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Books about the history of Harlem have long fascinated me — my favorite being “When Harlem Was in Vogue” by David Levering Lewis. However, a more recent book, titled simply “Harlem” by Jonathan Gill, presents a more comprehensive history — going all the way back to the time when the Dutch were the first settlers of New York, and named that area for the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands.
Most of us today think of Harlem as a black community, but it was not that for most of its 400-year history. John James Audubon, famed for his studies of birds, was among the many people who at various times organized efforts to keep blacks from moving into Harlem — efforts that, in the long run, met with what might be called very limited success.
Among the many well-known people who were not black who were born in Harlem were Groucho Marx, Milton Berle, Arthur Miller and Bennett Cerf.
Like other communities, Harlem held many very different kinds of people at the same time, both before and after it became predominantly black.
There was an Italian community in East Harlem, but it was not just an undifferentiated Italian community. People from Genoa lived clustered together, as did people from Naples, Sicily and other parts of Italy. Jews from Germany lived separately from Jews who originated in Eastern Europe, who in turn lived in separate enclaves of people from different parts of Eastern Europe.
Harlem had the highest crime rate in New York before blacks moved there, and a photograph in this book, taken a hundred years ago, showed the worst housing conditions I have ever seen in Harlem. In some of the poorer Italian neighborhoods in East Harlem, people went barefoot in the summer and lived on one meal a day, consisting of thin soup.
There were also more upscale areas of Harlem, and different classes of people sorted themselves out, both when Harlem was white and after it became black. During the early era of black Harlem, as author Jonathan Gill notes: “Observant subway riders could see the porters and domestics get off at West 125th Street, the clerks and secretaries depart at West 135th Street, and the doctors and lawyers leave at West 145th Street.”
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