This Was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait, 1900-1950
Harlem exists in retrospect, in the memory of grandparents or elderly cousins, those “old-timers” ever ready with their geysers of remembered scenes. The legends of “Black Mecca” are preserved in the glossy musicals of Times Square and in texts of virtually every kind. Jervis Anderson’s cool and carefully researched This Was Harlem is a valuable primer. Strong feeling for the place has been passed down—and that is what remains. Walking its avenues in search of what was fills me with the sadness that comes from squandered intimacy. The mere presence of the Schomburg Collection is very moving, as is Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theater of Harlem, the last true jewel in the brooch.
The borders of Harlem today are hard to fix, so many of the blocks in that direction look like slum. But deep at its heart the “Negro capital of the world” has thousands detained in a sort of quarantine. No exit? The middle class is still entrenched in the Dunbar, in Graham Court, in the beaux arts houses by Stanford White. Money builds the usual moats. But the grandchildren of Strivers Row are at Dalton or Collegiate. The hostess A’Lelia Walker’s great granddaughter is more likely to fly from Radcliffe to a pied-a-terre on Central Park West than to revisit the “Dark Tower” at 80 Edgecombe Avenue, the Walker salon so famous during Harlem’s golden age.
On a blistering summer day 125th Street offers its “poem of display”—carts of bargain clothes, false gold laid out on squares of fake velvet, “freedom wigs” mounted on poles, and speakers hoisted above record shacks from which the funky anthems blare. The crowd flows, a Niagara of traffic, never breaking stride, not even at the curb where small domestic dramas are acted out. Upbeat articles and sincere documentaries routinely appear like metermen to herald rebirth. Still trucking, they say. Everything’s kopasetic and to hint otherwise is to spread slander.
Langston Hughes once gazed with longing on those mean streets from his Columbia dormitory. Since then Morningside Park has become a DMZ and new students ride in terror of emerging at the wrong 116th Street. Take the A train? The revived Cotton Club—the old one didn’t let blacks in—is ersatz Vegas. The Hotel Theresa, also once segregated, is a hive of offices and Castro’s sojourn there has sunk into the lore of its corridors. Lewis Michaux is dead, the Apollo is in another coma, but somewhere, 127th Street perhaps, Van Der Zee survives. What Harlem always was beneath the magic is starkly clear. “Ah, masqueraded Harlem…your rumor reaches me,” Lorca cried.
Harlem’s streets lead backward, into history, straight to a work such as This Was Harlem. Jervis Anderson, author of a biography of A. Philip Randolph, the imam of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids, has subtitled his book “A Cultural Portrait, 1900-1950,” which neatly defines its scope and purpose. Anderson has not written a study comparable to Gilbert Osofsky’s Harlem: The Making of A Ghetto (1966), though he has…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.