Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Harlem

Mother A.M.E. Zion Church. Photo by DennisInAmsterdam on Flickr.

The late Hal Rothman, a historian of western tourism, decried the “Devil’s Bargains” that he argued are an ineluctable side effect of dependence on tourism. Over the past few decades, tourists in New York City have begun to outnumber congregants in the pews of many historic Harlem churches.  Seeking the “authenticity” of African American gospel choirs, tourists are subtly or not so subtly changing the dynamics of Sunday morning in Harlem.  Interestingly, as one recent Associated Press story reveals, the presence of camera-toting tourists from around the globe meets with a spectrum of opinions, for the interlopers have the power both to disrupt services and to fill the collection plate with dollars that surely translate into everything from paying the electric bill to tuckpointing bell towers.  One wonders, in the long run, whether Harlem churches’ experience of tourism will come to resemble the outside exploitation of Hopi and Havasupai peoples by the Santa Fe Railway – which sold its own stereotyped version of Indian culture on the South Rim of Grand Canyon – or the work of the merchant Look Tin Eli to channel tourists toward less culturally demeaning understandings of San Francisco Chinatown even as his colorful pagoda-like facade additions effectively rolled out a red carpet.  In Harlem, as in a number of the places chronicled in American Tourism: Constructing a National Tradition, the decision to repel or embrace tourism is anything but simple.

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