From Nieuw Haarlem to “New” Harlem

Poet Langston Hughes standing on a street in Harlem

From Nieuw Haarlem to “New” Harlem*

Jonathan Gill. Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History from Dutch Village to Capital of Black America.  New York: Grove/Atlantic, 2011.

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts.  Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America.  New York: Little Brown and Company, 2011.

Jeffrey Perry. Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

If you want an interesting glimpse of what Harlem is like in 2011, go there on a Sunday morning.  Tour buses pull up to the sidewalk on 125th street and dump out scores of tourists near the Apollo Theater.  Take a walk up Seventh Avenue (now Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard).  In Harlem’s heyday, this wide boulevard was the preferred destination for Sunday “strollers,” black residents of Harlem who went to church decked out in their best formal attire and showed off on the promenade afterward.  This fashion phenomenon prompted some people to say Seventh Avenue was “like Easter Sunday 52 Sundays out of the year.”  These days Seventh Avenue on Sunday morning is clogged with “strollers” of a different sort: casually dressed tourists – many of them in blue jeans and T-shirts, which, if you know anything about black churches, is way too casual for the regal ritual of a black church Sunday morning anywhere in America.  The tourists come to Harlem and walk up and down the avenue to stop in one of the neighborhood’s churches hoping to hear some of this rousing, foot-stomping black gospel music they’ve heard so much about.  Most mornings it looks like there are more white people going into the churches than black folks. Outside of one the biggest and most popular churches, Abyssinian Baptist Church on 138th Street, the line often extends around the corner for the 11am service.  The ushers regularly have to turn dozens of tourists away.

I’m not being self-righteous when I talk about seeing white tourists in Harlem. You might even say I’m one of the parties to blame.  Since 2008 I have worked as a New York City walking tour guide.  Leading these tours, often with 25 or so people tagging along behind me, there’s no way to be inconspicuous. Heckling is a regular occurrence.  One time a middle aged black woman came up and started talking to my group. She began quizzing me about what I was telling the group.  You can never tell what’s going to happen when people stop by and cut in on a tour, but I’ve been doing this long enough to know that when New Yorkers on the street want to get chatty it is usually best to just let them speak their piece and move on.  Most of the time people turn out to be warm and interesting and informative.  Other times, they might be silly or hostile.  But it’s always interesting, so I just let it ride.  At first this particular woman began frantically pointing out some interesting places, such as a downstairs location that was once a bar where a scene from Superfly was filmed, and a corner where there was once a store owned by Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella.  Then she suddenly flipped on me, “You need to tell them to upgrade your stuff man.  You ain’t even from Harlem!” And then she walked away still muttering “He ain’t even from Harlem” and then kept shouting and pointing at me and my group from across the street.  It was then I noticed the woman wasn’t just being contrary with me, and that maybe she wasn’t all there.  But, crazy or not, she definitely had a point.

No ma’am, I ain’t from Harlem.  I was born and raised in Mississippi.  I’ve been living in New York for nine years.  I’m now a graduate student working on a Ph.D. in English.  The tour company I work for specifically hires graduate students.  Our guides are all serious researchers on New York history, but we may not necessarily be fully authentic native New Yorkers.  I am black, so I knew that I could at least play the black identity card when I started doing tours of Harlem.  I’m a graduate of Morehouse College, a historically black college in Atlanta, GA, the same school where Abyssinian Baptist Church pastor the Rev. Calvin O. Butts, III graduated (along with a number of other notable African-American men).  I have a B.A. in history, focusing on African-American history, and the dissertation I am working on deals with black literature and higher education.  But despite all of this, no, I can’t claim to be from Harlem.

I understand this kind of nativism.  That sense of ownership over place is pervasive throughout New York, but is especially prevalent in Harlem, a neighborhood with a proud history and tradition of black independence.  I don’t even need to repeat all the names of Harlem luminaries and all the important organizations that started there.  However, over the past decade gentrifiers have begun to move in.  125th St. is now filled with snazzy chain stores, (there’s an American Apparel there now for chrissakes, not to mention two Starbucks).  The price of housing has skyrocketed with new glass condos going up on the avenues.  Venerable black owned businesses have closed.  And now legions of curiosity seeking tourists are clogging the sidewalks to listen to people who aren’t even from Harlem talking about the history of the neighborhood.  I can understand why some folks might be a little sour.

But…someone else might say…New York neighborhoods have always evolved.  The Jewish immigrants have all gone from the Lower East Side.   The Italians have all gone from Little Italy.  New York’s ethnic history is one of constant movement and displacement.  This is an argument that our contemporary gentrifiers have noted well and have effectively incorporated into their arsenal.  Nativism just doesn’t work in New York. New York neighborhoods have always been a revolving door if you’re purely talking about racial and ethnic identity.  Adding economics and power to the mix, however, requires looking at things little differently.

These three recent published books all deal with the history of Harlem, this neighborhood that was once known as The Capital of Black America.  Jonathan Gill’s study of Harlem history begins in the early 1600s with the encounters between the Lenape Indians and the first Dutch explorers to set foot on the island.  Within days after the Dutch arrival there were violent clashes between the two groups.  In these first clashes between people who had been inhabiting the island for decades (at least) and these new arrivals from half a world away, Gill sees, “a foretaste of Harlem’s future.”

It is no secret that the clash of cultures has raged on in Harlem, and that tensions remain high there and in other parts of New York City as gentrification shows no sign of stopping.  Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts gives us a more intimate view of Gill’s point about the future.  In Harlem is Nowhere she tells one particularly juicy anecdote about sitting in a Harlem café near two white male yuppies, one a resident, the other a friend who was visiting the neighborhood for the first time.  The visiting friend seemed to be enjoying this trip to this exotic locale and he told the other guy, “This is fabulous…Really, you have to do something to get more people up here!” The quote is purely anecdotal, but anyone who has spent time in contemporary New York has probably overheard some version of this neo-colonial rhetoric tumbling out of the mouth of someone talking about Harlem or Washington Heights or whatever neighborhood in Brooklyn has been declared “rad” and infested by hipsters.  At first there was Nothing…then the hip, wealthy, (mostly) white people showed up….and then there was Something.  But not all of the gentrifiers are white, and that complicates matters a bit.  (At one point in her book Rhodes-Pitts ponders whether she is herself just another gentrifier.)

In his biography of Hubert Harrison, Jeffrey B. Perry explores the complexity of race and class politics in Harlem.   In the book Perry lays down his case that Harrison deserves a bigger place in the pantheon of Harlem’s great intellectual and political leaders.  As Perry describes him, Harrison was  “the most class conscious of the race radicals, and the most race conscious of the class radicals…more race conscious than [A. Philip] Randolph and [Chandler] Owen and more class conscious than [Marcus] Garvey.”  But his biography is much more than just another “Great Man” history.  Perry situates Harrison’s life in the historical and political context around him, and links Harrison’s life to the local, national and global struggle over labor power.  It this kind of understanding of the complex interaction between race and class that is precisely what is necessary to really make sense of Harlem’s past, present and future.

Jonathan Gill’s book Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History from Dutch Village to Capital of Black America is the first comprehensive history of the entire neighborhood of Harlem.  When I was beginning to learn tours, I turned to books such as Gilbert Osofsky’s Harlem the Making of a Ghetto and David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem Was in Vogue to establish a narrative of Harlem’s history from its beginning to the development of Black Harlem.  These and other books gesture toward a history of Harlem before it became black in the early 1900s, but few of them go into extensive detail about that early history. For the most part the non-black history of Harlem was tucked away in ethnic histories of Jewish, German, Irish and Italian immigrants.  For the early history of the island of Manhattan there are books such as the massive Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace.  That book, and others like it, contains some information about the founding of the Dutch village of Nieuw Haarlem in upper Manhattan in the 1650s (named for the city of Haarlem in The Netherlands).  But it appears that Jonathan Gill is the first to have gathered up all of that material, from the pre-history of New York all the way up to the latest information, and synthesized it all into a grand, epic story focused specifically on this distinct New York neighborhood.

Geographically, Harlem starts at the top of Central Park at 110th Street (Hence the title of the film and song Across 110th Street).  It stretches up to 155th Street, the northernmost of the 155 crosstown streets laid out in the original 1811 grid plan of Manhattan.  It stretches across from the Harlem River on the east side, to the Hudson River on the west side.  Within that broad expanse (a four square mile chunk of the thin island of Manhattan) there have been many Harlems over the years.  For New York history buffs Gill’s book is a treasure trove of historical information linking Harlem even more closely to the history and destiny of New York City.  For instance many people have heard of the infamous New York politician William “Boss” Tweed, who grew up on the Lower East Side and became the leader of the powerful political machine Tammany Hall.  The Tweed Courthouse downtown on Chambers St. was used by Tweed to bilk millions of dollars from the city’s coffers, and the building still sits there as one of the nation’s great symbols of political corruption.  However, Tweed’s influence extended uptown as well.  Tammany was involved in the push of speculative building that made Harlem into a residential community in the late 1800s, and they helped to filter some Irish immigrants into the neighborhood.  If you’ve been to Harlem you may have noticed how much wider the boulevards of Seventh and Lenox Avenues are than most streets in the city. From Gill’s book I learned those streets were designed that way as construction projects of the Tweed Ring.  Before he was exposed, Tweed was even planning another city building in Harlem like his downtown courthouse to make some more money disappear. It was the political cartoonist Thomas Nast, whose scandalous drawings eventually helped to publicize Tweed’s corruption.  Nast also lived in Harlem near 125th Street and 5th Avenue.

To illustrate the neighborhood’s history, Gill focuses on several other notable New Yorkers who have called Harlem home.  German Jewish entrepreneur Oscar Hammerstein lived in West Harlem.  His son Oscar Hammerstein II eventually teamed up with Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart to change the landscape of American music (drawing inspiration from the jazz music that eventually spilled out of the clubs of black Harlem.) There was also an Italian settlement in East Harlem.  The famous uptown restaurant Rao’s, which is still open on 114th Street, is one of the last vestiges of Italian East Harlem.  In the late 1920’s the Puerto Rican community of East Harlem began to take form, eventually evolving into the vibrant neighborhood affectionately known as El Barrio.  If I have one minor gripe with Gill’s book it is that his treatment of Puerto Rican Harlem gets lost in the shuffle as he moves on to discuss the ascent of black Harlem in the 1920s. The history of black Harlem itself is well-trod territory, but Gill deftly lays it all out here.  He capably sorts out the complex history of real estate in 1904 to 1907 involving Philip Payton the founder of the Afro-American Realty Company.  Payton was the man credited with placing the first black families on the blocks around 134th St. that would become the epicenter of black Harlem.

Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America grapples with the cultural, literary, and political legacy of this black neighborhood that formed when black families began to fill up the residential buildings that were thrown up in a fierce fit of speculation, a run which bottomed out with a real estate bust in the 1890s. The book is a creative mix of memoir, literary criticism and journalism woven into a first person narrative about a young black American intellectual as she moves to Harlem.  Rhodes-Pitts creatively captures the persistent attraction of Harlem by writing about some of the great characters in Harlem literature – from Helga Crane in Nella Larsen’s 1928 novel Quicksand to the nameless narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  Rhodes-Pitts took the book title from an Ellison essay.  The concept of “Harlem is Nowhere” might seem a little flippant, but she (and Ellison) intended it to be a provocation.  The phrase does capture a certain essential quality about Harlem – that it has existed as much as a dream as a physical reality.  The dreams of Harlem – this mecca of blackness, this refuge from discrimination and indignity – did not take long to fade after the 1920s had passed and when the harsh realities of impoverished urban life began to set in for these agrarian Southerners who had moved there.  As Langston Hughes famously said, “The ordinary Negroes hadn’t heard of the Negro Renaissance. And if they had, it hadn’t raised their wages any.”

The phantasmic quality of Harlem is surely something to reconsider now that the place has transformed from a shining hope of black self-determination, and then into a drug and crime addled slum in the 1970s, and now into the potential paradise for rich Manhattanites who fall low enough in the ranks of the merely rich that they’ve been priced out of the West Village and Tribeca by the über-rich. Gill’s book ends on a somewhat triumphalist note, lauding the arrival of corporate charter schools and chain stores and Columbia University’s multi-million dollar expansion into West Harlem. However, Sharifa Rhodes- Pitts takes us inside the heated community meetings and listens to the grievances of working class black Harlemites who have organized against the city’s aggressive removal of businesses such as the Mart 125 where vendors operated a market on 125th Street.  People are still trying to fight the good fight, but a sense of resignation and defeat is starting to set in.  The tide has already turned. Rhodes-Pitts mentions seeing a young Harlemite at one rally wearing a T-Shirt that said, “Harlem isn’t for sale because Harlem has already been sold.”

Since the publication of Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918 in the fall of 2009 historian Jeffrey Perry has been working tirelessly to spread the word about the life and work of this grossly undervalued black Caribbean intellectual.  A look at Perry’s website reveals a steady stream of speaking engagements at universities, libraries, community bookstores and labor organizations.  (I saw Perry give a presentation on Harrison here at the CUNY Graduate Center last year.) The book is not just a simple biographical narrative of Hubert Harrison’s life.  Instead, Perry meticulously reconstructs the social and intellectual history surrounding Harrison, and gives a thorough interpretation of Harrison’s political activism and his literary output.  For instance, Perry does not simply write about Harrison’s early life in St. Croix where he was born in 1883.  He also examines the history of the transatlantic slave trade and the impact that the legacy of the slave trade and post-slavery labor structures had on the Caribbean.  Hubert Harrison came to Manhattan in 1900 and settled into the neighborhood known as San Juan Hill in the west 60s, which was then the biggest cluster of black citizens in New York.  When Perry writes about Harrison’s move to New York and Harlem, he puts him in the context of the history of black New Yorkers and the struggle for racial and economic justice in the city.

Harrison was heavily involved in the labor movement, working at various points as a postal worker, then with the Socialist Party USA, and also with the American Federation of Labor. He was also the editor of the Negro World, the newspaper of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and he wrote prodigiously throughout his life.  Harrison was well-known around Harlem as a soapbox orator and an independent lecturer.  He never attended college, but was a fierce autodidact.  Perry describes his voracious reading habits and his diligent commitment to writing and independent education.   In his time Harrison was recognized as a major talent by contemporaries such as A. Philip Randolph who called him “The Father of Harlem Radicalism.”  But for complex reasons – including poverty and politics – he faded from memory.  In particular Perry makes the case that Harrison’s commitment to atheism and freethought put him on the wrong side of the black political structure which has long been rooted in religion, and especially in the protestant Christian black churches. Harrison was a vocal critic of the black churches, which were too often fiefdoms of charismatic individuals.  The emphasis on spiritual escapism pulled people away from the historical materialism that he felt was necessary to understand the position of the black working classes, and the workings of race as mode of social control.

Because of all of this detailed historical analysis, which sometimes strays away from the specific details of Harrison’s life, I have to say the biography is a bit of a dense slog to read through. From hearing Perry’s lectures and from reading other reviews and articles about Harrison, I was familiar enough with the material that I did not get completely lost.  But for a reader who is new to Harrison, perhaps a better place to start would be The Hubert Harrison Reader (Wesleyan, 2001), Perry’s edited anthology of Harrison’s writings.  The introduction to the Reader is a more succinct primer on Harrison’s life, and the essays in the collection provide an opportunity to hear Harrison’s unfiltered voice as a writer.  On its own terms though, the biography is an impressive work of intellectual history that traces the context and circumstances of Harrison’s life, and analyzes the way that his thinking about race and class developed over his lifetime and helped to shape Harlem politics at the dawn of the “Harlem Renaissance.”  And about that so-called “renaissance” Harrison was circumspect.  In an essay on the idea of a “Negro Literary Renaissance” Harrison emphasized that most of the critics who were touting the literary production of 1920s Harlem as a “renaissance” were, in fact, overlooking “the stream of literary and artistic products which had flowed uninterruptedly from Negro writers from 1850 to the present.”  Though he dismissed the talk of renaissance as a white downtown fad, Harrison nevertheless took seriously the actual artistic production of his Harlem contemporaries, and he wrote numerous reviews of poetry, novels and plays.

In one chapter of Harlem is Nowhere, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts dishes out some tough love to Harlem.  Well, she isn’t doing the dishing herself so much as she delves into the critiques from some black leaders that black Harlemites had not done enough to buy up property in Harlem and secure a black future for the neighborhood.  This is a critique that I also heard from several black leaders at an event in Harlem last year.  In her chapter “Land is the Basis of All Independence” she touches on an important idea when she writes about how some people in Harlem falsely subscribe to the idea that blacks have invested a valuable “sweat equity” into the neighborhood that should give them a right to the space, even if they don’t “own” property on paper.  That may be true, but the fact is the wealthy have the state power and the financial power to impose their will whether it’s on the Brooklyn waterfront in Williamsburg or on Lenox Avenue uptown.  It is hard not to make all of this sound like the usual litany of grievances about institutional racism and the historical legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. But, well, this is about the institutional racism and the historical legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.  Millions of blacks were brought to the Americas to work on plantations, subjected to a dehumanizing segregation under Jim Crow, essentially re-enslaved again in the post-Reconstruction era in exploitative sharecropping arrangements, and then subjected to a litany of injustices throughout the 20th century – from lynching to false imprisonment to red-lining and financial discrimination to the assassinations of black political leaders.  And somehow, in the midst of all that, black folks were somehow supposed to find the time and resources to buy up property and secure the neighborhood from gentrification.

Of course now that there is a black guy with the improbable name of Barack Hussein Obama II in the White House, some people are even less willing to hear such grievances. That’s just the rub:  Token diversity is the biggest weapon that the upper class uses against any accusations of inequality or, god forbid, white supremacy (a concept Hubert Harrison explored thoroughly in his political thought).  What is happening in Harlem now is bigger than that neighborhood, bigger than New York, bigger even than the United States.  The biggest lie of the “free-market” cheerleaders is the idea of a free market itself.  There is no accumulation of private wealth without active and aggressive state intervention to tip the scales in favor of the rich.  One way to do that is by making labor organizing illegal, as is happening in Wisconsin right now. All throughout New York the wealthy overclass is gobbling up space to create their own heavily policed and privatized suburban utopia.  But like the city of Fritz Lang’s classic film Metroplis, somebody has to be down below turning the gears in order to make the city work.  In this case, the people below the city are actually outside of it, pushed out to Queens and Brooklyn, New Jersey and Long Island and coming in to Manhattan to serve at the feet of the rich.  This was a city that once took pride in its viable working class. Now the best people hope for is to be buried with one of the Pharaohs.

I still love this city.  For better or worse I have made it my home for almost a decade and I plan to be here even longer.  The going is rough sometimes.  I am no trust-funder and this is not a great time to be looking for an academic career in the humanities. But I have enjoyed my walks through Harlem, even with the heckling.  Learning about New York history has deepened my appreciation for the city in ways I never imagined when I moved here.  I don’t have any positive notes of hope to say that something good will happen to the disenfranchised people of Harlem before they get completely wiped away in favor of their wealthier counterparts.  But these books make me hopeful that someone else out there might be reading, and dreaming, and scheming, and coming up with some kind of plan to help save our souls, and the soul of this city.

*[This article was first published in the March 2011 issue of the GC Advocate]

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