Globetrotters in Harlem: the case of ‘ghetto’ tourism
comment Comment Written by on September 30, 2008 – 3:53 pm

Do tourists visit Harlem merely to gawp at poor, black people? The following is an extract from an article on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site by a Harlem resident, Lola Adesioye.

“I’m still struggling to get to grips with tourists’ fascination with coming into a poor area, one still considered by many to be a “ghetto”, just to watch black people eat, worship and generally go about their daily lives – as if deprivation is somehow interesting and the way in which black people socialise really is so different from other Americans.”

Just as India has “slum tours”, Brazil offers the “favela experience” and South Africa serves up township “poorism”, now Harlem is the must-see place to get down with, and get photos of, people less privileged than yourself.

Or is it?

As some of the blog respondents point out, isn’t the Afro-American heritage likely to be more of a draw than poverty? I think many residents would be rather unhappy slotting modern Harlem into the slum/favela/township category.

One blog respondent, Raz, says:

I intend to visit Harlem on my next visit to NYC. Not to gawp at poor people but because it’s another part of the jigsaw of a fascinating city. I’m not sure that you can live in an historical neighborhood and not expect tourists. Lola, I’m sure you’ve visited Chinatown. How did you feel about that?

I’d have to agree with Raz. As a home of jazz music, soul-food restaurants, gospel churches, historical sites and hip-hop, Harlem has all the hallmarks of a tourist attraction.

Two years ago, I went on a hip-hop tour of Harlem (tour guide Grandmaster Caz, pictured above). Admittedly, it was a group tour on bus, which is never my favourite form of tourism, but I did it to get to know another one of the city’s neighbourhoods and learn about the origins of a genre of music that became part of my own youth on the other side of the Atlantic. I certainly didn’t do it to get my fix of “deprivation”; my motivations were no different from doing a Bob Dylan tour of Greenwich Village.

Back to the idea of poorism or favela tourism, it’s never going to be simple right/wrong, black/white case. Each experience depends on the individual tourist’s attitude, as Lola concedes. If the alternative is to visit all other neighbourhoods and ignore the so-called “black areas”, I can’t see that this would be preferable.

Admittedly, bus tours aren’t ideal and seem to jar with something as personal as church worship (Harlem church trips are very popular among tourists), but it is up to the congregations to decide whether to accept this or not. Meanwhile, tour guides are in the ideal position to breakdown inevitable preconceptions.

The best advice from Lola comes in her parting words. “I’d encourage anyone coming to Harlem to get off the bus, sit in a bar or cafĂ© and talk to some locals.” Travel networking anyone?

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