Harlem History and Brooklyn Charm

On my first visit to New York City, my Mum
straight refused to visit Harlem. She said it was too dangerous and wouldn’t go there. I vowed to visit this time, in the morning so I could then go on to Brooklyn later in the day.

I could walk to Harlem from my hostel, and on the way I strolled to the popular Levain bakery for a soft, indulgent brioche. It was milky, not too sweet, fluffy and just delicious. Almost croissant like, but still cakey. I watched the world pass as I ate, then carried on up North.

Around the Harriet Tubman memorial, Harlem becomes distinctly Black focused, which is why I came. For the rich black history. The murals and the bookshops. The people were just as friendly, with a guy stopping me to chat and offering his hand in marriage as a solution to my not being able to move to New York.

From Harlem I took the train straight to Bedford Avenue which is in the heart of hipsterised, gentrified Williamsburg in Brooklyn. 

First on the agenda was the Mini Mall. This was really cool, and definitely didn’t give off the Too Cool To Talk To You vibe. I ended up buying a whole lot of gifts here and a pair of shorts for me. 

From there I walked to the City Reliquary, but after spending $40 on shorts I didn’t also want to pay for entrance there so I instead followed a poster for a yard sale and went to that instead. There I met Dollfille, a living doll with really beautiful fashion, and I looked around my first yard sale.

The plan from here was to go to Artist and Fleas, get lunch and then make a plan from there. In actual fact I saw that down one street there was a few fairground rides. I became curious and followed it down. There were fairground games, Italian food vendors and Italian flags and a huge shrine at the bottom of the street. It didn’t yet make any sense. The vendors who chatted to me were Italian, but no one really divulged more than “it’s a festival we have every year”. The police explained that they carry the shrine at around 4pm, and it’s an Italian community thing. I was so curious I decided to come back around 4pm.

Artist and Fleas was nearby, but it was as I expected, very closed off and up itself and I didn’t love any of the things on sale so I left. 

Opposite was Smorgasburg which was a big Brooklyn hipster food market with trendy vendors lining. I am so disappointed in myself to admit that I chose to order a spaghetti doughnut. I know. It tasted exactly as bad as it sounds, but it was fun to eat at the “beach” of the East River. 

By this point I could head back to the festival, stopping first at a funky pink little gift shop that caught my eye. It’s Brooklyn Broads, a feminist gift shop that donates 10% of all the proceeds to Planned Parenthood. Although it’s pricey, all the gifts are created by female artists who the shop supports. I enjoyed looking around and it was very photogenic.

I finally made it back to the street festival, where it had really picked up. People were crowding around the shrine, and the sounds of Italian American Brooklyn accents punctuated the air amongst frying funnel cake and calzone.

A local explained to me that it was a long festival that happens every year. They carry the shrine up and down the block to a band, there is food and on the Sunday a mass. One young Italian American guy told me he is involved in carrying the shrine – called in Italian a “giglio”, or lily. It’s a huge heavy thing, but in Italy they carry it for almost twelve hours!

It was quite a spectacle to behold. The music, the carrying of the giglio, the culture and the celebration that was in the air. Everyone knew I was a tourist but I didn’t feel like an outsider at all as the whole block and its diverse community joined in.

I stayed until nearly 8pm, soaking up the celebration, taking photos, meeting people and hearing their stories and watching them parade the giglio. Above everything, this was the most perfect way to spend my day.

Although Manhattan’s midtown has many must-see sights, events like this that are just so true to the community makes venturing out of the centre so worth it.

Favourite sights: Levain bakery and Harriet Tubman Memorial in Harlem, Mini Mall and Manhattan Skyline in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

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