Glory days: a different perspective on neighborhood change in Harlem

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A few weeks ago an old-timer whom I’ll call Bill struck up a conversation with me on a bench outside a laundromat on 116th street. According to him, the neighborhood is “gone” and will never be the same.

It’s the type of comment you hear a lot these days in rapidly changing places like Harlem, Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Oakland.

But Bill wasn’t talking about the new lux apartments and throngs of moneyed and increasingly white restaurant-goers on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. For Bill, the glory days ended definitively some 55 years ago.

In an exchange that began with some unsolicited advice on how to correctly hold my baby daughter, Bill revealed that he had spent the formative portion of his 73 years just a block from where we were sitting. The father of nine children, he had lived around the world as an adult and only recently returned to an apartment building on 116th.

When he was growing up, he said, people used to go out dancing on Friday and Saturday and not come home until Sunday morning. They were so well dressed that you couldn’t tell who was coming back from an all-night party, and who was going to church. In those days, people walked on different sides of the street depending on whether they were going uptown or down.

“People aren’t the same now,” he said. “They don’t take care with their appearance.” (In keeping with new times, perhaps, Bill himself was wearing a rumpled polo shirt, athletic shorts, and a baseball cap.)

He gestured lankily toward the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ across the street. “That used to be a movie theater,” he said. “And that one, too.” He pointed to the big church on 116th and Adam Clayton Powell with expansive posters on its walls promoting the Good News.

Harlem in those days was a big mix of people from the South and the Caribbean, he said. Blocks were sorted according to which state people originated from – there was the Georgia block, the South Carolina block, etc. There were a lot of Caribbean men married to Southern women, whom they liked “because they were so good at keeping homes.” (I didn’t get to find out more about Bill’s background except that, like the vast majority of people who have grown up in Harlem in the last 80 years, he is Black.)

The jazz musicians used to practice in the little park (now A. Philip Randolph Square) on 117th and Adam Clayton Powell. Around the corner next to Minton’s Playhouse was a big gray hotel where they all stayed. Across the street, the black doors on the side of historic Graham Court were once the entrance to the Central Park carriage horses’ stables.

I wondered whether he had read Manchild in the Promised Land, which seemed to paint a much less rosy picture of Harlem in the 1950s. Was it accurate?

“Yes, I knew Claude!” Bill replied. “But who was even better was… Oh I’m forgetting his name. It’ll come to me.” He rubbed his temple.

“Did you ever read James Baldwin?” I asked.

“Yes! That’s him,” Bill said. “Baldwin wrote seven or eight books on Harlem. He really described the life. The writers all mixed with the kids in those days.”

Everything changed in 1959, according to Bill, “when the Italians brought drugs in.” (I assumed he meant the mafia.) “They were giving them to people. They’d pay musicians in drugs instead of money.” Bill quoted Harlem population statistics as he described how the Caribbean immigrants mostly moved to Brooklyn as the neighborhood deteriorated – and that’s why the West Indian Day Parade is now on Eastern Parkway, rather than in Harlem, where it once was. People got forced out of their brownstones – “they used to own those homes!” The redlining, the neglectful landlords, everything conspired against Harlem.

I asked him if he would have said the same thing 15 years ago (before the current wave of gentrification gained energy). He frowned. For him, the glory days ended with the beginning of the 1960s.

Walking home, I looked around at a Harlem that over the last eight years I had come to love: a vibrant place where you could walk out and hear French and Wolof and Bambara and the muezzin’s call but also Keith Sweat and Drake thumping from cars, where men crowded outside the barbershops to watch ball games through the windows, where you could stumble on a Somali restaurant, and where other places served high quality food from around the world at prices better than elsewhere in Manhattan. I couldn’t accept that it wasn’t now also a treasure, if drastically different from the one Bill grew up in. What’s more, his nostalgia was for the pre-Civil Rights era – not for that aspect of the era as far as I knew, but for the neighborhood as it existed at a time when racism was far more deeply encoded in law, and more absolutely shaped where and how people lived.

The conversation was a fascinating window into a different time – a period and place that produced many famous artists, writers, and musicians. I appreciated the sweetness of Bill’s memories, and the urgency with which he shared them with a complete stranger. But it was also something of a warning: nostalgia, the idolization of past Camelots, can hide from us the good of the contemporary.

4 thoughts on “Glory days: a different perspective on neighborhood change in Harlem

  1. I can relate to where Bill is coming from. I lived in Harlem when I was an undergraduate at Columbia in the Riverton complex at 138th Street between Madison and Fifth Streets. The apartment I lived in belonged to close family friends. My Aunt Mae had died from pancreatic cancer and one of her last requests to my Uncle Neely was that he hold on to the apartment until after I had graduated. So this apartment, in this special community was a coming-of-age home for me in the mid-to-late ‘60s.

    At the time, Harlem was a mixed bag of safe blocks–all of the avenues and major streets, like 125th and 135th Streets–and quasi-safe and unsafe blocks. The community was also in transition. The beginning of the Black Power Movement of the mid-‘60s was just beginning, so between my freshman year and my senior year, dress among black students would go from “ivy league” three-piece suits to dashikis.

    I was one of the black students who participated in the takeover of Hamilton Hall at Columbia in 1968 and was proud that the Harlem Community provided the 40-or-so black students with the best meals I had ever had on Morningside Heights. My Uncle Neely knew the Manhattan Borough President at that time, Eddie Dudley, and I suspect that he had weighed in on the maneuvering, that went on when the NYPD Tactical Police Force removed us from the buildings, to ensure that we were not beaten as other protesters were in other buildings. A black police captain arrived within five minutes of the NYPD Tactical Police Force coming up from the underground tunnels. We were fortunate, in no small part because Harlem embraced us and had the political clout to make a difference in our well being.

    Harlem, as I’m sure you know, was–and may still be–considered the capital of Black America. It provided the security for the greatest flourishing of black culture that I have either read about or seen. I remember going to Micheaux’ bookstore on 125th Street just west of Lenox (Malcolm X) Boulevard and being received warmly by a middle-aged black woman who was always there who would talk to me about “Professor Micheaux” and take the time to talk about books that I showed interest in. Just seeing the collection of books about Africa and the Diaspora had a powerful effect on me, steeped in western culture as I had been. For me, the space was as much sanctuary as bookstore.

    So, Harlem was this amazing place–despite the heroin and the crime and the grimy streets–where radical black thought, the arts, and an unmuted spirit of black people created something unique in the history of the world.

    I was just in Harlem, recently, having dinner with a Columbia schoolmate of mine at a Jamaican buffet restaurant on 128th Street. We walked over to another restaurant near 125th Street to have a nightcap amidst African Muslims talking to one another, as they locked up their stores and gleeful children running around playing. The restaurants on the street, which did not exist there when I lived in Harlem, were jam packed with diners. A band was beginning to set up in the restaurant where my friend and I were having a glass of wine. It had been a hot day, but the temperature had dipped down to a point of coolness that was invigorating this Tuesday night.

    Friends of mine used to conjecture about how long it would take for Harlem to be gentrified. This was back in the late ‘60s. Harlem has the broadest boulevards in the city, ready access to the Triboro Bridge at the foot of 125th Street–leading to the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn–and some of the best subway connections of any community in Manhattan. So gentrification was always just a matter of time.

    So, Eamon, I can see both sides of Harlem, the old and the new. Some of the wistfulness of people like Bill, I am sure, is in wondering if the special spirit that made Harlem the Black Capital of the USA will survive the gentrification that has driven many long-time residents out. One evening in July is not enough for me to draw a firm conclusion, but it was enough for me to be thankful that, once again, I was home to Harlem.

    • Fred, thanks for sharing your rich memories and beautiful descriptions of Harlem!

      I relate to Bill’s wistfulness too, no doubt. As I’m sure you’ve seen from reading my blog, I think neighborhood memories are extremely important, and I think in all topics history is just about the most important aspect of context that can help us better understand our times and our surroundings.

      What was odd — to me — about Bill’s specific feelings toward Harlem is that he didn’t seem to notice or care much about the gentrification of the last 15 years. For him, everything was gone after 1959. I didn’t have the opportunity to press him on the issue, but it seemed he was willing to sort of write off not only contemporary Harlem but also the Harlem of the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s etc. — precisely the time during which so many important events occurred. (Of course, the fact that he chose to move back probably means the story is a little more complicated than what he told me.)

      I think I identify with Bill’s wistfulness so much that I am worried I could get to a place where I wouldn’t see that Harlem is still a thriving neighborhood, and still, despite everything, has a special spirit that makes it the Black Capital of the USA. It’s something that’s on my mind since I have just moved back to San Francisco, a beautiful city that has undergone pretty stunning cultural changes since my youth, mostly because it’s gotten so expensive to live here.

      Thanks again!

      • Thanks for your reply, Eamon!

        Worlds are changing. Sometimes it’s hard to see the character of the old beneath the overlay of the new. I am sure you have a heightened sense of that, returning to live in San Francisco with your wife and child for the first time, finding a city–where you have so many vibrant, youthful memories–now a place where the cost of living is making it increasingly difficult for families to survive.

        Fortunately, you have loving family there to hunker down with. While I will miss your musings on Harlem, I celebrate your return to the Bay Area, the place my spirit still calls home.

        Wishing you the best!

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