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City Living: Central Harlem

Since its revolution of African American art and culture in the Harlem Renaissance, Central Harlem is abuzz with art and history.

But the beloved uptown nabe is once again being redefined with a new vibrancy.

Often referred to simply as Harlem, a real estate renaissance occurred in recent years, luring a more diverse crowd of residents and businesses.

Now, corridors like 125th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard have an uptick in corporate businesses. But even with big names like H&M, Starbuck's and Foot Locker, the area retains some of its community establishments like the Apollo Theater on 125th Street, Grandma's Place on 120th Street, the Maysles Documentary Center and the famed Red Rooster restaurant, both on Lenox Avenue.

On 125th Street, the young and stylish trot past old-timers, and street vendors selling incense, aromatherapy, African-inspired clothing, and "I Love Harlem" hoodies and T-shirts add to the mix.

Connie Lee, secretary of the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance, calls the neighborhood a gem.

"Someone actually said that to me recently and it has always been and will always be," she said. "It's a very community-oriented neighborhood."

She moved to Harlem from SoHo three years ago and said her biggest attraction was its sophisticated cultural diversity.

"Neighborhoods disappear often in New York City but pockets of neighborhoods where everyone knows each other still exist, and Harlem is just like that," she said.

Chet Whye, executive director of the Harlem4 Center for Change advocacy group, agreed.

"We're like a small town," he said. "We sit in each others homes."

He described the area as dynamic but noted that it is also effective.

"Meaning people here get together and forge alliances and relationships," he said.

Harlem was originally named Nieuw Haarlem and remained rural until the late 1880s when the elevated railroads and subway lines were extended up to Sixth and Eighth avenues. African Americans began to populate the area during the great migration and in the 1920s dominated the neighborhood. They fostered the heightened outpouring of literary and artistic expression otherwise known as the Harlem Renaissance.

The area is known for its roster of famous residents from Duke Ellington and Lena Horne to Marcus Garvey and W.E.B DuBois. And it continues to attract its fair share of notable names, including most recently, Neil Patrick Harris, Maya Angelou and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who was born there.

Residents also include students and couples moving to Central Harlem to start families.

"They say the beauty and the pricing attracted them to make it on their own here," Whye said. "And they aren't shy about coming to community meetings."

Brownstones, row houses and single-family townhouses, many with Neo-Italian, Georgian and Romanesque architectural styles, grace the neighborhood, juxtaposed with new mid- and high-rise condos.

One concern Lee has amid the new development is that the area's architecture could be in danger.

"The historic district in Central Harlem is very small," she said. "There are many buildings here that should be landmarked that are not."

The neighborhood currently has two historic districts, the Mount Morris Historic Park District which stretches from W. 118th Street to W. 124th Street between Fifth Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

Boulevard and Strivers' Row, a group of historic townhouses on 138th and 139th Streets between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass Boulevards.

Community board 10 approved a preservation plan for nine more historical districts in 2012 but the Landmarks Preservation Commission has not approved any yet.

As Central Harlem continues to change some express concerns over gentrification but both Lee and Whye believe the neighborhood's heritage will always be retained.

"There are some people moving in who don't know the dynamics of this area," Lee said.

"But there are also people who move here who embrace it for what it is, its culture and its sense of community and they're not here to change it, they're here to build on it."

--LISA FRASER