The Ordinary People of Harlem
Spring is a good time of year to revisit a topic that’s near and dear to me—Harlem’s Mid-20th Century history. I write about this important period in my awarding winning book, Sugar Hill Where the Sun Rose Over Harlem. As some of you know, I grew up on Sugar Hill in the 1950s-‘60s. Contrary to national polls and opinions at that time, it was an amazing and historic place to live. Even as a pre-teen, I understood and appreciated that Harlem was such a desirable place to be that people risked their lives to get there.
Too often, books about Harlem (frequently penned by outsiders) attributed Harlem’s energy and fame to the rich and famous—names like Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, or Thurgood Marshall. Certainly they added to the glamour and notoriety, but they were only part of Harlem’s story. Few writers document Harlem’s “ordinary people.” I mean bus drivers, teachers, secretaries, bartenders, postal workers, housewives and even controversial characters like numbers bankers. https://www.amazon.com/Sugar-Hill-Where-Rose-Harlem/dp/0984692908/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1K815A3RPWIEI&dchild=1&keywords=sugar+hill+where+the+sun+rose+over+harlem&qid=1617297602&sprefix=sugar+hill+where+%2Caps%2C178&sr=8-1
Their hard work, love of community, and often colorful behavior kept the engines running and the magic flowing. These were the men and women were the backbone of Harlem. They raised our generation, maintained family and historical customs, created new mystiques and kept an eye on the street and the people.
Even when downtowners were writing off Harlem as nothing but a ghetto, so much remained unparalleled. Take our unique and architecturally significant brownstones. The Civil Rights movement mushroomed in the 1960s and most organizations like SNCC, NAACP, and CORE had a national presence in Harlem. The list goes on with excellent restaurants, night clubs, parks, historic colonial buildings, City College, the New York Giants.
Along with big stars like Nina Simone, emerging young geniuses of jazz were honing their skills in Harlem. Renowned saxophonist Sonny Rollins lived two houses from me. The famous artist, quilter, author Faith Ringgold also lived on Edgecombe Ave. This was also the era of teenage street corner doo-wopers. These groups brought us the pre-Mo-town, rock and roll/soul sound.
Today, Harlem is gentrifying and changing so fast that each time I go back to visit, I’m disoriented. There is a non-stop building boom and the cost of living has skyrocketed. Progress happens and that’s often a good thing. I just hope the grannies and low wage earners still get a piece of the pie. It peeves me when gentrification wipes out the past. New uptown arrivals don’t know where they are. Sure, at $3-5million, they’ve found the last “affordable” brownstone in Manhattan, along with those cool French, Italian or soul food restaurants within walking distance. I wish them all the best.
But do these lucky new arrivals know about Harlem’s glorious past? Perhaps more importantly, I just hope they care.