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By the time I was growing up on West 145th Street in the 1940s, its inhabitants were by no means limited to doctors and lawyers, or even clerks and secretaries.
But the pattern of internal self-sorting continued. With the later breakdown of racial barriers in housing, many of the black middle class and those aspiring to be middle class moved completely out of ghettoes like Harlem. It became a much worse place, for that and other reasons.
Complaints that the old neighborhood is going downhill have been made by people of all races. Even though that may be true, it can be misleading when the people who lived in those neighborhoods have moved up economically, and now have more upscale housing in more genteel neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the newcomers in their old neighborhoods may likewise be living in better housing than they had before. People moving up often means neighborhoods moving down.
Nevertheless, it is painful for me to realize that youngsters growing up in the same places in Harlem where I grew up more than 60 years ago have far less chance of rising economically, educationally or otherwise.
Harlem youngsters today undoubtedly have more material things than I had in my day. I was 23 years old, and living in Washington, before I had a television set, given to me by my sister when she bought a new television set for herself.
But what I got growing up in Harlem was an education that equipped me to go on to leading colleges and universities, long before there was affirmative action. That is what youngsters growing up in Harlem today are very unlikely to get — and affirmative action in college admissions is no substitute, if you come in unequipped to make the opportunity pay off.
People didn’t live in fear of drive-by shootings, in the Harlem of my day, if only because we had nothing to drive by in. Old photographs of Harlem show ample parking space on the streets. It was not an idyllic community, by any stretch of the imagination, but it had values that mattered in our daily lives, and common decency was in fact common. No material things can substitute for that.
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