A few doors away we were drawn into Settepani, a sleek new cafe and bakery. We sipped espresso and cappuccino and shared a fruit tart as dusk set in. An elderly man clutching plastic shopping bags paced before the glass case of treats, bemoaning the fact that his diabetes forbade even a taste.
We found night life at the restored Lenox Lounge. It was early enough for us to land two stools at the bar, our vantage for an evening of people-watching and chatting with regulars. "This is our Cheers," said one of our bar mates.
The next day I wanted to see Harlem through a different lens, so I selected the guidebook "Stepping Out: Nine Walks Through New York City's Gay and Lesbian Past."
Demetra and I concentrated on the area around historic Mount Morris Park, also known as Marcus Garvey Park. Elegant brownstones, churches and apartment buildings sit amid signposts festooned with banners announcing the neighborhood's landmark status.
Looking for the homes of writer Hurston and Alain Locke, the so-called father of the Harlem Renaissance, we were treated to the magnificent Graham Court apartment building, the Olga Apartments and a brownstone that was home to Langston Hughes. None of these buildings is open to the public, but their exteriors--windows, stoops, columns and arches--opened our eyes to the aesthetic sense and sensibility of another era.
The art scene in Harlem today also provides a richness tied to the neighborhood's diversity. With the remaining daylight we headed for Gallery X, a new venue showing paintings of an Iranian American artist. Antonio Pringles, who was minding the front gallery for Turkish owner Gulsun Erbil, offered to show us the studio in back.
There Erbil had spun a crazy, three-dimensional web of colors--string, glass, mirrors and spiral slivers of wood. The art sprawled around the office and into a kitchen and the loft sleeping space.
At day's end we stumbled upon the Brownstone, another fabulous discovery. "Created by women for women," the house is a cozy, shared commercial space. Each room offered something different: clothing, accessories, fine jewelry and art, a bridal salon, an interior design studio, even massages and facials at the Lady Sandalwood Day Spa. It added up to a funky mix.
A small tearoom on the second floor offered lunch and dinner by reservation only. Lucky to get a last-minute spot, we stayed for dinner and found ourselves seated at a silk-wrapped table. Our orders--Thai peanut chicken, cilantro-soaked whitefish, carrot-and-basil-dressed salad and sweet potato chips--were delicious.
The meal was sophisticated and elegant, two qualities we discovered again later that night at Showmans, a jazz club dating to the 1940s. The long, narrow layout made for a cozy setting when the joint reached full swing. Throaty saxophone notes played off rat-a-tat drumming and keyboard twinkles. Up and down the bar, hands clapped and heads nodded.
Demetra chatted with a Japanese couple next to us. He was in New York studying English. She was on a weekend visit. They wanted to hear good jazz, and their guidebook had led them to Harlem. Just then a tea-colored woman at the bar grabbed the hand of another Japanese tourist and pulled him to an improvised dance floor. They may not have understood each other's words, but they settled on a language their dancing bodies knew how to speak, giving us all a glimpse of the exchange that can happen when you get off the bus.
Monique M. Taylor, a sociology professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, is the author of a book on Harlem to be published this fall.