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The Real Harlem

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Camilo José Vergara
The Baby Grand bar at 319 West 125th Street, Harlem, 1977; photograph by Camilo José Vergara from Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto

Old heads in Harlem will tell you that in the 1960s, particularly after the riot of 1964, white policemen were afraid of walking an uptown beat. They were reluctant to come through even in patrol cars. Those who did were often on the take. White landlords would try to collect the rent, guns at their hips. Their black tenants defied them and in many cases the landlords walked away from their buildings, left them to run down.

Harlem was the place where you could do or get anything and get away with it. People would disappear for days into the cathouses and shooting galleries. One guy told me that at his corner of 124th Street and Lenox he once saw the garbage collectors in their truck nodding from heroin. They were parked for hours, the trash uncollected when they finally left. Delivery trucks at stoplights got held up. Sometimes a driver would be enticed by a woman to a room where he was then tied up. Down in the street, an orderly line was forming for the sale of his truck’s contents.

Drug money circulated fiercely. People could get shot in the middle of the afternoon and if you chanced to be on the street where it happened, you knew that you had seen nothing, heard nothing, and would say nothing. Many gave up because the streets and the schools were so bad, especially middle-class blacks who could at last go elsewhere. But jobs were plentiful in the city. If you didn’t like your boss, an old head told me, you could quit and have a new job by the end of the day. Some people had jobs as well as welfare. Blacks felt that they ran the place. You could pass out on a traffic island in Harlem and no one would bother you all day long. The only people around in those days were black, old heads say. If whites found themselves in Harlem, then they had to run. But you can meet whites who have spent their lives in Harlem, in their family homes, tolerated because they’d always been there, hadn’t run.

Things began to change under Mayor Ed Koch. Though the city itself had no money, black policemen in the 1970s were not afraid of Harlem. The story is that the first black police commissioner, Benjamin Ward, told dealers to get off the corners, which meant that the avenues, the main thoroughfares, were restored to ordinary people. But things fell into something worse with the coming of crack cocaine in the mid-1980s. A deranged population hunted the streets. Everything sexual and druggie went on in unbelievable numbers under the bridge at 125th Street or in Marcus Garvey Park, one block from where James Baldwin grew up on upper Fifth Avenue, across from the branch library where he read and read.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Harlem Renaissance became both a popular subject and a field of scholarship. Nothing contrasted more with the story of the glamour of Harlem’s cultural past than the paranoid ghost town Harlem mostly was at night when whole tenements were crack bazaars. Some buildings teemed with addicts, while the rest of the street held its breath behind multiple locks. Sugar Hill, West 145th Street, was gang territory. The drug violence of the 1980s, remembered in a memoir such as Lester Marrow’s The Streets of Harlem (2008), was much more deadly than anything that went on in Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (1965), one of the autobiographies that first gave us the voice of troubled Harlem youth.

New York’s first black mayor, David Dinkins, rarely gets the credit he deserves for beginning the social clean-up of the city in the early 1990s. Instead, we point to Rudolph Giuliani and his policy of Zero Tolerance. In 2000, policemen gave out tickets for drinking beer on the street even if the can was in a paper bag. In that period, real estate buyers in Harlem could not always be sure that the person trying to sell them a house actually owned it. Soon enough, real estate listings were promising buyers that Harlem properties would be delivered “vacant,” i.e., the necessary evictions would have been carried out. A white Englishman said that he was looking around a brownstone that had long ago been cut up into implausible living spaces and the next thing he knew he was standing in the kitchen of a humiliated family at dinner. It was as though an epilogue to James Weldon Johnson’s classic study, Black Manhattan (1930), were playing itself out.

Little Italy was once Little Africa; Greenwich Village was a black neighborhood when Dickens visited in 1832. Johnson’s Black Manhattan charts how the city’s development steadily moved the black population uptown. By the beginning of the twentieth century, blacks had migrated to the Tenderloin, the West 50s. But the construction of Penn Station had increased the value of the land over a wide area. On the eve of World War I, black churches followed their parishioners to Harlem, which had been connected by subway lines to the rest of the city, though it had a suburban train station. Once a Dutch farming community, it had a large German Jewish population. The black Harlem of the 1920s that Claude McKay depicts in his novel Home to Harlem (1928) is small, centered on 135th Street and Lenox Avenue. Johnson’s father-in-law was a successful realtor who led the fight to open up more housing, but black Harlem was overcrowded and overcharged from the start.

When we are incensed at the thought of the black population of Harlem forced out by developers, we are forgetting what an abandoned, boarded-up place it had become long before these developers came onto the scene. Harlem lost population from decade to decade, while Brooklyn became the largest black city in the US and a birthplace of hip-hop. The deeper problem was not the poor suddenly being forced out, but the lost cause of black people not getting bank loans to help them to reclaim anything in Harlem over the years. Someone on welfare was not going to get a loan, an old head reminded me.

Properties may have been neglected, but not everything had fallen into the city’s custody. Families still owned properties, including black families, sometimes slumlords, in their fashion. When we think that by cultural right Harlem should remain black, we are forgetting why Harlem became the capital of the Negro world in the first place. Gilbert Osofsky’s grim tale of segregation, discrimination, and disease, Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto (1965), should be kept near those cultural histories that celebrate the brilliance of Harlem’s jazz clubs or the sophistication of its numbers racket in the 1920s.

Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America (2011) by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts is an intensely literary work from a member of the post–civil rights generation. She read the great essays about Harlem and they were on her mind as she walked the streets in search of what remained. People know Harlem through literature as much as through photography or film or midcentury jazz. Rhodes-Pitts’s meditation on Harlem includes observations of the failed resistance to what used to be called gentrification. There were meetings, conferences, and corners of people desperate to confront someone, but a movement never got going; those who were offended by the lack of consultation over questions such as zoning could not make their presence matter.

In 2007, a minister with a big, made-up-denomination church on Lenox, a guy straight out of a novel about uptown hustles, tried to exploit the resentment of those who saw their access to affordable housing threatened. He proposed that Harlem boycott its merchants until prices there fell to 1990s levels. White journalists at his inaugural press conference looked at one another and departed, leaving women of a certain age to try to get the single men in the sanctuary to write down their phone numbers on clipboards.

The minister’s next scam was to present himself as a black critic of President Obama, calculating perhaps that that would bring him media attention. The brightly lit sign outside his church carries unpleasant messages about the president from time to time: “A Taliban Muslim Illegally Elected President…”

Up the street, in the next block, on Lenox Avenue between 124th and 125th Streets, a huge, fenced-in construction project is underway. Whole Foods is coming, some people say to one another with relief. Whole Foods will fix everything, they smile. Not everyone can remember what used to stand on that site.

Camilo José Vergara’s Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto tells you what had been there, because the corner of 125th and Lenox (aka Malcolm X Boulevard) is one he photographed over a period of years. Vergara prints six photographs of what had been known as the Eisleben Building on 125th, taken between 1989 and 2006. In the earliest, the large, four-story, handsome brick structure is already a faded tomb, most of its windows sealed with cement block, its street level a black retail graveyard of tin shutters. Probably late-nineteenth-century, the Eisleben’s style was typical in Harlem, even its distinctive pediment atop the main façade and the towered corner at an angle to the street. In Vergara’s photograph of 2000, the building had become a giant billboard. Subsequent photographs show different blankets of advertisement. An additional photograph, taken in 2013, shows the grassy expanse the site was for a long time, after the building had been torn down.

Longtime Harlem residents suggest that arson helped the Eisleben to its doom. A fire in the mid-1990s hastened the destruction of the Mount Morris Bank Building on Park Avenue and East 125th Street. Built in 1889, it had been derelict for years and went on deteriorating while the owner, who in 2003 had bought it from the city in the hope of establishing a culinary institute, fought legal battles with other developers. Vergara’s series of five photographs of the building, taken from 1982 to 2011, show it as the great Romanesque shell it was for years, what it looked like after fire took the top two floors, and its ground-floor stump after the city stepped in and demolished the building as a danger to public safety in 2009.

Similarly, two views of West 131st Street show the venerable Lafayette Theater in 1988 and the disappointing Methodist church in 2012 that it had been turned into, with its distinguished decoration stripped away. Or Vergara offers three wide-view photographs of altered “urban fabric” on Sugar Hill, West 145th Street and Edgecombe Avenue, W.E.B. Du Bois’s former address. In his series, the tenements of 1988 give way to the inoffensive condominiums of 2007.

A striking photograph of a film-extra, Aryan-looking New York City Marathon runner shows him pale and lean against a backdrop of ruined brownstones along Mount Morris Park West and 120th Street in 1994. There are no stoops, no windows, no doors, just black holes. The city had planned to tear them down and erect social service facilities, but neighbors organized to block the proposals. The area had been designated a historic district by the city’s landmark commission as far back as 1971. The ruins were then fenced in and forgotten. But now some of those houses are listed on the neighborhood association’s annual Harlem heritage tour.

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