Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Harlem Collage

I created this little collage of Harlem from photographs I took during my visit -- from my hotel on the far right to the extraordinary New York transit system on the far left top. More photos follow.

Harlem: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
by Charlie Leck

My little visit (5 days) to Harlem over the New Years Weekend has set me to thinking about that place -- about the image and visceral feeling the name calls to mind, and about the realities of Harlem as it was, is and will soon be.

What does the mention of Harlem bring to mind? Violence and black segregation? Malcolm X and his assassination in 1965? The freeing of the slaves? Black migration into the north? Black music and cultural accomplishment?

As a child and young boy, I thought of Harlem as that part of the world into which one did not venture. Once, when I was probably about 11 or 12 years old, at a subway stop at 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, I slid off my #6 train that was headed into downtown, where I was to meet up with my older sister. The train is elevated at that point and I wandered over to a part of the station where I could look out over the world of East Harlem. There was no way that I would have ventured down the staircase to the street. It was enough of a daring adventure to get off the train to look out over this magical, black part of the city.

Harlem encompasses an area of uptown Manhattan north of 96th Street (north of the Park), moving north all the way to Washington Heights. It's bounded on the east by the Harlem River and runs west to Saint Nicholas Avenue and beyond.

I'll present a brief, little history of Harlem, in case you're interested, but, before I do, here are some contemporary photographs.

Correcting a Myth
Before going further, let's stomp on a myth. Harlem is not the largest black community and not even the largest in New York City. Jamaica in the Queens is larger and so is Bedford-Stuyvesant. But, as Manning Marable tried to explain on the Columbia University web site, Harlem is something special for most black Americans.
" the imagination of black people throughout the world, and of people throughout the world, regardless of race and culture and ethnicity, Harlem is a site of black urbanism, it's a site of black culture, it's a site of imagination, it's magical terrain, where anything is possible and all kinds of creativity can be, and has been produced."
A good point to hop off...
The following treatment of Harlem is not brief, as I expected it to be when I began writing here. The subject just grew more and more fascinating as I proceeded and, even though I left out much that could have been included, this essay just grew and grew in length. So, if you are not interested in spending the time, learning about the Harlem of yesterday and today, this is a good point for you to hop off. Get off the subway here at 125th Street and head back downtown for more playtime in glorious New York City. We'll see you here at the blog another time.

A Little History of Harlem
The original village of Harlem was established by Dutch immigrants and was called Nieuw Harlem after the Harlem of the Netherlands. It 1658, the Dutch Governor, Peter Stuyvesant, established the village. The eastern portion of the community was flat and moist and it made for wonderful farming. The more hilly, rocky and rugged western portion of the area became home for many of New York City's most illustrious early families -- the Delanceys, Bleekers, Rikers and Hamiltons. They built and maintained large estates that looked out over the lower farmland to the east.

Things changed for Harlem in the 1830s, when the farmland got played out and tough economic times visited the entire nation. The great Harlem estates were closed down and broken up into small plats and the farms were abandoned. The neighborhood became a refuge for those who could not afford property in other parts of the city and the destitute built up shantytowns. Compared to the rest of Manhattan, the area remained very rural in character.

The entire New York metropolitan area began to grow rapidly following the Civil War. Transportation within the entire city was also improving. Harlem was transformed into a middle and upper-middle income neighborhood. In 1881, three elevated rail lines were built to connect upper Manhattan with the rest of the developed city. At first, the lines extended only to 129th Street, but, in 1886 they were extended much further north.

In the 1870s there was a great deal of speculative development in Harlem and many types of new single-family housing was built, including row houses, tenements and luxury apartment houses. Churches were established and many commercial establishments were also built. The western half of Harlem was considered the more fashionable area and was home to the more prosperous of those who established residences there. Many of the residents of the downtown area began to relocate into Harlem.

Additional new transportation routes into western Harlem brought with them even more real estate speculation and market values became very inflated. By 1904, virtually all the vacant land in Harlem had been built upon. The speculation led to overbuilding and there were an enormous amount of vacancies and, finally, a real estate collapse. Property values and rental rates dropped wildly. Loans went unpaid and foreclosures became common. By the end of 1905, landlords had dropped rents to drastically low rates in order to attract tenants.

Philip Payton, an ambitious black businessman, took great advantage of the situation. In 1904, he founded the Afro-American Realty Company, and began acquiring five-year leases on many white-owned properties. His little company managed them and rented them to to African-Americans. New York's black population, anxious for better homes and housing, began renting from Payton's company. They came from other sections of New York where blacks had settled -- Hell's Kitchen, San Juan Hill and the Tenderloin.

Harlem looked like heaven to these African-American families who happily moved there. The community's broad and tree-lined streets and all those lovely, up-to-date homes made it very special. There was no more attractive community in all of America that was also available to African-Americans.

In the period immediately prior to and during World War I, Northern manufacturers kept recruiting southern blacks to come north to work in their factories. The population of cities like Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit and New York grew rapidly, swelled by in-coming southern black folks.

Yet, Harlem was identified as the Capital of Black America. And, the grand Abyssinian Baptist Church seemed to be the Capital Building of the black nation. The massive church is located at 132 West 138th Street, between Lenox Avenue and 7th Avenue (Malcolm X Boulevard and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard). Under the leadership of Pastor Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., the Abyssinian congregation moved into Harlem and broke ground for their current "edifice" in 1922. Organized in 1808, far downtown from their current location, the congregation claims to be the first organized black Baptist Church in the state of New York.

The popular German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, worshiped frequently at Abyssinian Baptist in the early '30s. It had a great influence upon his thinking and he frequently wrote about it and the effect it had on his decision to stand up to the social and racial injustice of the Nazi Reich. I've written at length, here on my blog, about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The big church made significant contributions to the cultural life of Harlem. It was a center for non-secular music and is still today the seat for the great tradition of gospel music in Harlem. Fats Waller's father was a minister at the church for a time. Nat King Cole was married there and the funeral of W.C. Handy ("the Father of the Blues") was held there.

If not still the most powerful institution in Harlem, it certainly remains one of the most powerful ones under the direction of its current pastor, the Reverend Calvin O. Butts.

No name in Harlem rings with a sense of more power than that of Adam Clayton Powell. The Senior Powell turned the leadership of the Abyssinia church over to his son, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., in 1935. At that time, it was the largest Protestant congregation in all of the United States.

The younger Powell used this local church as a power base to rise to a position of virtual leadership of the black political movement in the United States. At the age of 37, he began a 26 year tenure in the United States House of Representatives as the Congressman from Harlem. He was the first African-American elected to Congress from New York. In 1961, he took up the chairmanship of the Education and Labor Committee. During his chairmanship came the passage of a great deal of important social legislation.

Powell played the power game as many white Congressmen had played it before him. He won many favors for Harlem while sometimes staining and straining his own reputation. Nevertheless, he was admired and, perhaps, revered in his own home district. As a first-term Congressman he challenged the "whites only" House restaurant and often brought black constituents into the dining room with him. He also clashed publicly with some of the segregationists within his own party. As a result of Powell's protests and formal complaints, the leadership finally stopped southern, segregationist Congressmen from using the word "nigger" on the floor of the House. In '56, he broke with his party and supported the candidacy of the Republican, Dwight Eisenhower, for President.

Many of New York's most powerful political interests (Tammany Hall) tried to oust Powell from office, but the good Reverend-Congressman always had the support of the huge Abyssinian congregation. By the mid-60s, Powell was constantly criticized for absenteeism and for general mismanagement of his committee budget. He took frequent trips, at public expense, to his personal retreat on the island of Bimini. He also refused to pay a slander judgment back in his home district and that made him subject to arrest, so he spent all his time away from the community he represented. His power base, naturally, began to diminish. Early in '67 he lost his committee chairmanship and the House refused to seat him and finally excluded him. In a special election back in his district, he won his seat back, but never took it. In '69, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the House had acted unconstitutionally when it excluded Powell. Minus his seniority, Powell returned to the House.

Charlie Rangel defeated Powell in a Democratic Primary in 1970 and Powell's political career came to an end. He resigned as Pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church and established his home in Bimini. He died in 1972 at the age of 63.

By 1923, approximately 150,000 blacks lived in Harlem; and by 1930 there were more than 225,000 living there.

The black migration into Harlem continued throughout the 20s. People came in droves from the West Indies and from the southern states. It would be wrong to say there was no racism in New York, but compared to the south, blacks found New York remarkably free. They could go into any store. Eat anywhere. Drink from any water fountain. And, vote! And blacks who came to Harlem from the south wrote home to other blacks in the south and encouraged them to come and join them in this land of freedom and (relative) prosperity.

Rents began to rise dramatically as the demand for housing increased, even while landlords began neglecting routine repairs and general maintenance. Many renters were forced into taking in boarders in order to make payments and, in many cases, families doubled up in units that had clearly been intended for only a single family.

As one walks around present-day Harlem, one is struck by the numbers of churches. They are everywhere. The church has played such a central part in the story of African-Americans and one sees that clearly in Harlem.

Jewish Harlem & Harlem's Grand Churches
Until the period of World War I, Harlem had retained a strong Jewish population. There were several major synagogues in the community and several more not so major ones. Writing in the New York Times, David Dunlaps said: "In its churches, of all places, Harlem reveals its Jewish past."

"The synagogues of Harlem," Dunlaps wrote, "have served as Christian churches far longer than they were used for Jewish worship."

Congregation Ohab Zedek is now the Baptist Temple Church near the corner of Fifth Avenue and 116th Street.

At 25 West 188th Street, the Bethel Way of the Cross Church of Christ was originally built in 1900 as Congregation Shaare Zedek.

The Salvation and Deliverance Church at 37 116th Street was once Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein's Institutional Synagogue.

Tikvath Israel, at 160 East 112th Street, is now Christ Apostolik Church of U.S.A..

Mount Neboh Baptist Church, at 1883 7th Avenue, was once Congregation Ansche Chesed.

Mount Olivet Baptist Church, on the corner of Lenox Avenue and 120th Street, was built in 1907 as Temple Israel.

Temple B'nai Israel on West 149th Street, after some years of abandonment, has become the Gospel Missionary Baptist Church.
"It is as if Jewish Harlem sank 70 years ago beneath the waves of memory, beyond recall.

"At least until you spy the Star of David medallions atop the Baptist Temple Church. Or the cornerstone of the Mount Neboh Baptist Church that says it was built in 5668. Or the marble pediment leading to the baptismal pool at the Mount Olivet Baptist Church, on which is inscribed the Old Testament verse: 'Jehovah is in his holy temple; be silent, before him, all the earth.'"
The over population and the declining living conditions of the 20s and 30s prompted the Jews to flee. They, unlike the black population, were able to move easily into other parts of the city (new buildings were being constructed in the Jackson Heights, Astoria and Grand Concourse neighborhoods of the Bronx, under new tax incentive laws that had been passed by the city in an attempt to meet housing needs) or into the urban areas of bordering states. Nearly 175,000 Jews had once lived in Harlem. In 1920, cencus figures show that 2,260 Jews lived in North Harlem. Only 430 were left in 1930 and there were barely any by 1940.

Harlem's Decline
had its roots in its great popularity and in several economic and real estate disasters. In the 20th Century it would never again be that elegant and lovely African-American community that black people the world over had found when they began arriving there in the early 1900s.

Now, until stalled by the most recent economic crisis, there appeared to be a rebirth and a reconstruction going on in Harlem. Certainly, that recovery and renewal will have to take a momentary breath as the nation recovers from this recession, but it looks like Harlem is on the rise again. It's becoming one of the more affordable in-places to live and one senses that the white population in Harlem is increasing.

Politics in Harlem
Harlem has had a larger influence on politics in America than any other black or African-American region in the country. Why so, for a community smaller than many others? Because it is on the island of Manhattan and that is where things in New York City happen. It's a more prestigious black community than other such neighborhoods in New York City or America.

Harlem has produced a long list of political heavyweights that have had an amazing impact on both New York and the nation. They run from Adam Clayton Powell to Al Sharpton. There are other names instantly recognizable to anyone who follows politics and national politics -- Charlie Rangel, David Dinkins (the only black mayor New York City has ever had), and, of course, Malcolm X.

Famous African-American Residents of Harlem
One would need to go on and on to list the famous residents of Harlem. I can't do that in this space; however, I can give you a teasing taste of a few of these distinguished people.

A. Philip Randolph,
labor leader and Harlem journalist, is best known as the organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first successful African American union. Randolph came to Harlem in 1911, wanting to become an actor. In 1917, with a Columbia student, Chandler Owen, Randolph began to edit and publish the socialist magazine The Messenger. It published union news and stories about world-wide radicals, but it also presented both literary criticism and the creative writing of well-known
African American intellectuals, including Paul Robeson and Claude McKay. Randolph was one of the distinguished marchers on Washington in 1963.

Langston Hughes,
Harlem poet and writer, lived "down the street from Columbia, and Columbia never took the time to find out what he was about." So said a Columbia professor at the school's memorial service for Hughes. He "even attended Columbia for a while, and yet he never received an honorary degree from here. When we buried him, then we gave him a memorial. But, after all, that's the experience of the black man down the street from Columbia."

Hughes himself said that "there are many barriers people try to break down... I try to do it with poetry."

He was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902 and died in 1967. He wrote his first poetry while he was in high school. Hughes came from Cleveland, Ohio, to New York to study at Columbia University. His father, who lived in Mexico, had agreed to provide the tuition if Hughes would study engineering. Though his grades at Columbia were acceptable, he became much more interested in the activities in nearby Harlem than those at the University.
Hughes spent some time working as a seaman, traveling to West Africa, and then in Paris in the late 20s as part of that ex-patriot community there. He returned to America and enrolled at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and studied as a classmate of Thurgood Marshall. After receiving his degree from Lincoln, Hughes settled down in Harlem and spent the rest of his life there, writing. His remains are interred beneath a floor medallion within the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.

Many of his poems are exceptionally familiar, but I'm most taken by The Negro Speaks of Rivers:

"I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers"
There's much that could be said about Langston Hughes and his philosphy, his sexuality, his black pride and his poetry style; but it is probably most important to point out that he was at the beginning of the revolutionary movement of "black pride" and he was unashamedly and joyfully black. That attitude permeates his work.

Bayard Rustin,
moved to Harlem, from Pennsylvania, in 1937. He would live there, until his death, for the next 50 years. Though working behind the scenes, he was certainly one of the important civil right activists. He often counseled with Martin Luther King, Jr. on matters of protest and nonviolent resistance. He was one of the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Toward the end of his life, he became a strong advocate for gay and lesbian causes. His own sexual orientation had led to many attacks upon him by both conservative organizations and government offices, including by Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr..

Just before his death in 1987, Rustin said:

"Twenty-five, thirty years ago, the barometer of human rights in the United States were black people. That is no longer true. The barometer for judging the character of people in regard to human rights is now those who consider themselves gay, homosexual, lesbian."
Thurgood Marshall,
was born in 1908 and lived until January of 1993. A lawyer and jurist, he became the first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. As a lawyer he is most remembered for his success in urging the Supreme Court to rule favorably on Brown v. Board of Education.

Scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Thurgood Marshall on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.

Malcolm X
is familiar to almost all of us. His autobiography is, as it should be, essential and required reading in nearly every liberal arts college in America. I've written about Malcolm X in a previous blog and I refer you to that if you'd like to read about my feelings about him. Suffice it to say here, a major thoroughfare in Harlem, formerly Lenox Avenue, has been renamed Malcolm X Boulevard. One feels this extraordinary man's presence and spirit everywhere in Harlem.

Scott Joplin,
is only one of many great musicians who lived in Harlem. Why would I pick him rather than so many others, like Lena Horne? I guess it's because I liked his music so much myself. Great notes! Great sound! Man!

Joplin was Mr. Ragtime and no figure is regarded as highly in that genre. He was born in 1868 and died, too young, in 1917. Long after his death his music is still popular and certainly enjoyed a burst of popularity after the movie, The Sting, with Paul Newman and Robert Redford

Joe Louis,
was an extraordinary boxer, who became the Heavy Weight Champion of the world when it meant something. He is regarded as one of America's best known athletes. He was born in 1914 and died in 1981.

Paul Robeson,
was an extraordinary example of the man for all seasons and reasons. The tale of his life is nearly impossible to believe because it seems, to we ordinary folks, to be nearly unaccomplishable.

Robeson was an actor, an athlete, a concert singer (Basso cantante), writer, civil rights activist and much, much more. He was multi-lingual. Among other awards during his life, he won the Lenin Peace Prize. He ranks among those Americans I most admire. I urge you to read more about him by clicking here.

He was born in 1898 in New Jersey. He studied at Rutgers University and went on to fame as an athlete, actor and vocalist. He died in 1976.

my trip there made a huge impact on me and I'm so glad I got to know that part of the world better.

Welcome to Harlem: A History of Harlem (web site)
Columbia 250: History of Harlem (Columbia University web site)
Kaperman, Libby: When Harlem was Jewish [Columbia University Press, New York, 1979]
Wikipedia (various entries in this on-line encyclopedia)

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