How does a people define a place, a city, it’s buildings and side walks? For a city like New York this is hard to say. Countless waves of migrations and diaspora and are hard-wired into the city’s DNA, but no neighbourhood quite manages to capture the overlapping, and conflicting histories like Harlem.
I’ve just moved to central Harlem from Crown Heights, and I find myself trying to adjust to a different atmosphere as if it were another planet. It isn’t just that the streets are different - new faces, new blocks, neighbourhood corner stores - but something in the air has also changed. Teju Cole nails this feeling in his novel Open City, where we follow Julius, a young Nigerian doctor, on a nomadic voyage through both the physical and metaphysical realms of the restless metropolis.
“Each neighbourhood of the city appeared to be made of a different substance, each seemed to have a different air pressure, a different psychic weight: the bright lights and shuttered shops, the housing projects and luxury hotels, the fire escapes and city parks.”
As Julius wanders through the layers of culture and character that surround him on his escapades, he muses about death, identity, exile and nationality, questions that stab a personal nerve. I find my Nigerian expat a good first guide to these stranger curbs. After all, within the concrete frame of these wintered streets I could, in some inverted universe, be back in Africa.
A few blocks away lies Le Petit Sénégal, a neighbourhood known for the vibrant West African community that has helped breathe a new life into a once derelict area. Many are Francophone, but there are also families from Ghana, Nigeria, Guinea and the Gambia that add to the mad mix of West African stores, restaurants, bistros, bakeries, cafes, and other businesses flourishing in the hood. But these are but the latest licks on Harlem’s colourful past.
I read somewhere that it was in Harlem where George Washington led his first major victory over the British. The still remote farming hamlet was subsequently burnt to the ground in revenge, and took decades to rebuild only slowly incorporating itself into the expanding city by the mid-1800s with the building of rail roads.
I try to imagine the poor Jewish and Italian immigrants that began populating Harlem in the late 1800s, both with their mafias and gangs (think Gangs of New York but with pizzas and pretzels) and the turf wars on West 116th Street between Lenox and 8th Avenue. But the new cultural influxes also made Harlem an area known for its music, theatre, vaudeville and entertainment.
It was only in the early 20th-century, when African Americans began to flee the Jim Crow south to the northern industrial cities, in what was known as the Great Migration, that Harlem began to change colour. Many new arrivals also joined form the West Indies and Caribbean, and despite property developers and owners attempted to stop blacks from moving in, the influx was supported by a growing community that soon became “a spiritual home for the Negro protest movement.”
The Harlem Renaissance really exploded as a social, cultural and artistic movement in the 1920’s. A primarily African American movement, it fused a variety of cultural elements from modernism, to blues and Jazz, bringing together the influence and experience of slavery with the new ideas of Pan Africanism and black identity expounded by writers such as Langston Hughes, Marcus Garvey, and W.E.B Du Bois. As a movement, it laid the intellectual and artistic foundations of black consciousness, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s, echoing back across the Atlantic to inspire Negritude, and the early anti-colonial struggles in Africa.
Then the Jazz. All that Jazz! Yes, it was in Harlem where the piano was reinvented from being an instrument of classical music (and the wealthy) to being one of Jazz and improvisation, bridging social and economic divides with its edgy four-beat pulse. The Harlem Stride pioneered by the likes of James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith, among others, came to define the Jazz Age, and inspire some of the greatest composers including Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Thelonius Monk. The Jazz came with the Roaring 20’s and prohibition, and in this decade of extremes Harlem was a world within a city with its speakeasies, cellars, theatres, taverns and clubs.
Although the character of Harlem has changed many times over, with increasing numbers of Hispanic, Asian and white residents return over the years, it continues to embody this “spiritual home” for African Americans and black identity in New York. Harlem, more than a place, is a name that conjures ever greater names: Billy Holliday, Claude McKay, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Amiri Baraka, Doug E. Fresh, Moby, Immortal Technique … the list winds on.
And the music plays on, only now it may as well be Ethiopian jazz or Senegalese hip-hop. I know I'm only scratching on the surface here, as I'm only passing by. But as I do I will let myself be carried by that ancient, dusky river. I will be reminded of that face of a lover that is a mystery, containing, like all mysteries, the possibility of torment. I will hear the beat of the tracks, a rhythm, a sax playing soft over the sirens, and pretend for a fleeting second like I’m home.