandler who is not happy that our tour guide has brought us into the ‘hood and hurls expletives her way. He is obviously on something, but she handles it well. With our attention drawn to his ill behavior, we almost miss the reality beneath this cliché--the many other peaceful neighborhood people, most decked out in their Sunday best.
We get back on the bus and travel through the attractive, well-maintained neighborhoods of Sugar Hill and Morningside Heights, passing the beautiful gothic City College campus, which is second only to U.C. Berkeley in number of faculty members who are Nobel Prize winners.
There is more singing, and we sway to the rhythm, making offerings in the basket passed around as the choir--some of whom have positively angelic faces--sings “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” This is followed by a long, drawn-out rendition of “I’ll Be All Right” that just about brings down the roof. Several teens in our group jump up to the beat only to be pulled back down by their parents. Anyone who was dozing is awake now. A member of the congregation is overcome and collapses. One of those women in white, this one with a nurse’s cap, comes to her aid along with other members of the congregation. (Two nurses are always in attendance at these emotional services.) Due to time restraints, we are ushered out before the sermon starts, as sermons can go on for several hours here.
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images ©2015 Carole Terwilliger Meyers