East-West Thoroughfares: Africa @ 116th Street
October 31, 2013

Among the major (read: bi-directional) east-west routes that take you across Manhattan, 116th Street is an outlier. We hadn’t even put on the list of routes to try until we bumped into neighbors in the elevator who had just made the hike with their infant slumbering in the stroller.

Unlike 42nd Street, 125th Street, and Canal Street which we’ve described in previous posts, 116th Street does not stretch the full length of Manhattan. Columbia University’s campus stops it short at Amsterdam Avenue, and two blocks beyond that, Morningside Park interrupts it again. So essentially, this route takes you from Morningside Avenue in the west over to the East River.

Our neighbors did this walk with the eastern endpoint—the massive Costco and Target shopping complex—as their destination. We did it to confirm that there is still a great African vibe alive and well in Manhattan, and to explore it with our children, Riley and Halina, who have heard so much about our Peace Corps days in Madagascar and Guinea-Bissau. 

The New 125th Street

When we first moved to Morningside Heights over a dozen years ago, 125th Street was home to numerous West African shops, street vendors, and family-owned restaurants that have since disappeared. The stores have been replaced with chain businesses, and while the street bustles with vendors selling t-shirts, books, CDs, incense, and shea butter, those who carry cowry shell earrings, trade-bead jewelry, palm oil, and fufu flour are no longer in the area.

Mercifully, they are still around, and can be found up and down the central section of 116th Street, and scattered around the surrounding blocks, with the grand Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market as its too-good-to-be-true centerpiece. Situated between Malcolm X Boulevard and Lenox Avenue, this partially covered marketplace has entrances on both 116th and 115th streets. You can’t miss the grand Arabic minarets that decorate the entranceway on 116th Street. Inside you will find and so much more.

In this space, our children heard for the first time Wolof, Fula, Swahili, and Twi (Arabic, which we hear a lot in New York, was also well represented) and the vendors were eager to teach them how to exchange basic greetings in each. They were also happy to explain where they came from, what their countries were like, and how their various wares were made. For children who are around the ages of ours (7 and 10) and intrigued by the world at large, it is a riveting place to stop.

The two ends of 116th Street are rapidly gentrifying, with blocks of sleek restaurants, bakeries, renovated brownstones, and luxury apartment buildings working their way in toward the middle. To walk this route is to witness the age-old process of New York City reinventing itself.

Accessing 116th Street

You can hop on 116th Street at any number of points: the 4 or 6 trains along Lexington Avenue in the east, the 2 or 3 trains long Malcolm X Boulevard in the center, the B or C along 8th Avenue a little further west, and finally, the 1 which runs along Broadway furthest to the west. If you take the 1, then you will enjoy a stunning walk through the Columbia campus and on down through Morningside Park, which is one of our favorites.

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