Harlem, New York

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Harlem, New York

Harlem, New York, is bounded roughly by 110th Street on the south, 155th Street on the north, Morningside Drive on the west, and Saint Nicholas Avenue and the East River on the east. During the twentieth century Harlem became the most famous African-American community in the United States. Prior to 1900, Harlem had been primarily a white neighborhood. In the 1870s, with the growth of commuter rail service, it evolved from an isolated, impoverished village in the northern reaches of Manhattan into a wealthy residential suburb.

The Creation of a Black Enclave

With the opening of a subway line extending along Lenox Avenue in the early years of the twentieth century, a flurry of real estate speculation contributed to a substantial increase in building. At the time, the population of Harlem was largely English and German, with increasing numbers of Jewish immigrants. By 1904, however, Harlem's economic prosperity and expansion ceased as a result of high rental costs and excessive construction. In that same year, Phillip A. Payton Jr., a black realtor, founded the Afro-American Realty Company with the intention of leasing vacant white-owned buildings and renting them to African Americans. Although the company survived for only four years, due to Payton's unwise investments, it played a pivotal role in opening up Harlem to African Americans.

Coupled with this development, black migration from the South during the early years of the new century dramatically altered Harlem's composition until by 1930 it had become a largely all-black enclave. In 1890 there were approximately 25,000 African Americans in Manhattan. By 1910 that number had more than tripled to 90,000. In the following decade the black population increased to approximately 150,000 and more than doubled by 1930 to over 325,000. In Harlem itself the black population rose from approximately 50,000 in 1914 to about 80,000 in 1920 to about 200,000 by 1930.

Harlem was called a city within a city, because it contained the normal gamut of classes, businesses, and cultural and recreational institutions traditionally identified with urban living. By the 1920s, moreover, Harlem's place in American intellectual and political history had progressed significantly. This transition was fueled on the cultural scene by the literary and artistic activity collectively called the Harlem Renaissance. Emerging after renewed racism and a series of race riots during the Red Summer of 1919 squelched the promise that African Americans would gain racial equality in return for military service in World War I, the Harlem Renaissance reflected the evolution of what was called a New Negro spirit and determination. As Alain Locke, one of its acknowledged leaders, explained, self-respect and self-dependence became characteristics of the New Negro movement, which were exemplified in every facet of cultural, intellectual, and political life.

The African-American Cultural Capital

Represented by poets such as Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen; novelists like Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, and Jessie Fauset; artists like Aaron Douglas; photographers like James VanDerZee; and social scientists and philosophers like E. Franklin Frazier, Alain Locke, and W. E. B. Du Bois, the Harlem Renaissance was national in scope but came to be identified with the emerging African-American cultural capital, Harlem. The outpouring of literary and artistic production that comprised the Harlem Renaissance also led to a number of social gatherings at which the black intelligentsia mingled and exchanged ideas. Many of the most celebrated of

these events were held at the home of A'Lelia Walker, daughter of Madame C. J. Walker, who had moved the base of her multimillion-dollar beauty care industry to Harlem in 1913.

Also fostering Harlem's growth in the 1920s were a series of political developments. Both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League established offices in the area. Moreover, by 1920 two major New York black newspapers, the New York Age and the Amsterdam News, moved their printing operations and editorial offices to Harlem. Socialists A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen established their offices in Harlem as well and from there they edited and published their newspaper, the Messenger, beginning in 1917. Nothing, however, caught the attention of Harlemites as quickly as the 1916 arrival of Marcus Garvey, who established the headquarters of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in the district. Garvey's emphasis on race pride and the creation of black businesses and factories, and his appeal to the masses, awakened and galvanized the Harlem community.

By 1915 Harlem had become the entertainment capital of black America. Performers gravitated to Harlem and to New York City's entertainment industry. Musicians such as Willie "The Lion" Smith, Fats Waller, and James P. Johnson created a version of early jazz piano known as the Harlem Stride around the time of World War I. After 1920, bandleaders such as Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and Chick Webb laid the foundation for big-band jazz. (Early in the 1940s, at clubs such as Minton's Playhouse and Monroe's, a revolution would occur in jazz. Individuals such as Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie moved away from swing, using advanced harmonies and substitute chords, creating bebop jazz.)

Harlem also became a major center of popular dance. On the stage, Florence Mills was perhaps Harlem's most popular theatrical dancer in the 1920s; 150,000 people turned out for her funeral in 1927. Tap dance flourished in Harlem as well. The roster of well-known performers included the Whitman Sisters, Buck and Bubbles, the Nicholas Brothers, Earl "Snake Hips" Tucker, and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, who carried the honorary title the Mayor of Harlem.

Harlem's theatrical life was also vibrant. From the early years of the century through the Great Depression, the center of popular entertainment in Harlem was the Lincoln Theater, on 135th Street off Lenox Avenue. After 1934 the Lincoln was superseded by the Apollo Theater. Harlem attracted vaudevillians such as Bert Williams, George W. Walker, Flournoy Miller, and Aubrey Lyles, and a later generation of comedians including Dewey "Pigmeat" Markham and Dusty Fletcher, who popularized the "Open the door, Richard" routine.

After 1917 the Lafayette Theater grew in prominence as a home of serious drama, due to the success of such actors as Paul Robeson, Richard B. Harrison (famous for his role as "De Lawd" in Green Pastures ), and Abbie Mitchell. Harlem was also a center of nightclubs. The best known included the black-owned Smalls' Paradise, the Cotton Club, and the mobster-connected and racially exclusive Connie's Inn. The best-known dance hall was the Savoy Ballroom, which billed itself as the "Home of Happy Feet" and presented the best in big-band jazz after 1926. Harlem's cultural vitality was celebrated in plays including Wallace Thurman's Harlem (1929), Langston Hughes's Mulatto (1935), Little Ham (1935), and Don't You Want to be Free? (19361937), and Abram Hill's On Strivers' Row (1939). Musical performers celebrated Harlem's social scene through such compositions as "The Joint is Jumping," "Stompin' at the Savoy," "Harlem Airshaft," "Drop Me Off in Harlem," and "Take the A Train."

Churches and Politics

As Harlem became a political and cultural center of black America, the community's black churches became more

influential as well. Most were Protestant, particularly Baptist and Methodist, and the Abyssinian Baptist Church became the most famous during the interwar period. The Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. moved the church from West 40th Street in midtown Manhattan to West 138th Street in Harlem in 1923. He combated prostitution, organized classes in home economics, built a home for the elderly, and organized soup kitchens and employment networks during the Great Depression. He was succeeded as senior pastor in 1937 by his son, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who expanded the scope of the church's community activism. Harlem's scores of storefront churches, many of which proliferated during the interwar period, imitated Abyssinian's community aid efforts on a smaller scale. Harlem's most famous heterodox religious leader of the 1930s, Father Divine, established a series of soup kitchens and stores in the community through his Peace Mission and his Righteous Government political organization.

The 1930s were a period of stagnation and decline in Harlem, as they were throughout the nation. Civil rights protest increased during the decade, and much of it originated in Harlem. In response to white businessmen's unwillingness to hire black workers for white-collar jobs in their Harlem stores, a series of "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" boycott campaigns commenced in 1933 and became an effective method of protesting against racial bigotry throughout the decade. Harlem community leaders such as Adam Clayton Powell Jr. often joined with the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Communist Party, and the Citizens' League for Fair Play (CLFP) in leading these protests. Under the aegis of the Communist Party, major demonstrations were also held on Harlem streets in the early 1930s in support of the Scottsboro Boys and Angelo Herndon.

Major-party politics thrived in Harlem as much as radical politics did during the first half of the century. In the 1920s the Republican Party (led in black communities by Charles Anderson) and the Democratic Party (led by Ferdinand Q. Morton under Tammany Hall's United Colored Democracy) competed fiercely for black votes. Within the black community itself, African Americans and Caribbean Americans competed for dominance over the few available instruments of political control. Caribbean Americans were particularly prominent in the struggle to integrate Harlem blacks into the main organization of the Democratic Party; J. Raymond Jones (an immigrant from the Virgin Islands who would ultimately become head of Tammany Hall) led an insurgent group called the New Democrats in this effort during the early 1930s.

Civil disturbances played an important role in Harlem's growing political consciousness. In 1935 a riot, fueled by animosity toward white businesses and the police, left three dead and caused over $200 million in damage. New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia later assigned his Mayor's Commission on Conditions in Harlem (led by E. Franklin Frazier) to study the uprising; the commission revealed a great number of underlying socioeconomic problems that were giving rise to racial animosities. In 1943 Harlem experienced another major race riot, which left five dead. This second riot was fueled by racial discrimination in war-related industries and continuing animosities between white police officers and Harlem's black citizens.

These events helped shape the emerging political career of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who was elected to the New York City Council in 1941 and to the United States Congress in 1944, representing Harlem's newly created Eighteenth District. Powell's intolerance of race discrimination, along with his vocal and flamboyant style, brought national attention to the community, and he remained a symbol of Harlem's strength and reputation until his expulsion from Congress in 1967. He was reelected by his loyal Harlem constituency in 1968.

PostWorld War II Era

By the end of World War II, Harlem experienced another transition. The migration of middle-class blacks to more affluent neighborhoods destabilized the class balance of earlier decades. Many of the remaining businesses were owned not by black residents but by whites who lived far removed from the ghetto. At the same time, most of the literati associated with the Harlem Renaissance had left the district. However, Harlem's literary life was preserved by a number of dedicated authors, including Ralph Ellison (whose 1952 novel, Invisible Man, was centered in Harlem) and Harlem native James Baldwin. The Harlem Writers Guild was founded in 1950 by John Oliver Killens, Maya Angelou, John Henrik Clarke, and others, and has for over four decades offered writers in the community a forum for the reading and discussion of their works. Photographers such as Austin Hansen and Gordon Parks Sr. continued to capture and celebrate Harlem's community on film.

For most of those who remained in Harlem after the war, however, a sense of powerlessness set in, exacerbated by poverty and a lack of control over their community. The quality of Harlem housing continued to be an acute problem. Paradoxically, as the quality of Harlem's inadequately heated, rat-infested buildings deteriorated, and as health ordinances related to housing were increasingly ignored, the rents on those units rose. People were evicted for being unable to keep up with their rent, and having no other place to go many either entered community shelters or joined the swelling ranks of the homeless.

Heroin addiction and street crime were increasingly serious problems. The 1950s saw Harlem deteriorate, both spiritually and physically. Dependent on welfare and other social services, many Harlemites longed for a chance to reassert some degree of hegemony over their community.

The 1964 Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited Act (HARYOU) represented an attempt to provide solutions. After an intensive study of the community from political, economic, and social perspectives, HARYOU proposed a combination of social action to reacquire political power and an influx of federal funds to redress the increasing economic privation of the area. From the beginning, however, the project suffered from personnel conflicts among the leadership. Social psychologist Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, who originally conceived and directed the project, resigned after a struggle with Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Following Clark's tenure, a Powell ally, Livingston Wingate, led the project through a period of intensifying government scrutiny of its finances.

HARYOU was an attempt to increase local control through community action while remaining dependent upon government largess for organizational funding, and it failed. It was also unable to ameliorate the alienation and decline into delinquency that plagued Harlem's youth. Illustrative of its failure was the 1964 riot, ignited like its predecessors by an incident of alleged police brutality, which underscored the troubles that continued to plague the community.

By the late 1960s, Harlem precisely fit the conclusion reached by the 1968 National Commission of Civil Disorders report. It was a ghetto, created, maintained, and condoned by white society. Literary works of the postwar era, from Ann L. Petry's The Street (1946) to Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land (1965), reflected this progressively deteriorating state of affairs as well.

It was in this period of decay that another charismatic organization emerged in the community, the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X, the head of Harlem's mosque, blended the intellectual acumen of the 1920s literati with the political sophistication and charisma of Marcus Garvey. He galvanized the masses and rekindled in them a sense of black pride and self-determination, appealing to their sense of disgruntlement with a message that was far angrier and less conciliatory than that offered by other major civil rights leaders. He was assassinated on February 21, 1965, in the Audubon Ballroom in Upper Manhattan.

Harlem since the 1960s

Harlem since the 1960s has been severely affected by the same external forces that have plagued many other American urban centers. As the U.S. economy underwent a critical transition from a focus heavy manufacturing to a focus on service and information technologies, large-scale industry left urban areas. Large numbers of Harlem residents followed this exodus, settling in suburban areas in Queens, the Bronx, and other boroughs. The resultant unemployment among those who remained further eviscerated Harlem. The community had long since lost its position as the population center of black New York to the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn. Community vital statistics have been no more encouraging. It was estimated in 1992 that the average African-American male born in Harlem would have a life expectancy of sixty-four years, dying before becoming eligible for most Social Security or retirement benefits.

The Harlem Commonwealth Council, a nonprofit corporation begun in 1967 and founded through the Office

of Economic Opportunity and the private sector, sought to develop Harlem economically and empower its community leaders politically. Yet in its first twenty-five years, bad investments and an uncertain economy have reduced its real estate holdings, and virtually all its largescale enterprises have gone bankrupt.

In 1989 David N. Dinkins, a product of Harlem's Democratic Clubs, became the first African-American mayor of New York. One of his biggest supporters was Charles Rangel, who in 1970 had succeeded Adam Clayton Powell Jr. as Harlem's congressman. In his four years as mayor, Dinkins sought to reestablish an atmosphere of racial harmony and cooperation to realize his vision of New York City as a "gorgeous mosaic" of diverse ethnicities.

Harlem residents continued their efforts to reassert control over their community in the 1990s, as the Harlem Chamber of Commerce led efforts to revitalize Harlem's businesses and reclaim the community's physical infrastructure (a process sometimes referred to as "ghettocentrism"). A plan to spend over $170 million to build permanent housing for the poor and homeless began early in the decade, and such landmark structures as the Astor Row houses, on 130th Street, were rehabilitated as well. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, on 135th Street, established in 1926 as a branch of the New York Public Library, remained the nation's leading resource of African-American scholarship, as well as the location of academic conferences and meetings of the Harlem Writers Guild. The Studio Museum of Harlem, on 125th Street, was a focus for African-American and Caribbean-American folk art. The Apollo Theater, on 125th Street, was reopened in 1989, and it continued to showcase the current and future leaders of black entertainment. The nearby Hotel Theresa no longer served as a hotel but continued as the Theresa Towers, a modern office center and community landmark.

Throughout Harlem's history there has been a wide gap between the social, intellectual, and artistic accomplishments of the community's elite and the poverty and neglect experienced by its masses. This gap was dramatically demonstrated by debates during the mid-1990s over the use of community development funds to bring large supermarkets to the 125th Street area, a plan that community activists favored as a way to bring lower-cost goods to Harlem but that small shop owners opposed as unfair competition.

Harlem was marked by a series of crises revolving around race and economics in the mid-1990s. In 1994, following complaints by local merchants, police forcibly removed street peddlers selling African artifacts and other wares from 125th Street. In 1995, after the Jewish landlord of a space in a building owned by an African-American church announced plans to terminate the sublease of a popular African-American clothing store, violent protests broke out, and an arsonist shot himself and four others before setting fire to the store. In 1998 national attention was again fixed on Harlem when former Nation of Islam activist Khalid Abdul Muhammad announced plans for a Million Youth March. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani refused a permit on the pretext that the city could not afford police protection. Organizers ultimately won a court order authorizing the march, which drew an estimated 40,000 people. At the same time, however, Harlem continues to maintain, as it has in every decade of its existence, an inner energy and spirit.

See also Abyssinian Baptist Church; Apollo Theater; Black Middle Class; Dinkins, David; Garvey, Marcus; Great Depression and the New Deal; Harlem Renaissance; Harlem Writers Guild; Jazz; Lincoln Theater; Malcolm X; Migration; Nation of Islam; New Negro; Riots and Popular Protests; Savoy Ballroom; Universal Negro Improvement Association


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marshall hyatt (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005