Harlem Then and Now

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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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  • mlcblog

    Sweet. I love nostalgia, especially when there's a history worth considering, as this one is.

  • Schlomotion

    I enjoyed this article and was also amused to consider that the 1940's tenement housing was also the 1970's tenement housing that I grew up in. But hey, at least some kind soul added asbestos to keep the pipes warm.

    • aleric_kong

      On asbestos:

      ' "The majority of evidence is bogus," said Lester Brickman, a law professor and asbestos expert at Yeshiva University's Benjamin Cardozo Law School.

      "It's a scam. It's the biggest scam in the history of the universe. There's nothing bigger, never was."

      Brickman's opinion is supported in part by a recent study in the professional journal Academic Radiology in which researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore asked six independent reviewers to re-examine 492 X-rays submitted by plaintiff lawyers to support their clients' claims of lung scarring. The initial X-ray readers had reported lung abnormalities in 95.9 percent of the films. The independent reviewers found them in 4.5 percent. '

      another trial lawyer's scam which helps to destroy US healthcare to let scumbag lawyers like John Edwards sue doctors and steal their houses. But hey, federal mandates to force employers to pay for the worker's $3 birth control and $10,000 sex changes are the real issue.

  • lisag

    What makes anyone get ahead or have a better life? Changing their behavior. It's hard to tell someone how their life will change. They have to do it and see the results. Sometimes the change is slow, sometimes there are setbacks, but change will come. People don't want to change because it is hard work and it is easier to sit in a funk and expect others to better your life.

  • g_jochnowitz

    New York City Councilman Peter Vallone feels that the increasing problems concerning crime are the result of not having enough police officers and not cracking down on illegal weapons. http://www.amny.com/urbanite-1.812039/more-cops-s

  • artcohn

    My mother was born in 1914 in Harlem on e.103 street between First and Second ave.Nowdays it would be called East Harlem or Spanish Harlem. It was a Jewish enclave of Jews from Byelo-Russia (Minsk).
    Youngsters in Harlem CAN get a good education today because of Deborah Kenny and the Harlem Village Acadamy, which she founded. http://money.cnn.com/2012/05/11/smallbusiness/deb

    • http://libertyandculture.blogspot.com/ JasonPappas

      And they can also go across town to CCNY and get a good college education like I did.

  • A. Keen Observer

    It isn't that youngsters CAN'T get a good education now. It's that they DON'T WANT one. You don't need to be educated to be part of a flash mob and get stuff for free.