Harlem. The place you end up when you don't know the subway and accidentally board the uptown express instead of the local. An area Manhattan cabdrivers shun and most non-residents avoid after dark. Nobody takes a guided tour of Harlem, right? True, for the average New Yorker, perhaps. But whether despite its negative image or because of it, the number of tourists traveling to Harlem has been growing, from an estimated 1,000 in 1983 to almost 10,000 this year. Visitors from around the globe - especially from France, Britain, Canada, and Japan - pour into New York daily with bookings to visit this black and Hispanic community.
They come to walk the newly renovated strip along 125th Street and to hear the blues and jazz, the ``soul music'' that put Harlem on the map as the hottest nightclub district in New York during the jazz age of the 1920s. Or to dine on ``soul food,'' Southern-style spareribs, black-eyed peas, and corn bread, in restaurants like Sylvia's on West 128th Street.
On Sunday mornings, tour buses line up outside the Metropolitan Baptist Church, waiting for tour groups that have traveled uptown to experience the booming sound of gospel-choir church music.
This December, visitors to Harlem can put the 27th, 28th, and 29th on their calendar when the City College of New York, on 138th Street and Covent, hosts the East Coast Holiday Basketball tournament. Visitors earlier in the month should consider timing their trip around the official lighting of the Christmas Tree in Harlem (Dec. 19, 6 p.m., 163 West 125th Street), an event matched only by the grand tree in Rockefeller Center.
``When I say that I run a Harlem tour company, people stare at me. They say, `What are you doing in Harlem? What do you show? What places do you go to?' People are so scared!'' says Muriel Samama, a slim Frenchwomen who runs Harlem Spirituals Inc., a tour company specializing in guided walking tours and package trips to Harlem.
Although wandering through Harlem at night is not advisable, traveling in a group by day, through the well-known areas, is considered safe. For newcomers to New York, group travel may be the most relaxing and secure way to first see this section.
Most tour guides agree that Americans are more wary than foreigners of traveling to Harlem, even on a tour.
``Americans are not that keen on black culture, but Europeans and Japanese are,'' says Miss Samama. ``Europeans are interested in it for the cultural aspects. And Harlem is like a myth. It's something forbidden, something where you can never go by yourself, so they really want to see it.''
Founded in 1981, Harlem Spirituals Inc. began with tours of Sunday morning gospel choir music. It now employs five local guides and includes three main tours: ``Harlem on Sunday'' for gospel choir music, ``Harlem on Weekdays'' for dinner and a visit to a jazz club, and ``Harlem by Night,'' which features a tour, dinner, and an evening at a nightclub. Prices range from $25 to $60 per person.
According to Samama, business has grown rapidly in the last year. Eighty percent of her tourists come from Europe, 10 percent from Japan, and the remaining 10 percent from the United States.
An agency named Harlem, Your Way! offers guided tours by foot, bicycle, bus, or even limousine through almost any part of the diverse uptown neighborhoods. Nine bus companies, including Grayline, now run regular bus trips through Harlem. And for the adventurous independent traveler, a guidebook called ``Harlem Today: A Cultural and Visitors Guide'' was published last year, by Gumbs & Thomas Publishers Inc.
``Harlem has a very bad image because it's gotten such bad press,'' says Larcelia Kebe, president of Harlem, Your Way! ``But I want visitors on my tours to get out. We walk around. I want them to feel the rhythm of the people so they don't go away with such negative experiences.''
``People have such weird notions of Harlem,'' comments Benjamin Jones, director of the Harlem Visitors and Convention Center. ``People are either fearful of it, or they totally romanticize it. To a lot of people, Harlem is just a slum. But there are lots of elegant homes. Harlem is a geographic area, but it also can be talked about as a state of mind. It's a community which stands for a lot of things that people take to heart. It's the black capital and the home of jazz.''
Geographically speaking, Harlem stretches from 96th Street on the south to 170th Street on the north, and from the Harlem River on the east to the Hudson River on the west. Often mistakenly used as a synonym for New York's black and Hispanic communities, Harlem is an interracial and multi-ethnic community. Between 1870 and 1920, the population of Jews, Germans, Italians, and Irish in Harlem actually outnumbered the blacks. Still today, of the approximately 2 million black people living in New York City, only about 250,000 actually live in Harlem; a much larger black community resides in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
``In everything I've ever read, whether the autobiography of Malcolm X, or whatever, I've always read about Harlem, so I was determined to come here,'' says Creanna Moseley, a young black office worker from Tulsa, Okla. ``It was at the top of my list. I might miss other places, but I really wanted to come here.'' She spent her one Sunday in New York touring gospel churches with the Harlem, Your Way! agency.
A frequent traveler, Miss Moseley had two goals in mind on her first trip to New York: a night at a Broadway play and a trip uptown to Harlem. Like most tourists, she was surprised to discover the wide boulevards along Seventh Avenue, the elegant homes of Strivers Row, and the many historic sites - standing reminders of Harlem's legacy of wealth.
As tour guides will quickly point out, Harlem contains 25 historic sites, more than any other area of the city. The Dutch founded Harlem in 1658 as the farming community of Niew Haarlem. In 1776, George Washington fought the battle of Harlem Heights against the British, using the still-standing Morris-Jummel Mansion as his headquarters. Alexander Hamilton built his summer home in Harlem not far from where Grant's Tomb looks out over the wide Hudson. By the 1890s, Harlem was the place to be - strictly upper income.
New York's black population moved uptown to Harlem between 1906 and 1910 when other ethnic groups slowly pushed them out of the Hells Kitchen area of what is now Lincoln Center and Penn Station. By the end of World War I, they were concentrated about 96th Street, establishing the mostly black and Hispanic community that people know as Harlem today.