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.