17 January 2005

Harlem's Ups and Downs

Harlem, founded in 1657, is probably the oldest true suburb of New York City. Only eight miles from City Hall, it first held the country homes of the gentry, and their horse races were held along Harlem Lane, later St. Nicholas Avenue. When elevated tracks reached the area in 1878-1881, it became accessible to downtowners fleeing Italian and Jewish immigrants. As a result, a building boom soon changed the bucolic face of Harlem into posh elegance. The area was now symbolized by the magnificent rows of townhouses commissioned by David King in 1891 and designed by architects like James Lord, Price and Luce, and McKim, Mead and White. The Irish populated the streets west of Eighth Avenue; a "little Italy" was growing east of Third Avenue; and a "little Russia" could be found below 125th Street between Fifth and Seventh Avenues; but Harlem proper remained the home of the elite.

Then in 1904/5, there occurred the inevitable bust after a speculative boom, and Harlem suddenly had a glut of housing that had to be let. Until this time, the black presence in Harlem had been restricted to the role of menials. But the riot of 1900, the massive dislocations caused by the construction of Pennsylvania Station, and the completion of the Lenox Avenue subway line suddenly coincided with the availability of uptown housing. The Afro-American Realty Company was organized to place blacks into the vacant apartments, and it mattered little how many tenants combined to pay a single rent. Within a decade, fifty thousand blacks had come to Harlem, and their downtown churches soon followed the northward exodus. Harlem, a black community with good housing, community churches, and a sense of growth became the natural mecca for migrating blacks.

By 1920, when more than 109,000 blacks lived in Manhattan, it was clear that the continuing influx of newcomers was overwhelming Harlem's resources. Real estate ownership remained in white hands, but repairs were inadequate and the area was already becoming a slum. High rents remained the rule, but the low-income jobs available to blacks made it impossible for all but a few to avoid overcrowding. With the increasing density of population, the pathology of ghetto life took hold. Vice and policy gambling, narcotics addiction, and juvenile delinquency were, in the 1920s, recognized as community issues. Harlem also had the worst rates of infant mortality and incidence of tuberculosis in New York.

Harlem had no effective political voice to plead its cause; its nominal representatives were white and uncaring. Flamboyant leaders such as Father Divine, Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), and Sufi Abdul Hamid offered charisma rather than reform proposals, and even they still had to compete with more traditional political types such as Charles Anderson (1866-1938) for the allegiance of a community in chaos. Ultimately no one spoke effectively for Harlem. By 1930, more than 200,000 of the 327,706 blacks in New York City were packed into the two square miles of Harlem, but their potential power was dissipated by ignorance, lack of leadership, and poverty; half of Harlem's population was on relief as the Depression began.

Amazingly, out of the decay of the 1920s came the discovery of hope and pride through the discovery of the black past. The Harlem Renaissance set a literary standard of excellence. The white theater at least recognized blacks in plays such as Green Pastures, The Emperor Jones, and Porgy and Bess, and jazz and the blues were centered in Harlem. White visitors from downtown, led by Jimmy Walker himself, made certain cabarets nationally prominent. In 1934, two white businessmen purchased a failed burlesque house, refurbished it, booked Bessie Smith (1845-1937), and opened the Apollo Theater on 125th Street. Could La Guardia, who came from Italian East Harlem, relate to a community without leaders?

La Guardia almost immediately made a symbolic administrative gesture of great importance to blacks: he created the New York Housing Authority in 1934. Black areas had the fewest social services, the least amount of parkland, and the greatest concentration of crime and illiteracy in the city. Beyond this, a majority of New York's working blacks in the 1930s earned less than $1,000 yearly. If the city made it a policy to provide the most deprived with better housing, it would show a concern that not even the black elite of 139th Street's "Striver's Row" felt for the residents of Harlem. La Guardia tried but failed.
SOURCE: New York City: A Short History, by George J. Lankevich (NYU Press, 2002), pp. 170-171

No comments: