Harlem is NowhereA Journey to the Mecca of Black America
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2011 Rhodes-Pitts, Sharifa
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780316017237
I HAD ALREADY put the key into the door of my building on Lenox Avenue when the question came at my back. In one movement I withdrew the key and turned to face my inquisitor. He stood waiting for my reply and then asked again: Do you think you’ll ever go home?
It was one of the neighborhood men who stand outside the front door during the day, sentinels keeping a vigilant watch. When I first moved here they were almost invisible to me; we did not speak and exchanged only the occasional nod. Neither I nor the men were being standoffish. There seemed to be an unspoken rule—perhaps a universal prudence for any strange girl arriving in any strange place—that I should come to know the women first. After I had been accepted by the women, the men began to make themselves known. By that point, the women had warned me about which men to avoid, I’d learned to discriminate between geezer flirtation and jive, and I could hold my own with the biggest jive talkers. Soon, I was drawn into a form of protection. My new friends declared this adoption at unexpected moments—one or another of the neighbors would introduce me as their daughter. If I was stranded in the midst of an unwanted conversation with a persistent sidewalk suitor, one of the sentinels would swoop in to see him off. But if I came home accompanied by a man of my own choosing, I was later expected to give an account of his intentions, employment, and character.
Home, he said again to my puzzled stare. Down South. Do you think you’ll ever go back home?
It was a time when I was often in and out of the city. During phone conversations with friends, if I said I was at home they’d always ask, Where? But on this day, the man’s question came out of nowhere. As I’d approached the stoop he’d remarked, Cold enough for you? on what was a relatively warm day a few weeks before the start of spring. I’d responded, Not bad, not bad at all, noting how easily that banality passed my lips—approximating the tones of a northerner, feigning comprehension of their seasons. Maybe he sensed the falseness of my reply. Maybe that’s why he asked that question, presuming a desire I was not in contact with on that particular morning.
I answered cheerfully. Home to Texas? But I go back all the time… This sent him scattering into an apologetic retreat, as if he suddenly had a sense of invading my privacy. Oh, he said, and Oh, he repeated, as if the problem of my dislocation had suddenly been made right.
I did not ask him if he ever went home. I did not think of it until I was already in the narrow corridor that leads to the staircase that leads to my apartment, and now, in the act of recording it, this passing forgetfulness that he was also far from home strikes me as a failure of empathy. The yearning may have been more his than my own.
It was odd that he should think of me, even as I crossed my own threshold, as a stranger—someone on the verge of departure, highly susceptible to the mere mention of flight. (I might at that moment have turned around and gone; I might just then have been thinking of it.) But it says much about the impermanent status of my residence here. My neighbors were accustomed to seeing me leave with luggage in the earliest part of the morning. I had maintained an innocence of city politics and refused certain hallmarks of the committed citizen of New York, like a red or black wire rolling cart for groceries, or a tabloid newspaper selected on the basis of the best horoscopes. I should not have been surprised that some of my neighbors on Lenox Avenue were still trying to understand my presence in their midst. On a different occasion, a different man from outside my door had asked where I was from. He was surprised—pleased, even—to hear I was from Texas. Oh, he’d said. I thought you were a foreigner.
One restless, idle hour, I sat at the library on 135th Street and consulted The Columbia-Lippincott Gazetteer of the World, copying out the following entry, as if to gain my bearings:
Harlem: A residential and business district of N Manhattan borough of New York City, SE N.Y., bounded approximately by Central Park and 110th St. (S), East R. (E), Harlem R. (NE), 168th St (W). Largest Negro community (pop. More than 400,000) in U.S. grew up here after 1910; one of the most congested districts in U.S., Harlem also has large colonies of Puerto Rican, Italian, and Latin American background. The Du. Settlement of Nieuw Haarlem was est. here 1658 by Peter Stuyvesant; in the Revolution, Continental forces stopped the British advance up Manhattan in battle (Sept., 1776) of Harlem Heights. Area remained virtually rural until improvement in 19th cent. of transportation links with lower Manhattan. Public-housing projects (begun in 1930s) and other attempts to relieve unfavorable conditions there have been made.
At first it seems to give an all-encompassing view—complete with official borders, colonial heroics, and important urban planning highlights. Yet it manages to say nothing at all. In search of further detail I seized upon another definition, from the pages of The Handbook of Geographical Nicknames. This volume reveals that a city called Hankow is “The Pittsburgh of China”; that “The Happy Valley” refers to war-torn Kashmir and to the riverine gorge cut by the Tennessee; and that the Harz Mountains of Germany, the location of the silver mines where Leibniz once toiled, is now or once was “The Stronghold of Paganism.” Situated near these is Harlem, whose nickname, “The Capital of the Negro Population of the United States,” was not nearly as catchy or evocative as I’d expected. Though the phrase lacks poetry, it retains an accidental precision: the outdated term “Negro” (already antique when the book was published, in 1980) fixes our attention on the past.
At the library I found another source of coordinates. Harlem is blocked in by the high ridges of Morningside Heights and St. Nicholas Terrace, by the East and Harlem rivers, and by Central Park. Those declared boundaries did not tell me anything new. More important was the action of those physical frontiers: Harlem is blocked in. Geography is destiny. The WPA Guide to New York City, first published in 1939, goes on to describe who and what is blocked in by those ridges, those rivers, and that pastoral fiction of a park:
Negro Harlem, into which are crowded more than a quarter of a million Negroes from southern states, the West Indies, and Africa, has many different aspects. To whites seeking amusement, it is an exuberant, original, and unconventional entertainment center; to Negro college graduates it is an opportunity to practice a profession among their own people; to those aspiring to racial leadership it is a domain where they may advocate their theories unmolested; to artists, writers, and sociologists it is a mine of rich material; to the mass of Negro people it is the spiritual capital of Black America.
I went on a tour of Harlem, thinking it would be useful to know what the packs of visitors were being told. We met at the corner of 135th Street and Lenox, in front of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, just two blocks from my building. The tour guide, a young white woman, began by asking the group to shout out whatever came to mind when they heard the word Harlem. Some said music, others said riots. Those who didn’t say music or riots said Bill Clinton and soul food.
After that exercise in free association, the guide led us on a brief circuit covering a radius no larger than five blocks. As we began, she gave a condensed history of what happened when blacks first moved into Harlem. With a call-and-response style reminiscent of kindergarten, she asked what happened next. The chorus of mostly white tourists shouted out: The white people leave!
The guide had a habit of calling Lenox Avenue, Fifth Avenue. As we passed through one block of brownstone houses, I overheard a couple marveling at the architecture, noting the little pointy tops of a cluster of homes. The man asked his wife, had they seen them before? Like the mansard roofs in France? Did she remember they were named after a guy called Mansard? A woman came out of one house and asked if anyone in the group knew someone to rent her top two floors. When one tourist asked the price of brownstones these days, the guide, a young graduate student in history, asserted somewhat huffily that she was not a real estate broker. One woman repeatedly interrupted the tour to ask how far away the famous Sylvia’s soul-food restaurant was.
Often, I fell away from the group, trailing behind. I was familiar with most of the history being discussed. For me, the biggest revelation had come at the beginning of the tour. As we stood at the meeting point, the corner of 135th and Lenox, in the shadow of the Schomburg Center, the guide had passed around a photo. It was a picture of the street that crosses my corner of Lenox Avenue. The caption on the back read West 133rd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. 1880–1881. Today, standing at the corner of 133rd Street looking east across Lenox Avenue (formerly Sixth Avenue), one sees the six towers of the Lenox Terrace apartment complex. The picture showed that same area, but in 1880 it resembled a moonscape. The terrain is utterly flat and is covered by a rough sod. In the foreground stands a group of three attached brick town houses. Their windows form an orderly grid, and the steps leading up to each building look bright white, untrodden. Most important, these three houses don’t connect to any others. They stand isolated, with empty space on each side. After about twenty yards, a second cluster of three attached houses is seen to the right of the first group. They are also flanked by open space. Beyond that group, after another twenty yards or so, are yet another bank of houses. Across the gaps they seem to reach toward each other. The groups of houses are built parallel to each other, in a line, respecting the logic of an invisible map. But the houses do not quite form a street. They form the beginning of a street, the intention of a street, the merest suggestion of a street.
In the far distance, visible through the gap between the first two sets of homes, there is a fourth detached set of buildings. It is the dream of another street. Toward the vanishing point, flanked by nothing at all, is a solitary tree, a remnant of what was there before this idea of a neighborhood was imposed on the landscape. The picture preserves a moment when the idea was not yet accomplished, it hangs between dream and reality. This is a prehistoric Harlem—nothing that counts for History has happened there yet. There is sky, open space, and very little shelter. Without the caption, it would be hard to know if this was the beginning or end of a civilization—a place just being built, or recently destroyed.
This is Harlem, barely inhabited—at the very beginning of its settlement in the 1880s. The buildings are only a few years old, the vast blank spaces between them are evidence of how this land—a farming suburb—was haphazardly annexed by the metropolis. The houses were built as speculative enterprises, each group of three representing a gamble by some intrepid pioneer. The bourgeois commuter society that grew up here is not yet established, nor are the other houses that would eventually complete this and other streets.
The houses in the picture all face south, toward settled Manhattan, expectantly oriented toward the people who would arrive from downtown. But there are no people in the photograph. And though the buildings themselves suggest the presence of people, the arrangement of those structures in that space and the utter quietude of the landscape collide with the clamor we know should accompany buildings like those. Curtains hang in a few windows of the first group of buildings. One window, on the top floor of the middle house, is slightly ajar. Someone is there. Or, someone has been there and just left. Or, someone is about to arrive.
Here, blank spaces—possibilities—prevail. This picture shows what is about to be built, and also what is now already gone. In the 1950s the houses and tenements and even the very streets from 132nd to 135th between Lenox and Fifth Avenues were razed in a slum-clearance program, to build the high-rise middle-class housing complex of Lenox Terrace. A single row house remains, hidden in the midst of the towers. Nuns live in that house. There is some empty space on either side, and it no longer lines any street.
I used to stare into similar wide, open spaces as a child. I grew up in a city where the combined meaning of the words urban and planning was imprecise. To reach the side of town where we lived, you took a highway from the city center that crossed vast stretches of undeveloped land. From the window of our car, I stared into these spaces. I sought evidence of activity in the deep distance—perhaps a figure dashing across the field—from which I could invent a story. Typically, the only figures in those fields were small herds of undernourished horses or cattle. This brittle land was used as a makeshift pasture—livestock foraged for nourishment among the dry brush between oil pumps and electric towers. I looked out the windows of our car to see how far into the horizon my eyes could carry me, watching for something I hadn’t noticed before. But that landscape never changed. It was twenty years before new housing was built along that highway. When I was a child, those fields were always marked with faded billboards offering the acreage for development, perpetually in search of a willing taker.
When I came to live in Harlem, the fenced-off, overgrown empty lots here also attracted my eye. At first, they were evidence: I had indeed arrived in the place I’d heard of. The empty lots held some significance; it was similar to the feeling I’d had when, riding from the airport in New Delhi, I first saw cows in the road. Yes, this is the place I have heard about, I’d thought. There are cows all over the road exactly as they were in the guidebook pictures. The empty lots in Harlem had the same verifying quality. Later, those empty lots provided something beyond veracity. They were a place for the eyes to rest. This was not some romance for ruins. These blank, disavowed spaces had been labeled as blight, but they provided a visual and mental break from the clamor of the buildings and people. There was a hint of the horizon.
Here was solace from the crowded landscape—both the physical crowdedness of buildings and people and the crowd of stories and histories. A friend of mine describes certain cities as being full—too much has happened there, you cannot move. Paris, he says, is the quintessentially full city. I suspect he’d say Harlem is another place that is too full—though its crowdedness and overpopulation have been discussed in other terms. In the empty lots, my mind escaped history.
Later I understood that these empty fields were indeed the setting of a history, the loathsome history of neglect and destruction stretching back to the beginning of black settlement in Harlem and its corollary, white flight. But at first, as in Texas, those spaces where my thoughts played were just settings for scenes and fancies whose significance was fleeting. I admired the wild patches of Queen Anne’s lace that grew up in summer. Independent businessmen used some lots as locations for unofficial open-air markets, selling used furniture or vintage clothes.
Many of these places are now occupied by new condominiums. One is now a Mormon church. As the empty lots disappeared, I became more interested in what was there before. In some places it is possible to see what was there: the foundation of a building remains; a front stoop rises up from the sidewalk but leads to nothing. Such things recede into the background, part of the natural history of this place, as if they had always been like that. But this is the evidence of an unnatural history—it was not always this way, it came to be that way for a reason.
There are new empty lots different from those I noticed upon first arriving. Returning after a year’s absence, I found an empty lot at the southwestern corner of Lenox Avenue and 125th Street. It was covered with fresh gravel, to stop its reversion to a wild field. When I first saw the lot something sank inside of me—the sensation mocked the feeling of a demolition, a building brought to its knees. This new empty lot opened a new horizon: from 125th Street you could see clear through the block to 124th Street. But the view was not one that gave rest or inspired the eye and mind. There was only the instantaneous, frantic search for something that once was there and was there no longer.
It was a grand old apartment house whose facade hugged the corner, making the intersection look like a stately plaza. It might have been a candidate for landmark status, but its windows were sealed up with cement bricks. Soon after I arrived in Harlem, the few tenants remaining in the building’s storefronts—a decrepit Chinese restaurant, a flamboyant haberdashery, a store specializing in women’s undergarments, and a shoe shine and repair service—had all closed up shop.
The building stayed in place long after those stores had gone. For a few years it brought revenue as the background for various athletic-wear billboards; for several seasons a heroic image of Muhammad Ali, having just knocked out an opponent, loomed over Lenox Avenue. I heard a rumor that the building had not been demolished because a family lived inside and that they’d defiantly refused to leave when the other tenants cleared out. This seemed impossible with all of the windows bricked over, and I never saw anyone enter or exit the building. But I did always see—through a small window in a battered door on Lenox Avenue—a light illuminating the vestibule.
There used to be an empty lot near my house, on Seventh Avenue just south of 133rd Street. One day in summer, I saw through its chain-link fence a pile of watermelon rinds at the rear of the lot. There was an open pit in the ground nearby, where someone was burying the waste. Later, the pile disappeared and the open pit was covered by recently turned earth. Soon, construction began on that site. It was only a matter of weeks before the frame of a new building rose up on the lot. A security guard was now stationed there each night to guard the property. He didn’t wear a uniform, and like many of the men (and sometimes women) who work security jobs at construction sites in Harlem, he was an immigrant from West Africa.
Later, when construction was nearly completed but the premises were not yet occupied, I passed again one night and saw through the building’s glass doors the outline of a man sitting in the condominium entry. He kept watch in near darkness, visible only by the light of a nearby street lamp. Whenever I passed the spot, I looked to see if anyone was inside. Sometimes the guard was there, slumped in his seat, sleeping through his shift out of exhaustion or boredom. Other times, there was only an empty chair. A few times, the watchman waved hello. Once, the figure beckoned me inside.
I didn’t accept the invitation. The building still looked unoccupied, but a large sign now hung from its facade. The building is called the Ellison. To advertise the property, the sign shows a photograph of a handsome, clean-cut young black man in a suit. He is shown in regal profile, his eyes are closed, his chin is lifted toward the sky. Change your state of mind, begins the sales pitch for the new condominiums. The man on the sign looks lost in contemplation, on the brink of transcendence, about to receive some celestial enlightenment. Or maybe he has just thrown back his head and is about to unleash a howling laugh.
That picture from 1880 shows the beginning of what was, essentially, a failed settlement. More buildings were constructed so the isolated housing blocks eventually formed complete streets. As people moved in, Harlem became, according to one observer in 1905, a haven for the clerks and small merchants, the family man and the newly married couple and the young professional man, who all flocked thither. But the real estate speculation behind the Harlem housing boom had not anticipated the city’s delay in extending transportation to the area. Many town houses and apartment buildings were empty or partially empty. Around 1900 the situation attracted the interest of African American businessman Philip A. Payton Jr., an associate of Booker T. Washington. Payton proposed to several landlords that he act as a broker, renting their vacant properties to black tenants. He began quietly, with a few houses on 134th Street east of Lenox Avenue (the same area shown in that photo of prehistoric Harlem). According to James Weldon Johnson,
The whites paid little attention to the movement until it began to spread west of Lenox Avenue; they then took steps to check it. They proposed through a financial organization, the Hudson Realty Company, to buy in all properties occupied by colored people and evict the tenants.
Another group, Shaw & Company, pursued the same tactics, as did the Harlem Property Owners’ Improvement Association. But Payton was equal to the challenge. When the Hudson Realty Company started buying property and evicting blacks, Payton combined with other black businessmen to launch the Afro-American Realty Company, which bought property and evicted whites. A December 17, 1905, article from the New York Times reported the furor with the tone of an urgent telegram: Real Estate Race War Is Started in Harlem; Dispossessed White Men Ask Negroes to be Allowed to Stay; Colored Folks Retaliated; They Were Dispossessed First—Then Formed a Real Estate Company to Buy Tenements. Payton and the Afro-American Realty Company are accurately credited with the invention of black Harlem. The strategy was not merely to secure rental housing or buy individual property, but to harness the collective economic power of well-to-do blacks, toward the general empowerment of the race.
The New York Herald described the unfolding controversy on December 24, 1905, under the headline Negroes Move into Harlem.
An untoward circumstance has been injected into the private-dwelling market in the vicinity of 133rd and 134th Streets. During the last three years the flats in 134th between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, that were occupied entirely by white folks, have been captured for occupation by a Negro population. Its presence there has tended also to lend much color to conditions in 133rd and 135th Streets between Lenox and Seventh Avenues.
One Hundred and Thirty-third Street still shows some signs of resistance to the blending of colors in that street, but between Lenox and Seventh Avenues has practically succumbed to the ingress of colored tenants. Nearly all the old dwellings in 134th Street to midway in the block west from Seventh Avenue are occupied by colored tenants and real estate brokers predict that it is only a matter of time when the entire block, to Eighth Avenue, will be a stronghold of the Negro population.
As a result of the extension of this African colony, dwellings in 133rd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, and in 132nd Street from Lenox to Eighth Avenue have depreciated from fifteen to twenty per cent in value, especially in the sides of those streets nearest to 134th Street. The cause of the colored influx is inexplicable.
After a few years of this untoward circumstance, the good citizens of Harlem resolved to erect a twenty-four-foot fence on 136th Street, a battlement to defend their besieged city. The New York Indicator, a real estate publication, summarized popular opinion:
Their presence is undesirable among us… they should not only be disenfranchised, but also segregated in some colony in the outskirts of the city, where their transportation and other problems will not inflict injustice and disgust on worthy citizens.
As white Harlem gathered its forces, a spokesperson for a group of outraged citizens offered a self-serving prophecy, masked as philanthropy: We believe… that real friends of Negroes will eventually convince them that they should buy large tracts of unimproved land near the city and there build up colonies of their own.
Only two decades had passed when the prophecy was borne out under slightly altered circumstances. A Negro colony spread from the concentrated area around Philip Payton’s original buildings on 134th Street, until it became an onslaught no wall could contain. White New Yorkers quit Harlem. Some sold their property at a loss, others abandoned houses and apartment buildings, preferring to board them up rather than rent or sell to black people. Eventually, the move of blacks into Harlem reached the physical limits of the ridges, the rivers, and 110th Street. Alain Locke, writing in the introduction to his 1925 anthology The New Negro, found that the concentration of black New Yorkers crowding into that physical space mirrored a metaphysical force then gaining strength.
In Harlem, Negro life is seizing upon its first chances for group expression and self-determination. That is why our comparison is taken with those nascent centers of folk-expression and self-determination which are playing a creative part in the world today. Without pretense to their political significance, Harlem has the same role to play for the New Negro as Dublin has had for the New Ireland or Prague for the New Czechoslovakia.
Locke was among the first to define Harlem as a race capital, a physical center that focuses a people. It was the stage of the pageant of contemporary Negro life on which would unfold the resurgence of a race. Locke invokes two young European republics whose people had rejected imperialism through nationalism. But he did not aspire to self-determination by means of actual political sovereignty or a separate nation for blacks. Locke believed that Harlem would be a place of cultural and social uplift. This, in time, would lead to equality for blacks within the wider American scene. In 1925, Locke asserted that Harlem represents the Negro’s latest thrust towards Democracy.
Others tried to add their own pronouncements to Locke’s prophecy. The New Negro anthology includes Charles S. Johnson reaching for Locke’s gravitas, while waxing nostalgic about events still in progress: And there was New York City with its polite personal service and its Harlem—the Mecca of the Negroes the country over. Delightful Harlem of the effete East! Old families, brownstone mansions, a step from wonderful Broadway, the end of the rainbow.
In 1928, Wallace Thurman’s Negro Life in New York’s Harlem noted that the neighborhood—known as The Mecca of the New Negro, the center of black America’s cultural renaissance, Nigger Heaven, Pickaninny Paradise, Capital of Black America, among other monikers—had been surveyed and interpreted, explored and exploited. But Thurman launches his own survey and interpretation, producing a lively picture of a popular and interesting section that reads like a travel guide, with chapters on social life, night life, amusement, house rent parties, the numbers, the church, and newspapers. The resulting vision of Harlem is a great deal less than the sum of its parts.
Langston Hughes riffs on Harlem in his contribution to a 1963 special Harlem issue of Freedomways magazine. Hughes mixes sentimentality with a dose of his typically biting wit, in the following incantation:
Harlem, like a Picasso painting in his cubistic period. Harlem—Southern Harlem—the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida—looking for the Promised Land—dressed in rhythmic words, painted in bright pictures, dancing to jazz—and ending up in the subway at morning rush time—headed downtown. West Indian Harlem—warm rambunctious sassy remembering Marcus Garvey, Haitian Harlem, Cuban Harlem, little pockets of tropical dreams in alien tongues. Magnet Harlem, pulling an Arthur Schomburg from Puerto Rico, pulling an Arna Bontemps all the way from California, a Nora Holt from way out West, an E. Simms Campbell from St. Louis, likewise a Josephine Baker, a Charles S. Johnson from Virginia, an A. Phillip Randolph from Florida, a Roy Wilkins from Minnesota, an Alta Douglas from Kansas. Melting pot Harlem—Harlem of honey and chocolate and caramel and rum and vinegar and lemon and lime and gall. Dusky dream Harlem rumbling into a nightmare tunnel where the subway from the Bronx keeps right on downtown, where the jazz is drained to Broadway whence Josephine [Baker] goes to Paris, Robeson to London, Jean Toomer to a Quaker Meeting House, Garvey to Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, and Wallace Thurman to his grave; but Duke Ellington to fame and fortune, Lena Horne to Broadway, and Buck Clayton to China.
The business of defining Harlem has already been perfected. You have heard them all before: Harlem is a ruin, it is the home of the Negro’s Zionism; it is a third world country; an East Berlin whose Wall is 110th Street. This is hyperbolic Harlem, the cultural capital of black America or its epicenter (likening the place to a natural disaster). There is Harlem as Mecca—a city of sanctuary, a place that merges devotion and duty.
In The New Negro Alain Locke declared: Harlem, I grant you, isn’t typical—but it is significant, it is prophetic. No sane observer, however sympathetic to the new trend, would contend that the great masses are articulate as yet, but they stir, they move, they are more than physically restless.
But in another essay included in the 1925 anthology, James Weldon Johnson offered a different kind of prophecy. In the tradition of the best oracles, it comes in the form of a riddle:
The question naturally arises, “Are the Negroes going to be able to hold Harlem?” If they have been steadily driven northward for the past hundred years and out of less desirable sections, can they hold this choice bit of Manhattan Island? It is hardly probable that Negroes will hold Harlem indefinitely, but when they are forced out it will not be for the same reasons that forced them out of former quarters in New York City. The situation is entirely different and without precedent. When colored people do leave Harlem, their homes, their churches, their investments and their businesses, it will be because the land has become so valuable they can no longer afford to live on it. But the date of another move northward is very far in the future.
Johnson suspected that Locke’s restless masses would be forced—as before in New York, but compelled by a different propulsion—to move yet again. But he did not dwell much on the possibility, or divulge a spell to stop events from coming to pass.