“The majority of the stores, the 99-cent store, they’re gone. My neighbor is a beer drinker, he drinks inexpensive beer, Colt 45 or Coors...you can’t even buy that in the stores. The stores have imported beers from Germany. The food being sold—feta cheese instead of cheddar. That’s a whole other world.” –Gwen Walker, 55 long-time resident of West Harlem
“They moved the whole block out, they don’t hire us. They’re not taking anyone in the ‘hood. And when they’re done, they get an easy $2,000 a month for an apartment.” –Theo Digler, self-proclaimed “born and raised” Harlemite
“I think [Harlem] is going to be less than 50 percent black by 2020. If all of that changes, what remains is this historical memory of the place that was black, but is something very different.” –Stacey Sutton, an urban planning professor at Columbia
I remember as a teenager being so excited when I was finally allowed to take a bus with my friends into Manhattan without supervision. As my grandfather drove us to the bus stop, he gave us these words of advice: “In Manhattan, the streets are numbered. Don’t go any higher than 95th street. You’ll be heading into Harlem, and that’s a dangerous area.”
That was about 30 years ago! So much has changed. And yet…last week on Easter Sunday, I casually mentioned to my family that I’d be heading up to Harlem for a school assignment. My grandfather passed away over ten years ago, but my mom visibly paled. Old myths and habits die hard, I guess.
Harlem is truly a fascinating place. Between 1915 and 1970 it became a key part of the “Great Migration”—when more than six million African-Americans moved out of the South to relocate in cities across the Northeast, Midwest and West. In twenty years’ time (between 1910 and 1930), cities such as Chicago, New York, Cleveland and Detroit saw their African-American population increase by nearly 40 percent.
“[The Great Migration] was a response to an economic and social structure not of their making. They did what humans have done for centuries when life became untenable—what the pilgrims did under the tyranny of British rule,…what the Irish did when there was nothing to eat, what the European Jews did during the spread of Nazism, what the landless in Russia, Italy, China and elsewhere did when something better across the ocean called to them. What binds these stories together was the back-against-the-wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history have often done.
--Isabel Wikerson, The Warmth of Other Suns
The Great Migration had a huge impact on America. The South lost a large part of their workforce. Ghettos were created out of necessity, as a result of the limits of where African Americans could live. So the Great Migration changed the way our cities look and feel, the music people listened to and the politics of our country.
The Jim Crow Laws in the South
It seems incredible, now in 2013, to read about some of the laws that existed in the South up until 1965. There were “white only” windows at the post office in Florida. There were separate windows where black people would pick up their license plate in Mississippi. But for me, one of the most unbelievable rules I read in The Warmth of Other Suns was this: “A railing divided the stairs onto the train, one side of the railing for white passengers, the other for colored, so the soles of their shoes would not touch the same stair.” I must have re-read that passage three times, because I simply couldn’t believe what I was reading. In what universe would people think that was acceptable behavior?
Fast forward back to the present, 2013. Harlem has been in the process of gentrification for over ten years now. Gentrification is defined as “the restoration of run-down urban areas by the middle class resulting in the displacement of low-income residents.” (Source: www.wordnetweb.princeton.edu)
Between 2000 and 2010, the number of non-Hispanic white residents in West Harlem (the area from 110th to 145th street and from Morningside Ave to Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard,) increased remarkably. According to New York census data, it increased by 405.1% from 1,483 to 7,491. (Source: http://www.columbiaspectator.com/2012/12/10/west-harlem-identity-crisis)
The Assignment: Go to Harlem and look for struggle in the landscape.
On a beautiful Saturday afternoon, (March 23, 2013) two friends and I traveled to Harlem for a day of observation. We boarded a bus on 125th street and 2nd Avenue, and took it to the west side and decided to walk the length.
The first thing that struck me (even though I knew I was supposed to be looking for struggle), was how absolutely beautiful some of the old brownstones were. Beautiful old buildings on tree-lined streets. You’ll see in my photos I snapped pictures of some amazing old molding and architecture on some buildings. I saw lots of construction and new buildings going up, but it made me happy to see that some people appreciated the beauty of the original; you could see while some buildings were being rebuilt, they were taking care to leave some of the old features intact.
We saw a lot of colorful murals painted on the sides of building walls. But one that struck me in particular was adjacent to a large statue of Adam Clayton Powell. Besides being a wonderful mural portraying residents of Harlem dancing and deep in thought, there were words written in the mural. Not in speech balloons, or coming out of anyone’s mouth, the words were just floating in space, as a sort of message to the world at large:
In terms of “struggle” we saw lots of instances of old and new clashing. A building which looked about 100 years old next to a ChuckECheese, Chase bank, T-mobile store and Game stop. An enormous Gap store next to Mart 125 on 125th street. A MAC makeup store. (My brand!)
The wonderful old Apollo Theater which I watched nearly every Saturday night growing up on television (“Showtime at the Apollo”). My friend Anna remarked, “It looks so much smaller in person,” and right next door a brand spanking new structure called the “Apollo Music Café.” Another beautiful old building with a small grocery store with a “for sale” sign in the window, and notices that there were apartments for sale.
It was such a lovely spring afternoon, and everything was peaceful as we walked along the streets, stopping to “ooh” and “aah” whenever we found something surprising to photograph, like an old church.
And then it happened.
I was taking photos of St. Martin church on the corner of 122nd street and Lenox Avenue when an African-American man, about 55-60 years of age stopped me in my tracks and asked me (in a not so nice voice) what I was doing. Not wanting to get into a deep conversation (or confrontation), I simply said we were admiring the architecture of the old brownstones. My friends pointed to a particular strip of apartments on a street corner where the entire building was “rounded” on the edges. “You just don’t see buildings like this anyway else in the city,” my friend Dina said. But the gentleman was not appeased by our compliments. “These are people’s homes you’re photographing,” he said. “So I ask you again, what are you doing here? Are you going to post these pictures on social media for all the world to see? Maybe invite more of your friends up here to see ‘the pretty buildings?’ When you post these photographs somewhere, you’re giving your point of view, and you’re no Bill Beutel. A word to the wise. STOP. TAKING.PICTURES.”
It was startling, to say the least. I don’t really get what he was saying about “Bill Beutel”—(although I know he was a New York Channel 7 anchorman—who has been dead for at least ten years!) So I guess he didn’t like the idea that I was able to post photos of Harlem somewhere and say whatever I wanted about them. I can only assume “you’re not Bill Beutel,” meant I was not an unbiased reporter fairly portraying the news.
Then he continued on his way, but the incident made me a little sad, because it was the first sign that not everyone was happy to see me there.
My friends and I discussed whether or not to include this incident in this paper. After all, he was just one person, and my friend Dina thought he seemed a little nutty. "Bill Beutel? " she said and laughed. "Who talks about a news guy who's been dead for ten years? Was that the last time he watched television?" But I couldn't not include this. I thought it was the best example we had seen so far of "struggle in the landscape." Here was a man who was obviously angry to see me in his neighborhood, taking pictures. And the more I complimented Harlem, the more upset he became, so even though he didn't say it, I definitely felt there was more going on below the surface.
Happily, to balance things out, a little while later while I was taking photos of my friends for fun, an African-American woman approached me. I immediately stiffened, remembering my last encounter, but this woman smiled at me and asked if I would like her to take a photo of me with my friends. So hopefully the angry man was the exception, not the rule.
The times they are a changin’. Harlem is a fascinating mix of old and new, rich and poor, sometimes slammed right next to each other. For the most part the people we saw walking down the streets seemed busy and unperturbed, and were all going their separate ways peacefully. I couldn’t decide who I felt “Harlem belonged to”—the old timers, who had lived there for many years, or the new families and young professionals that were enjoying the fruits of gentrification. Why couldn’t it belong to everybody, I thought? Everyone seemed to be getting along just fine.
But then I remembered the words in the mural.
I thought of the unhappy man who got right up in my face and asked
pointedly, “What are you doing here?”
Perhaps, things weren’t as “fine” as they seemed on the surface. Perhaps, like Harlem itself, some of the people who live there need to change a little bit as well.
Quote 1 (Gwen Walker)
Quotes 2 and 3 (Theo Digler and Stacey Sutton)
Wilkerson, Isabel, 2010. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’'s Great Migration. Random House, New York.