For too many years, Harlem was (unfairly) associated with images of urban blight, with negativity, race riots, and the like. Yet the truth is that Harlem has had a rich, layered history, home to successive waves of migrants seeking a better life for themselves and their loved ones, full of culture, longing, and the promise of a brighter future for those within its concrete confines. To focus only on Harlem’s difficult times during the mid-twentieth century is to ignore a grand tapestry of the human experience, rife with innovation, invention, and change.
Harlem, once upon a time...
Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, Harlem was a picturesque, rural area, dotted with farms and greenery, and home to wealthy and upper-middle class families. Views of the Hudson River and the rolling, lush countryside proved attractive in enticing well-to-do lawyers, doctors, and other eminent personalities; thanks to its natural charms and close proximity to more developed Manhattan, Harlem was seen as a relaxing, bucolic getaway.
The real turning point was the creation of the New York and Harlem Railroad (today’s Metro North transit system) in 1831. Along with the development of its waterfront, the railroad linked Harlem with the rest of Manhattan, finally allowing New Yorkers to move easily uptown, alleviating the pressure on overcrowded lower Manhattan. As such, successive waves of immigrants, including the Irish, Jews, and Italians, started moving north, settling into Harlem and making it their home.
How did the Harlem Renaissance begin?
Our story begins much later: from 1900 to 1970, six million African-Americans moved north, leaving behind racism, segregation, and discrimination in the South for opportunities (mostly factory jobs) in the North, Midwest, and West. For two decades between 1910 and 1930, cities like New York saw their African American population increase by as much as 40%.
As with many other mass migrations in our country’s history, the Great Migration, as it would later be called, was fraught with tension and resentment on both the part of the newcomers as well as established residents. Yet by and large, life in the northern cities was, in comparison to the Jim Crow South, far better: as Isabel Wilkerson, author of the award-winning history The Warm of Other Suns, wrote, at the time, “it was illegal for black and white people to play checkers together in Birmingham. And there were even black and white Bibles…”
Thankfully, the north, while not perfect, lacked many of the systemic barriers that African Americans faced in the south. And as the migrants would soon find, gone too were the restrictions on creative and artistic expression. From their newfound home, a surge of African American artists, poets, writers, and activists created something new: the Harlem Renaissance.
Harlem’s first great flowering
The names that arise from the first Harlem Renaissance are staggering, not simply in their prominence, but also in their quantity. Literati like writer Zora Neale Hurston, poet Langston Hughes, activist Marcus Garvey, author Ralph Ellison, visionary W.E.B. DuBois, and many more came of age (or came to fame) during this dynamic, if turbulent time. Though the arts flourished throughout the area, it was accompanied by a rise in poverty and crime, an unfortunate consequence of large-scale migration.
All the same, Harlem was groundbreaking, not simply for its culture, but also for its norms, vastly different than the rest of the city. Blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians mingled together in venues like the Renaissance Theater and Casino, the venerable dance hall that was wholly owned, operated, and built by African Americans. Others headed over to the Savoy Ballroom, a hotbed of swing dance and interracial mixing, and the birthplace of the Lindy Hop, a daring, difficult, heels-over-head dance maneuver that came to define the jazzy good times of the Roaring Twenties. These days, the Ballroom has been transformed into an upscale apartment complex known as the Savoy Park Apartments.
Other nightclubs, like the Cotton Club or Connie’s Inn, were somewhat more upscale, excluding blacks, but permitting whites and mixed-race, light-skinned African Americans into its confines.
Whatever the venue was, patrons could count on two things: furious dancing and first-rate jazz, performed by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, or Count Basie. Indeed, the Renaissance of Harlem was so varied, so rich, that countless books, movies, articles, have been produced; it would take a library, and perhaps a museum, to cover it all.
End and blight
Though there’s not necessarily a specific end for the first Harlem Renaissance, historians agree that, by the time of World War II (and the turmoil of the Civil Rights Era), the luminaries of the Renaissance were long gone, if not forgotten. Indeed, the decades between the Civil Rights Era and the 1990s would prove to be some of Harlem’s hardest times.
Urban blight came to define the area as thousands of homes were abandoned, or worse yet, set on fire by squatters and landlords to claim insurance money and strip out the valuable innards, such as copper wiring and rebar. By and far, during this time, Harlem’s promise as a golden city for the oppressed remained just that: a promise, lost amidst the violence and ruin brought on by redlining, sustained neglect, and social unrest.
Things turned around in the 1990s, specifically with renewed efforts to revitalize infrastructure, rebuild affordable housing, as well as an influx of white, more affluent residents seeking a break from the crushing rents of Manhattan. Yet with this displacement of longtime residents and a corresponding rise in rent and cost of living, came another, interesting development: a second cultural flowering.
Much of this flowering was, in fact, spearheaded by food, specifically a whole generation of new restaurateurs. Most prominent among them was Marcus Samuelsson, an Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef whose distinguished career led him to open Red Rooster, less a restaurant and more a tribute to both Harlem’s rich food traditions and the gastronomic future, a equal parts edible history and culinary prophecy. At the same time, vaunted, traditional eateries like Sylvia’s, a venerable soul food joint, were “re-discovered” by hungry yuppies and eager foodies, barreling back into the national spotlight.
Soon, this new renaissance came to encompass more than food. Education too, was reimagined by bold initiatives like the Harlem Children’s Zone, which sought to tackle widespread, systemic poverty that still remained. And for a new generation unfamiliar with both the Harlem Renaissance and urban blight, Marvel’s superhero story Luke Cage, set in the borough (and where Harlem is as much a character as its fearless, smooth-talking protagonist), sparked curiosity, and a revival in interest, of sorts.
In truth, no single article can do justice to either the Harlem Renaissance or its later revival; yet if nothing else, an introduction to the history and energy of the times can spark attention, revive interest, and perhaps, spur you to learn more, on your own.