Harlem: in context
“Harlem: In Context” is a visual project exploring the legacy of Harlem, New York. Historically, Harlem is known as the mecca of Black culture — the birthplace of the 20th century Harlem Renaissance when Black artists, poets, musicians, singers and writers were raised to national prominence. Since then, this neighborhood in upper Manhattan has come to represent a major part of Black history and American history more broadly. The economics and demographics of Harlem have continuously changed over time. Each visual juxtaposes a portrait from the past, archived at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and from the present via the Google Maps Street View database — visually reconciling what used to be with what is now. Overall “Harlem: In Context” seeks to examine the past and present and emphasize a history that is slowly vanishing from the landscape.
Harlem Tenement in the Summer, 1935-1939 x 34 W 120th, July 2018
At its founding in 1658, Harlem was a Dutch town named “New Harlaem.” From this time to through most of the 19th century, it was an exclusive community and home to wealthy Dutch, English and French families. Large waves of immigrants flooded Harlem in the 1840s and 1850s — either buying land at inexpensive prices or occupying abandoned parts of the affluent area. By the turn of the century German, Italian and Jewish immigrants inhabited a majority of Harlem. For some, moving to Harlem was a sign of social mobility. Between the 1870s and 1890s, the construction of train lines throughout Manhattan led to even more population growth, as access and mobility became easier.
The influx of African-Americans into Harlem came about as a result of the Great Migration. Across the nation, millions of African-Americans relocated from the rural south to cities in the North, Midwest and West which offered them new economic opportunities and freedom from the harsh segregation of Jim Crow. Like many other immigrant groups, Blacks saw great opportunities and social mobility in Harlem but they faced resistance from white residents and landlords. As the white population left due to the worsening conditions in Harlem and more affordable housing being built in the suburban outer boroughs, many more Blacks began to own and rent property in the neighborhood. By 1914, 50,000 Blacks resided there. The popularity of Harlem during the 1920s attracted immigrants from parts of the African Diaspora like Jamaica and Haiti.
The Harlem Renaissance did not, however, turn Harlem into a utopia. The lack of economic prosperity, continuous influx of new residents and increased racial tension in the city led to riots during the 1930s and 40s. Black Harlemites learned that they did not escape racial prejudice and discrimination by being in the North. Many civil rights groups planted roots in the community, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. It would also be home to Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the Nation of Islam (NOI) and Malcolm X’s Muslim Mosque Incorporated (MMI).
Women crossing street in harlem at west 125th street and eighth avenue, 1939 x same location, oct 2017
Pushcart vendors under the 8th avenue elevated train at west 145th street, harlem, may 8, 1939 x same location jul 2018
The minority population increased during the second Great Migration during the 1950s and 60s and by the late 1960s and 1970s, whites were leaving the city at similar rates. White flight and economic crisis created immense urban decay in Harlem — rising crime rates, increasing drug use, poor educational facilities, deteriorating buildings and poverty. Since the late 1980s, private investments and federal funds contributed to residential and commercial construction. African-American professionals and new businesses settled into the newly improved neighborhood and it seemed that Harlem was again on the rise. At the start of the 21st century, Harlem saw a major shift in demographics. Since 2000, central Harlem’s population grew from 109,000 to 126,000. The proportion of whites living in central Harlem doubled while its black population was smaller than it had been since the 1920s. The prior urban decay and subsequent demolition in the name or urban renewal allowed newcomers to succeed existing residents, majority of whom were Black. Though some new housing let whites and other racial groups move in without impacting Black residents directly, the inevitable rising rent displaced them.
Exterior of small’s paradise, harlem, 1955 x International house of Pancakes, same location, dec 2017
This erasure of Black Harlem is not the first and only time that a thriving Black community has seen an end. In 1856, the residents of Seneca Village, a community home to the largest number of African-American property owners in New York pre-Civil War, were evicted via eminent domain to clear land for what is now Central Park in New York City. In 1921, Black Wall Street was burned to the ground due to a deadly race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In 1985, state police dropped a bomb on the headquarters of black liberation group MOVE in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The bomb caused a fire that razed 61 houses and killed everyone in the house — five adults and five children between the ages of seven and thirteen. Unlike these violent episodes that resulted in the complete eradication of these communities/groups, what’s happening in Harlem is slow-burning. The percentage and total number of Blacks in central Harlem peaked at 98 percent and 233,000 in 1955. Just two years ago, the percentage and total number was down to 53 percent and 78,105.
The remnants of Black Harlem that began and continue to struggle to hold on are increasingly being erased from the landscape. Historical buildings that once stood as pivotal locations for the Black community, are coming down. Various public improvements like high-end housing, yoga studios, new restaurants and new landscaping are good things, but for who? When does change become too much? When real-estate developers seek to rename parts of the community? (That already happened; google search “SoHa”) When a large company like Whole Foods Market opens up on 125th street? (That’s happened too) How soon will residents find themselves unwelcome in these new spaces? How soon will the public improvements permanently replace the legacy that African-Americans and Black immigrants established over time? Are these improvements worth it when they erase Harlem’s history and heritage?