Neal Shoemaker speaks enthusiastically about sharing the rich cultural history of America’s most famous Black community with the millions of visitors who are eager to learn about the many different people who make up New York’s ethnic mosaic. “Heritage tourism is hot and Black communities are filled with heritage,” he says. “Harlem and communities like it have a great opportunity to capitalize on their heritage.”
Shoemaker has seized that opportunity himself. In 1998, at the age of 30, he founded Harlem Heritage Tours, offering bus and walking tours to a variety of cultural attractions, including well-known clubs, galleries, churches, theaters and restaurants, with an emphasis on jazz, gospel, hip-hop, art, poetry and dance. Within the last 10 years, he says, Harlem has become a heavily requested tourist destination. Some 35 million tourist dollars were spent in New York last year, and many of those visitors wanted to see culture, he says. “[I’m] taking the people to places that they would not see, via a diverse range of tour packages, thus spreading the tourist dollar,” says Shoemaker.
Harlem Heritage Tours partners with local business owners in the retail and food industry, as well as with jazz clubs, museums and art galleries, to create its tour packages. “People from all over the world are taking the tours and taking the positive message about Harlem back to their homes,” Shoemaker says. Operating as a community-based business, his firm is an example of what tourism can do for Black communities throughout the world, he says.
Not only has he managed to use tourism to show off the culture of Harlem, but he also is making a tangible contribution to the local economy, he boasts. The most important part of that contribution is the creation of jobs, he says, noting that those who guide the tours are those who know the areas best—the residents of the community. “For heritage tourism to really work, it has to be expressed via the people who live in the community. They can articulate the way only someone from the area can,” Shoemaker says. “Tourists want to see the community through the eyes of those who are from Harlem.”
Shoemaker has incorporated modern technology into the tour program. He has developed, for example, a Multi Media Heritage Bus Series in which archival footage, rare prints and recordings are projected from his laptop to provide more information about the sites visited during regular bus tours. In addition, he has designed an attractive and informative Web site at www.harlemheritage.com to draw more foreign, national and local attention to Harlem in general and to Harlem Heritage Tours in particular. Visitors to the site are greeted with the image of a Harlem street in the 1920s and the banner “Harlem Is Where the Heritage Is.” Each subsequent page carries photographs of the community and its residents, depicting scenes of Harlem life past and present.
Harlem Heritage Tours is more than a tour operator and contributor to the local economy, Shoemaker says. By celebrating the community’s history, thereby preserving it for future generations, the company is also an active participant in the community’s cultural renaissance, he says.
While the tours have gained prominence on the New York tourist circuit, selling them to different audiences, specifically to the Black and Hispanic market, remains a challenge, Shoemaker says. He also has to be constantly mindful of the community’s sensitivities. “One of the ongoing challenges is to use tourism in a social and culturally appropriate manner in an effort not to destroy the very thing that people are interested in seeing.”
Shoemaker has big plans for the future. “Our goal is to duplicate what we have done in Harlem in other Black communities in the United States and abroad. If the model works here, we can make it work in our sister communities elsewhere,” he says.