On my last visit to Harlem on a Sunday, I witnessed huge numbers of people in fancy clothes getting in and out of vehicles. There were traffic jams in front of churches as vans and cars unloaded church congregation members.
On January 4th, 2010, I wrote We Got Religion, but in Harlem, they really got religion. For years I have been threatening to see a gospel performance in a Harlem club. But gospel does not have its roots in night clubs. It is Christian-based music sung to express a spiritual belief and finds its home in churches. And in New York City, we find the most well known in Harlem.
There is a tourist industry built around visiting the various churches, with buses and groups visiting on Sunday mornings. Harlem is one of the top tourist destinations in New York City. Few New York City residents, however, venture there. Distance from Midtown, downtown and other boroughs is somewhat a factor - for most residents, Harlem is a destination.
As pointed out in a New York Times article, this whole phenomenon is controversial:
A hint of annoyance is sometimes evident as church members complain that they are on display. One Harlem minister admitted to mixed feelings about visitors who tend to behave like members of an audience rather than as worshipers. Few bow their heads in prayer. Fewer still join in as the congregations sing from their hymnals. But, he conceded, language may be a barrier to participation.
Others point to the reality of contributions from tour companies and individuals that help finance church-based community programs. And there's some expression of begrudging respect for people who appreciate good music and are willing to venture uptown to find it.
We have the classic dual edged sword of tourism - welcomed income and unwelcomed impact that crowds of tourists have on a visited place.
On my recent excursion to Harlem, I photographed the very striking Mount Neboh Baptist Church. Unbeknownst to me, this is one of the premier church venues in Harlem for gospel music. Others include Abyssinian Baptist Church, Canaan Baptist Church and the Greater Refuge Temple. See article here.
My understanding is that the church services are extraordinarily spirited and electrifying. I plan on going, with all due respect...