Though i’ve explored SO much of New York so far by foot, it has mainly been mid-town and down and i hadn’t gone higher than the top of central Park. So, determined to experience as many of the unique communities of New York as possible, safely, i headed to Harlem!
“Are you crazy? Harlem?” was once the only response to news that someone was planning a trip to uptown Manhattan (indeed it was the response when i was talking to my father and told him of my plans!). Harlem, after all, used to be the embodiment of American urban decay. But public funding and private initiative, as well as ever-more-unaffordable real estate downtown, have helped jump-start the Harlem renaissance. Change has always been Harlem’s watchword, from its start as a Dutch village to the time, at the beginning of the 20th century, when it was the mecca of the new generation of black artists and politicians who came here in the years before the first world war and called themselves the New Negroes, to the dark days of the 70s and 80s, when taxis refused to take passengers uptown.
Today it is again safe to visit (the right way) and has come a long way since it’s rural beginning.
Founded as a Dutch village, formally organized in 1658, Harlem (named after the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands) was a synonym for elegant living through a good part of the nineteenth century.
Essentially, Harlem’s history has been defined by a series of boom-and-bust real estate cycles, with significant ethnic shifts accompanying each cycle.
As New York grew, the area became increasingly developed. A construction glut and a delay in the building of the subway led to a fall in real estate prices which attracted Eastern European Jews to Harlem in large numbers, reaching a peak of 150,000 in 1917. But Jewish Harlem was ephemeral and by 1930 only 5,000 Jews remained.
The mass migration of African Americans into the area began in 1904, due to another real estate crash, the worsening of conditions for them elsewhere in the city, and the leadership of a black real estate entrepreneur named Phillip Payton, Jr who negotiated with Landlords that could no longerfind white renters for their properties.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the neighborhood was the locus of the “Harlem Renaissance“, an outpouring of artistic and professional works without precedent in the American black community. Harlem was the center of a flowering of black culture but they were sometimes excluded from viewing what their peers were creating. Some jazz venues, including most famously the Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington played, and Connie’s Inn, were restricted to whites only. In the 1920s and 1930s, between Lenox and Seventh avenues in central Harlem, over 125 entertainment places operated, including speakeasies, cellars, lounges, cafes, taverns, supper clubs, rib joints, theaters, dance halls, and bars and grills. In 1936, Orson Welles produced his famous black Macbeth at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem.
However with job losses in the time of the Great Depression and the deindustrialization of New York City after World War II, rates of crime and poverty increased significantly. The neighborhood began to deteriorate to a slum. In the post-World War II era, Harlem ceased to be home to a majority of NYC’s blacks, but it remained the cultural and political capital of black New York, and possibly black America. The character of the community changed in the years after the war, as middle-class blacks left for the outer boroughs (primarily the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn) and suburbs. The percentage of Harlem that was black peaked in 1950, at 98.2%. Thereafter, Hispanics and, more recently, white residents have increased their share.
The notorious reputation of Harlem in the 70s and 80s and consequent refusal of many taxi drivers to enter the area wasn’t unwarranted. Harlem was ruled by organized crime – the movie American Gangster is focused on the drug trade centred here in the 70s which is considered it’s worst period. Of the 30,000 drug addicts then estimated to live in New York City, 15,000 to 20,000 lived in Harlem. Property crime was pervasive, and the murder rate was six times higher than New York’s average.
But thankfully this hasn’t lasted forever. With the end of the “crack wars” in the mid 90s thanks to aggressive policing under mayor Rudolph Giuliani, crime in Harlem has plummeted. New York’s revival in the late 20th century has led to renewal in Harlem as well. By 1995, Harlem was experiencing social and economic gentrification
and today is widely thought to be once again experiencing an arts renaissance. With a respectful nod to artists of the original Harlem Renaissance and “props” to contemporary Harlem artists, i took the opportunity to learn about both the history and current scene in Harlem with the ArtCrawl Harlem tour.
I knew i’d get the most benefit from a locally guided tour (as apposed to my usual wandering) and the guided trolley tour of local galleries was exactly what i was after.
The tour started at the Studio Museum in Harlem, a gleaming building with three floors of exhibition space that is a far cry from the rented loft where the museum got its start in 1968.
The Studio Museum in Harlem is the nexus for artists of African descent locally, nationally and internationally and for work that has been inspired and influenced by black culture.
The main galleries currently feature photographs by Zwelethu Mthethwa, a South African documenting the domestic lives of migrant workers around Johannesburg,
Unlike the ground-floor galleries in walkable neighborhoods like Chelsea or SoHo, many Harlem galleries are tucked into spots that don’t necessarily draw foot traffic so we hopped on an old trolley to get to each spot!
We visited seven Harlem art galleries over about 5 hours, where gallery owners and artists talked about their work.
One stop that exemplifies the gulf between the Harlem of old and new is Casa Frela, a gallery whose nervy exhibitions sit in an airy Stanford White brownstone.
Much of the artwork Casa Frela Gallery chooses to feature reinterprets or recombines art movements and styles from the past through a contemporary language. The exhibition when we visited was focused on ceramic glazes and all the wonderful experimental things a group of artists were doing with it
We continued on listening to a myriad of facts and stories of Harlem’s history
One theme that kept coming up was the effort to change the negative stereotypes associated with Harlem. He agreed that some are still warranted but pointed to examples of the people who live in the projects and how the vast majority of them are hardworking families, not drug addicts and pimps as popular culture has led us to believe. This said as we drove past the projects themselves
Renaissance Fine Arts Gallery was showing a 3 part exhibition titled “Art Is: Visual, Functional, Wearable,” featuring stunning collaborations between visual artists and fashion designers. Part 2, now on display, featured fashion designer/visual illustrator Donna Dove and visual artist/designer Anton (pictured) both of whom we were able to chat with extensively.
Among the artists who defined the years between the renaissance and today’s gallery owners is the Weusi Collective, which was at the core of the black arts movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Founded in 1965, the Harlem-based Weusi (”way-oo-see,” which means Blackness in Swahili) are considered precursors of the Black Arts Movement and were among the first artists to make African imagery a central part of their work. The work of that still-active collective was exhibited at the Dwyer Cultural Center and one of it’s members who joined the movement at 18, talked to us.
a singer and adults and children happily milling about, it was a nice scene to pass.
Our next and final gallery visit was actually to an old Warehouse thats been transformed by the Chasama Foundation. It currently hosts 18 visual artists on the 1st floor of this space and over 20 visual artists studios on the 2nd floor
and two of the artists present took us through the various workspaces of each artist. For someone like me who tinkles in various artforms, this was like peaking into ones Christmas presents on Christmas eve.
and the tour ended with a nice rooftop reception of food, wine, and music at the Rio II galleries.
Though it was highly enjoyable, the tour went over an hour too long and as i was due back at a certain time, i left before the end when they were going to take us back to the studio museum. This meant i had to navigate where to find the closest subway. In a completely foreign area, in one of the ‘slightly shadier’ parts of town, I’ll admit, i was far from feeling completely comfortable and walked with purpose. I occasionally asked people for directions, passing the strange fellows pictured below (celebrating something but i don’t think anyone actually knew what!) until i finally found the metro – Hurrah!
and made my way back to my ‘comfort zone’ in Brooklyn.