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Harlem Neighborhood Primer

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Last week, we released our first New York City neighborhood primer about Greenwich Village. In this episode, we're going for a walk through the legendary streets of Harlem.


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How much do you know about New York City’s Harlem? Part of Gesso’s city guides, the Harlem Neighborhood Primer is one of many neighborhood primers that we plan to unveil. Our goal is to provide you with city guides that enable more meaningful explorations of the world and enhance our experiences, not detract from them. Whether you’re a local resident or someone living across the globe with a bit of wanderlust, we’ve put together this neighborhood primer to help you see this part of Manhattan in a whole new light.  


Harlem occupies a large portion of northern Manhattan, extending from right above Central Park all the way to 155th Street with the Hudson River on the west and the Harlem River on the east. Originally a Dutch settlement established in 1658 known as Nieuw Haarlem (named after Haarlem in the Netherlands), the area would evolve from rural farmland in the 18th century to a bustling cultural center associated with prominent figures like Daniel Day (Dapper Dan), Althea Gibson, Norman Rockwell, Eleanora Fagan (Billie Holiday), Claude McKay, Sean Combs (Puff Daddy), and Angela Bassett, just to name a few.    




Though Harlem today is known as the heart of the city’s Black community, in part due to the influence of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, the history of its inhabitants include communities of many backgrounds. The early Dutch settlers forced out the original Native American residents, mostly members of the Wecksquaesgeek tribe, closely related to the Lenape and Mahicans. Harlem was even a point of interest during the Revolutionary War in 1776. George Washington won his first American victory in Harlem in the Battle of Harlem Heights, forcing the British to retreat. After the war and into the early 1800s, Harlem served as bucolic grounds for farmers and their livestock. However, this setting began to change around 1873. 


The financial crash known as the Panic of 1873 caused an economic depression, leading to a huge drop in real estate prices. With the decrease in Harlem’s property value came new groups of immigrants who could afford to live in the area. Immigrants from Italy and Eastern European Jews began to move in. Harlem even became home to the second largest Jewish population in the world at the time. Landlords continuing to fear the enormous drop in prices began allowing more members of the Black community to rent their properties, but it wasn’t until the Great Migration that the Black community began to really make Harlem their home. 


The Great Migration forced over six million members of the Black community to flee the South throughout 1916 and 1970. Poor economics, segregation, and a rise in white supremacy caused many members of the Southern Black community to head north in hopes of less racial oppression and attractive industrial job prospects after World War I. Black populations in northern cities began to grow tremendously. In just one decade from 1910 to 1920, New York had seen a 66% increase in its Black population.  


Life in the north still involved discrimination, but the Black community that settled in Harlem began to build the foundation of a strong community that would redefine what it meant to be black in America. The goal of the New Negro Movement was to completely reinvent the black identity. Forgetting the stereotypes and violence from the South, the Black community in Harlem wanted to embrace a respected and independent Black culture. They demanded full participation in American society, from music and literature to theatre and politics. The movement embodied racial pride, empowerment, and change in the American mindset.  


This new mindset was demonstrated in the output from the Harlem Renaissance. Harlem exploded with black intellectuals, artists, singers, and musicians among many other influential individuals. Alain Locke, father of the Harlem Renaissance and openly gay, became the first black Rhodes scholar. In 1924 Jessi Redmond Fauset, literary editor for The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, published her novel, There Is Confusion, exploring ideas of black individuals finding their identities in a white Manhattan. Langston Hughes published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, in 1926. A college student at New York University, Countee Cullen went on to publish numerous pieces of poetry including Color, Copper Sun, and The Ballad of the Brown Girl. Jazz legends like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Bessie Smith took Harlem’s nightlife scene by storm. Artist Aaron Douglas created illustrations for various publications, depicting the struggles of being black in America. The list goes on.


The spirit of the Harlem Renaissance didn’t end there, points of interest like the Apollo Theatre took off right after the Harlem Renaissance ended in 1934. Famous events at the Apollo like its Amateur Night would go on to introduce legends into American mainstream media like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Jimi Hendrix, and the Jackson 5.  


Today, walking through the streets of Harlem you can see the Apollo Theatre still in action, pass by murals of legendary musicians, or visit museums about the history of jazz. Despite concerns of gentrification, Harlem and everything that it stands for continues to persist.   


Listen to Gesso’s Harlem Neighborhood Primer for more insights on this Manhattan neighborhood and be sure to subscribe to Gesso Media podcasts for future releases. If you enjoyed this neighborhood primer about Harlem, download the Gesso Experiences app for more stories and snippets about interesting spots in the area such as the Langston Hughes Residence, the 135th St. branch of The New York Public Library, the Harlem Hospital, and the Harlem Townhouse of Maya Angelou. 

Harle Tenement in 1935


I’m Michael Reynolds, and you’re listening to Primer - a podcast from Gesso Media about human creativity, history and the spaces we live to learn about. Let’s dive in.


<SFX: subway noise>


Hop on the subway to uptown Manhattan and you’ll come to a neighborhood bounded to the south by Central Park, to the north by Washington Heights, to the west by Columbia University, and to the east by an 8-mile river that divides Manhattan from the Bronx and Brooklyn. This place? The legendary neighborhood known as Harlem. 


<SFX: hip hop beat>

<SFX: laughter and lively footsteps>


On any given day, Harlem crackles with energy, delighting the senses. One can spot the pulsing colors of street art honoring neighborhood icons, smell the comforting, savory aroma of soul food, and watch residents greet one another as they pick up essentials at their local bodega before heading to work. 


And all of these happenings just might be scored by the rich hip-hop and rap music / by artists like Puff Daddy and ASAP Rocky/, just a couple of many popular musicians hailing from the area. 


<SFX: fade out hip hop beat>


Today, we’ll take a dive beneath the surface of Harlem’s modern wonders to uncover its incredibly rich history as the homeland of staggering cultural output/, and as a fighting ground for dignity and justice. 


<SFX: old timey music> 


Though Harlem is arguably most famous as the home of a dynamic Black community/, it hosted many different visitors in its early years. These ranged from the original inhabitants, Native Americans who were forced out by colonial-era Dutch settlers, to George Washington himself, whose first American victory was at the Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776. 


<SFX: colonial war-era sounds?> 


The Battle of Harlem Heights was the most action Harlem would see for the next hundred years. During the 1800s, it was mostly ground for farmers and their livestock. 


<SFX: sheep bleating> 


But all this changed around the financial crash known as the Panic of 1873. Real estate prices plummeted in Harlem, which meant that destitute immigrants from Italy and Eastern European Jews could afford to move in. For a stint, Harlem held the second largest Jewish population in the world. 


But around this time, in the 19-teens, Harlem became the birthplace of what many acknowledge as a seminal golden age of Black culture: the Harlem Renaissance. 


<SFX: fade in sound-alike jazz> 


This fruitful time was also triggered by the Panic of 1873. The cost of living had dropped so precipitously after the crisis that landlords relented and began renting to Black people. This ushered in the first wave of Black community in the neighborhood. But it wasn’t until the Great Migration began in 1916 that the Black population in Harlem really started booming. 


<SFX: fast paced music to offset historical monologue, lol> 


The Great Migration was a mass movement of Southern Black people to large metropolises up north and west. Having weathered oppressive economic conditions in the South after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and dangerous racism and even lynching from groups like the Ku Klux Klan, leaving for northern cities became a critical escape route. 


There were a few waves of the Great Migration, but most of it happened / during World War One. Over 175 thousand black people in total moved to Harlem. Under the leadership of Black real estate entrepreneurs like the Philip Payton Jr. Company /, Central Harlem went from being 32% black in 1920 to over 70% just a decade later.  


<SFX: pause, music break/transition?> 


While Black people still faced discrimination and oppression in the allegedly more “liberal” northern cities like New York, they settled into Harlem, and began building a community of thinkers, artists, creators, and authors. It was time to redefine their lives in a new environment, and in doing so, dignify and reframe what it meant to be a Black person living in America for outsiders and insiders alike. 


This novel school of thought was known by many as the New Negro movement. Those who ascribed to this movement aimed to escape the stereotypes, prejudice and abuse that had dogged them in the South and through history. In the place of these wrongs, many Harlem residents had the goal of inserting a new chapter to Black history -- one where Black people had a respected and independent culture. They wanted rightful recognition as vanguards of music, literature, dance, theatre, politics, and the arts -- disciplines that had previously been recognized only when mastered by elite whites. 


So when these disciplines and New Negro mentality burst onto the New York scene in the early 1900s, it was with the roaring ferocity of a people tamped down, for so many years, who were suppressed no more. 


<SFX: rumbling + dam breaking/waterfall noise?> 


Like a dam breaking, Black culture swept the city, blossoming and producing names that remain household to this day. W.E.B. Du Bois, Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Duke Ellington were just a few of the many Black culture revolutionaries who made their name in Harlem. 


It’s a delight to imagine Harlem as it must have been in the 20s -- although the innovation occurring at the time was so expansive and fast-paced that it is nearly impossible to summarize. 


Black intellectuals from all the boroughs and cities across the United States would congregate in Harlem, many atte  nding events and doing research at the 135th St. branch of the New York Public Library. 


<SFX: pages turning> 


Subjects of debate ranged. A hot topic was European primitivism, which elevated yet exoticized quote-unquote “primitive” people like the descendants of Africans. Another was whether Black people should actively fight white stereotypes, or disregard them altogether, regardless of their perpetuation. 


Politics and arts were closely intertwined in Renaissance-era Harlem. This was thanks to magazines like the NAACP’s The Crisis, and the National Urban League’s Opportunity. At the heart of this new political movement was the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign, supported by the literature of Black authors like James Weldon Jonson, Jessie Fauset, and W.E.B. Du Bois. 


<SFX: pencils scribbling> 


One can imagine these literary greats -- including, amongst many others, Langston Hughs, Nella Larsen, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Georgia Douglas Johnson -- scribbling away at their next poem or novel in coffee shops and warm apartments in Harlem. , perhaps inspired by the political discourse parlayed by well-known thinkers like Alain Locke and Charles S. Johnson. 


<SFX: set the scene -- music, bar sounds, etc> 


And then by night, jazz and the blues took the neighborhood -- and city -- and world -- by storm. Imagine it just so: soft yellow lighting pouring from the windows of a jazz bar, a dancing saxophone or piano riff floating through the cracks in the windows, while black and white people alike sat back to enjoy a covert cocktail. 


Yes, white people enjoyed the Harlem nightlife too, for better or worse. While jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway serenaded audiences, and new Black dance forms like the Charleston and tap caught on like wildfire, white audiences were gaining new exposure to Black culture and all the innovation and artistry it could bring. 


But they picked and chose the parts of culture they wanted to respect and appropriate. For example, The Cotton Club, a place widely known for making a name for such musicians as Duke Ellington, actually barred black patrons from the audience. 


There’s no doubt Black culture was en vogue for whites during the Harlem Renaissance -- but it’s worth questioning whether it would still be respected if that hadn’t been the case. How would Harlem Renaissance be remembered today had white people not inserted themselves into the narrative? Today, gentrification has sadly priced out many Harlem locals --  the 2010 census showed there are now more white people than black in Harlem. What would have happened if Harlem was left as an independent black community? 


<SFX: pick back up music> 


Regardless of the answers to these questions, we know it was a lively scene at the time. One map, dated 1932, depicts a number of capers on the streets north of Central Park. Places like the Radium Club, Tillie’s Fried chicken, the Yeah Man, and Small’s Paradise are marked with tiny people -- dancers in hula skirts, white and black visitors alike dressed to the nines. 


Entitled “a night club map of Harlem,” the key reads: the stars indicate the places that are open all night… the only important omission is the location of the various speakeasies, but since there are about 500 of them you won’t have much trouble.


This was an important element of the Harlem nightlife, and part of why white people would travel north to visit -- under the Prohibition, alcohol was illegal from 1920-1933 -- but Harlem became a renowned hotspot for its blackmarket sale. 


<SFX: Music change> 


It’s also worth noting that certain subcultures of Harlem during this time were thriving, even if they are not as well documented as others. The Harlem Renaissance was “surely as gay as it was black,” writes intellectual Henry Louis Gates Jr., and this current pulsed discreetly, or perhaps not so discreetly, through its nightlife. 


For example, Alain Locke, who is often referred to as the father of the Harlem Renaissance and who was the first black Rhodes scholar, was gay -- and every year, the Hamilton Lodge drag ball was held on 155th street, a widely publicized event that exhibited some of the city’s earliest drag queens. 


The Renaissance lasted around 15 years, from 1918 - to the mid-1930s, and was a time of prolific cultural innovation. But it started losing steam during the Great Depression in 1929. It slowed even further when Prohibition ended in 1933, leading many of the white people who once patronized Harlem speakeasies to drink their alcohol further south in the city.  


<SFX: fade back in hip hop beat> 


Of course, Harlem did not end when the Renaissance did.  On the contrary, it has persisted, with an energetic creative spirit. Many a great artist has been born in, or changed by, Harlem in the years since -- like Nina Simone, Alice Neel, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and even modern artists like Lil Mama and Tupac. 


And the Apollo Theatre, which hit its stride right after the Harlem Renaissance ended in 1934, has continuously operated since, bringing artists like Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, Lauryn Hill, and Billie Holiday into the mainstream. 


But these new revolutionaries would not have had the same reception were it not for the Harlem Renaissance, and the doors it opened for Black artists, thinkers, and creatives to continue blessing New York City and the world with their cultural abundance. 


If you’re interested in hearing more stories about Harlem, you can find them in the Gesso Experiences app, just look on the map. You can also follow us on instagram


This podcast was produced for Gesso Media by Georgia Wright and narrated by me, Michael Reynolds.

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Harlem, New York City

Gesso | Primer

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