Black History Month is just around the corner, so I decided to revisit my own history. Until the age of 12, I grew up on the not-so-mean streets of Harlem (that’s NY, not the Netherlands) . Harlem then (and I won’t say when) was an exciting, noise-filled experience for a child. Just walking from one end of the legendary 125th Street to the other gave you a cultural thrill that could not be experienced anywhere else outside the marketplaces of Africa or the Caribbean. Visits to the Apollo Theater, walks along the Hudson River and Riverside Drive, field trips to Grant’s Tomb, the Cloisters and the Schomburg Library all made for powerful memories.
Yes, the negatives were there; friends I couldn’t visit because they lived in the reportedly unsafe “projects;” sad men sitting on stoops or standing on corners, whose lives seemed to be directionless and empty. But if you opened your window on a sultry summer night, on those same corners you might hear the most glorious harmony from impromptu accapella groups; groups that could but never would, make it big on stage. During the day you could listen for the arrival of the ice cream truck or the traveling merry-go-round. Although my forward thinking parents insisted we become acquainted with “downtown” and the Museum of Natural History, New York Public Library, the Empire State Building, skating at Rockefeller Center and a larger world in general, it was those brief times spent on “the block” which taught me how to jump double dutch, perform hand clapping games and play handball. The move to the suburbs may have been a step up in some ways, but there was something missing which could not be found while playing in my own backyard.
With regentrification, much of the Harlem of my childhood is gone and Starbucks has arrived. However for those who have never been and will probably never go to Harlem, there are numerous books and other materials which will allow you to see this still remarkable place, as it was .
This was Harlem – A cultural portrait
Harlem – Walter D. Myers celebrates the people, sights & sounds of Harlem
When Harlem was in Vogue– An illustrated history
Showtime at the Apollo – A view of the city’s most famous theater
Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy Like My Sister Kate – Harlem Renaissance poets
Against the Odds – Rich, archival footage… recalls the influential force & vibrancy of Harlem
Harlem Nights– A fictional account of the excitement and drama of Harlem night life starring Eddie Murphy
New York Songs – Includes classics “Take the A Train” & “Harlem Shuffle”
An Afternoon in Harlem – Jazz musician Hugh Ragin