HARLEM



A Paradise of my own people"
--Claude McKay

"where would you rather be on parade -- In heaven or in Harlem?"
--Witter Bynner

"I've got Harlem on my mind
I've a longing to be lowdown
And my 'parlez-vous' will not ring true
With Harlem on my mind."
--Irving Berlin
HARLEM has been a mecca for African-Americans from all over America and the world.  It represents hope and freedom from bigotry.  

In the 60’s and 70s, Harlem became a symbol of urban decay to many Americans and there was much crack/cocaine trade in parts of Harlem in the 80s and 90s.  However, Harlem is one of the City's most beautiful neighborhoods and has played a significant part in American history and culture.  Harlem was originally a suburb of the city with farms and elegant country estates including Alexander Hamilton’s HAMILTON GRANGE estate.  The Sugar Hill section of Harlem was once home to Lena Horne, Roy Wilkins, Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. Du Bois, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Sugar Ray Robinson, and A'Lelia Walker Robinson.  The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black labor union, the NAACP, and Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association all had offices in Harlem.  In recent years Harlem has become a more integrated neighborhood and currently its population is only about 40 percent black.

New Haarlem was named for the Dutch city of Haarlem by Dutch settlers in 1658.  The English changed the name to Harlem when they took over New Amsterdam (New York) in 1664.   The distance from downtown New Amsterdam to New Haarlem was 11 miles -- the very same distance between the Dutch cites of Amsterdam and Haarlem in Holland. 

 The Revolutionary War battle of Harlem Heights was fought on September 17, 1776.  George Washington shifted his headquarters to a private mansion, the Morris-Jumel house, in Harlem Heights and in November 1783, Washington waited at a Harlem tavern for word of the British troops’ final departure from the City.  

Although today’s Harlem is famous world-wide as an African-American cultural center and community, a Dutchman, Nedrick De Forest, settled and built a farm there as early as 1637.  Dutch, German, Danish, Swedish, and the Walloons (from Belgium) immigrants also settled here.  In its early days, Harlem was a neighborhood for wealthy white people and there were many lovely mansions built and rich farms there.  Later, the African-American elite migrated to the area of Sugar Hill and its class houses (especially those at 409 & 555 Edgecomb Avenue).  The history and settlement of Harlem illustrate the diversity of New York City.  Harlem has been home to Irish, Italian, German, Russian, Polish, Jewish and black immigrants.  There were black tenements in Harlem as early as 1880, but the black migration did not occur until 1904 when Phillip Payton, Jr., a black real estate businessman, set up the Afro-American Realty Company.  Blacks from the city neighborhoods of the Tenderloin, Hell’s Kitchen and San Juan Hill, at one time the largest black neighborhood in Manhattan (the Lincoln Center area today), moved uptown. “Take the A Train” by Billy Strayhorn may suggest you “take the A train to Sugar Hill in Harlem,” but getting to Harlem in the early days required taking a steamboat (a ride of approximately one and a half hours unless a frozen river complicated the journey) or by stagecoach along the Boston Post Road (now Van Cortlandt Avenue East).   

Neighborhoods near Harlem include Hamilton Heights,, Morningside Heights, Washington Heights and Inwood.  Sometimes New Yorkers use them interchangeably and it becomes confusing.

Transportation played a large part in the development of Harlem.  As transportation improved with the construction of the New York and Harlem Railroad in 1831 and, more significantly, the elevated subway trains in 1880, Harlem’s population expanded.  Italian immigrants were brought to Spanish Harlem in the 1870s by an Irish-American contractor who hired them to build the tracks for a First Avenue trolley.  Eastern European Jews moved to Harlem in 1917 when real estate prices were declining.  Later, when Penn Station was being constructed (1906 to 1910) and housing in that neighborhood destroyed, many of its black residents relocated to Harlem.  By 1920, central Harlem was predominately black.  Harlem’s black population peaked in the 1950’s as blacks from the American southern states and the West Indies arrived.  They were followed by Hispanics immigrants as well as the return of some whites – most of whom had fled Harlem between 1920 and 1930.  Despite Harlem’s large African-American population, it had several whites-only establishments including the very famous jazz Cotton Club and the fashionable 13-story Hotel Theresa (at 125th Street & Seventh Avenue or Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard & Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard), constructed in 1912 – 1913,  for white guests only (it was integrated in 1940).   At one time the area around West 133rd Street was known as "Jungle Alley" because of the jazz clubs located there.  Among those clubs were Connie's Inn, Small's Paradise, the Cotton Club, and Jungle Alley.  Many of these clubs had a predominately white clientele.

Harlem, an area of Manhattan covering three square miles, became the black capital and cultural center of America and the world.  Between 1920 and 1930, when African-Americans were fleeing the South and migrating to urban areas in the North, almost 175,00 African-Americans moved to Harlem turning it into a place with the largest concentration of black people in the world.  Poet, Claude McKay, described Harlem as:  "more than the Negro capital of the nation.  It is the Negro capital of the world.  And as New York is the most glorious experiment on earth of different races of divers groups of humanity struggling and scrambling to live together, so Harlem is the most interesting sample of black humanity marching along with white humanity."

A period known as the Harlem Renaissance (also called the New Negro Movement and the Negro Renaissance) occurred in Harlem after the first World War in the 1920's and early 1930's.  It was a celebration of African-American heritage and the first time that the nation had taken African American literature and artists seriously and it produced such writers as poet Langston Hughes (THE NEGRO SPEAKS OF RIVERS), Zola Neale Hurston  (THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD), Claude McKay (HOME TO HARLEM and HARLEM:  NEGRO METROPOLIS, HARLEM SHADOWS, IF WE MUST DIE) and Jean Toomer (CANE).  Poet Langston Hughes described the period as a time of the "expression of our individual dark-skinned selves"   Two books would define the movement:  THE NEW NEGRO by Alain Locke and THE BOOK OF AMERICAN NEGRO POETRY by James Weldon Johnson.  Jazz  and other arts were thriving in the Harlem of this time, but the Harlem Renaissance was really all about literature.  A'Lelia Walker Robinson, daughter of Madam C.J. Walker, the founder of a hair product company for black women, held very popular salons for literary figures at her Harlem home.

JAMES VAN DER ZEE (also spelled as Vanderzee), an African-American photographer set up his own studio in Harlem in 1916 and photographed many of Harlem residents.  His photographs were usually indoor portraits but he also photographed weddings and funerals.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art created a Harlem on My Mind exhibit of his work in 1969 and Van Der Zee's photographs were published in a book with the same title.  MARVIN AND MORGAN SMITH, twin brothers, established a portrait studio on 125th Street near the Apollo Theater in 1934 and photographed local residents and celebrities for over 30 years.

CARL VAN VECHTEN, an American photographer and writer with an affection for Harlem, did some wonderful black and white portraits of black jazz artists and celebrities and a series of women portraits beginning in the 1930's (continuing until his death in 1964).  He also befriended and promoted the works of Langston Hughes and Richard Wright.  An extensive collection of his portraits can be found at The Library of Congress.  These portraits are a Who's Who of the period and his subjects included:  Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Zora Neale Hurston, Marlon Brando, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Orson Welles and many others.  Van Vechten was also an assistant music critic for the New York Times and the first American dance critic.  Van Vechten wrote a controversial novel, NIGGER HEAVEN.  Although homosexual, Van Vechten married and he and his wife gave wonderful parties at their 57th Street apartment.  Bessie Smith, a good friend of Van Vechten's, often performed at his parties.  

Some of the greatest African-Americans performers of the time (Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers) got their start at Harlem’s Cotton Club (1926) which, ironically, was a whites-only establishment.  Ethel Waters would introduce Harold Arlen’s classic, Stormy Weather, at the Cotton Club.  Charles Parker and Dizzy Gillespie often performed at Minton’s Playhouse, a jazz club in Harlem which dates back to the 1940s (at the Cecil Hotel), operated by Henry Minton, a clarinet player.  (The birth of bi-bop is said to have occurred at Minton’s.)  Other Harlem jazz spots were:  Clark Moore’s Uptown House, Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, Dan Wall’s Chili House, Brandy House, the Cave, Harlem Uproar House, the Hoofers Club, the Kit Kat Club, the 101 Club, the Plantation Club, and Bert Hall's Rhythm Club. 

Publisher William Randolph Hearst built a movie studio, Hearst Cosmopolitan, in Harlem on Second Avenue, between 126th and East 127th Streets.  The studio had four  stages, 32 dressing rooms and a 30-by-70-foot pool.  (The 126th Street Bus Depot is located at the studio's former site.)  Hearst's actress mistress, Marion Davies, starred in many movies filmed there.  Architect Joseph Urban was a set designer for the studio.  Urban also designed the Paramount Theatre Building and the Hearst Magazine Building in New York. 

The Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, founded in 1991, is the largest center for black culture in the world.  Located on West 135th Street it is a part of the New York Public Library system.  Langston Hughes' ashes are buried within a floor medallion near the entrance to an auditorium at the Schomburg Center. 

One of Harlem's most famous landmarks and night spots is the Apollo Theater (photo 1) on West 125th Street which was built in 1914 for white audiences only and served only white audiences until the year 1934.  Many African-American jazz greats and entertainers got their start here.  The Lafayette and Lincoln Theaters were two other legitimate theaters in Harlem and they both were owned and operated by whites.  The Hotel Theresa, once known as the Waldorf Astoria of Harlem, is the tall building on the right  in the background.  

 

The Harlem Courthouse on East 121st Street in East Harlem (photo 2) was constructed from 1891 - 1893.  

 

The modern more urban Harlem -- with a McDonald's and HBO advertisements painted on the side of apartment buildings -- is seen at West 125th Street (photo 3).

 

Comments