You’ve been granted free access to this subscribers only article.
Editorial: New York’s Harlem continues its evolution
Books about the history of Harlem have long fascinated me -- my favorite being When Harlem Was in Vogue by David Levering Lewis. However, a more recent book, titled simply Harlem by Jonathan Gill, presents a more comprehensive history -- going all the way back to the time when the Dutch were the first settlers of New York, and named that area for the city of Haarlem in The Netherlands.
Most of us today think of Harlem as a black community, but it was not that for most of its 400-year history. John James Audubon, famed for his studies of birds, was among the many people who at various times organized efforts to keep blacks from moving into Harlem -- efforts that, in the long run, met with what might be called very limited success.
Among the many well-known people who were not black who were born in Harlem were Groucho Marx, Milton Berle, Arthur Miller, and Bennett Cerf.
Like other communities, Harlem held many very different kinds of people at the same time, both before and after it became predominantly black.
There was an Italian community in East Harlem, but it was not just an undifferentiated Italian community. People from Genoa lived clustered together, as did people from Naples, Sicily, and other parts of Italy. Jews from Germany lived separately from Jews who originated in Eastern Europe, who in turn lived in separate enclaves of people from different parts of Eastern Europe.
Harlem had the highest crime rate in New York before blacks moved there, and a photograph in this book, taken a hundred years ago, showed the worst housing conditions I have ever seen in Harlem. In some of the poorer Italian neighborhoods in East Harlem, people went barefoot in the summer and lived on one meal a day, consisting of thin soup.
There were also more upscale areas of Harlem, and different classes of people sorted themselves out, both when Harlem was white and after it became black. During the early era of black Harlem, as author Jonathan Gill notes: “Observant subway riders could see the porters and domestics get off at West 125th Street, the clerks and secretaries depart at West 135th Street, and the doctors and lawyers leave at West 145th Street.”
By the time I was growing up on West 145th Street in the 1940s, its inhabitants were by no means limited to doctors and lawyers, or even clerks and secretaries. But the pattern of internal self-sorting continued. With the later breakdown of racial barriers in housing, many of the black middle class and those aspiring to be middle class moved completely out of ghettos like Harlem. It became a much worse place, for that and other reasons.
Complaints that the old neighborhood is going downhill have been made by people of all races. Even though that may be true, it can be misleading when the people who lived in those neighborhoods have moved up economically, and now have more upscale housing in more genteel neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the newcomers in their old neighborhoods may likewise be living in better housing than they had before. People moving up often mean neighborhoods moving down.
Nevertheless, it is painful for me to realize that youngsters growing up in the same places in Harlem where I grew up more than 60 years ago have far less chance of rising economically, educationally, or otherwise.
Harlem youngsters today undoubtedly have more material things than I had in my day. I was 23 years old and living in Washington, before I had a television set, given to me by my sister when she bought a new television set for herself.
But what I got growing up in Harlem was an education that equipped me to go on to leading colleges and universities, long before there was affirmative action. That is what youngsters growing up in Harlem today are very unlikely to get -- and affirmative action in college admissions is no substitute, if you come in unequipped to make the opportunity pay off.
People didn’t live in fear of drive-by shootings in the Harlem of my day, if only because we had nothing to drive by in. Old photographs of Harlem show ample parking space on the streets. It was not an idyllic community, by any stretch of the imagination, but it had values that mattered in our daily lives, and common decency was in fact common. No material things can substitute for that.
Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His website is http://www.tsowell.com.
Copyright 2012 creators.com
Your Opinions and Comments
Be the first to comment on this story!
You must be logged in to post a comment.
Section A: General News Archives
Agencies nab 7 in human-trafficking sting (February 10, 2016)
Apply now for Miss La Vernia Pageant (February 10, 2016)
Behind the lens: Hitting the trail (February 10, 2016)
BPA students advance to state (February 10, 2016)
Bud Box ends two-decade career at alternative school (February 10, 2016)
Chamber to hold monthly luncheon (February 10, 2016)
China Grove mayor, police chief clash (February 10, 2016)
Commissioners amend Kicaster-area fire coverage plan (February 10, 2016)
Court Update (February 10, 2016)
Dating and the budget (February 10, 2016)
Donate blood to save lives (February 10, 2016)
Editorial: It’s about ‘We the People’ … what will ‘we’ do? (February 10, 2016)
Editorial: National election: Iowa down, New Hampshire to go (February 10, 2016)
Firefighters plan Pancake Breakfast (February 10, 2016)
Floresville mayor to councilman: Sit down or else (February 10, 2016)
Floresville park’s erosion problems prompt action (February 10, 2016)
Free heart health screenings (February 10, 2016)
H-E-B ice cream recall (February 10, 2016)
La Vernia trustees consider $33.2M bond, approve new finance chief (February 10, 2016)
Lean meat still part of a heart-healthy diet (February 10, 2016)
Letter: House fire victim extends gratitude (February 10, 2016)
Letter: Pastors should keep out of politics, stay in church (February 10, 2016)
Letter: Unruly government needs discipline (February 10, 2016)
Letter: Writer says it’s okay to ignore the charter (February 10, 2016)
Meeting Watch: Evergreen Underground Water Conservation District (February 10, 2016)
Meeting Watch: Floresville Planning & Zoning Commission (February 10, 2016)
Meeting Watch: St. Hedwig City Council (February 10, 2016)
Oil, gas leasing workshop Feb. 22 (February 10, 2016)
One-stop tax shop? (February 10, 2016)
Petition supporters plan protest rally (February 10, 2016)
Police Blotter (February 10, 2016)
Presidents’ Day office closures (February 10, 2016)
Register for Great American Cleanup (February 10, 2016)
Save the date for ‘Hope in High Cotton’ (February 10, 2016)
Should Christians support sanctuary for illegal aliens? (February 10, 2016)
Stockdale supports apartment venture (February 10, 2016)
Things are looking up in downtown Stockdale (February 10, 2016)
‘Official oppression’ or ‘criminal trespass’? (February 10, 2016)
Agencies uncover $400K in stolen vehicles, parts (February 3, 2016)
China Grove begins vote on tax rollback (February 3, 2016)
Clock running out for Floresville recall issue (February 3, 2016)
Connally expands high-tech health care (February 3, 2016)
Council action changes boards (February 3, 2016)
Court Update (February 3, 2016)
Deputies charge Floresville spurned lover with arson (February 3, 2016)
Deputies investigate recent thefts (February 3, 2016)
Editorial: The demand for villains (February 3, 2016)
Editorial: What’s in a city charter? Is it like a … Constitution? (February 3, 2016)
Eight-liner opponents face deadline (February 3, 2016)
FELPS pools tornado damage claim with city, Floresville ISD (February 3, 2016)
Floresville USDA accountant resigns (February 3, 2016)
Free CERT disaster course (February 3, 2016)
Get a free heart health screening in Kenedy Feb. 12 (February 3, 2016)
Greater LV Chamber to meet (February 3, 2016)
H-E-B recalls cookware (February 3, 2016)
Hold on for now (February 3, 2016)
It’s all happening at Nixon-Smiley Elementary (February 3, 2016)
Kicaster area will have fire coverage (February 3, 2016)
Landfill welcomes China Grove junk (February 3, 2016)
Letter: Apple Pie author extends thanks (February 3, 2016)
Letter: Gonzales differs with writer’s conclusion (February 3, 2016)
Letter: Talamantez truly a man of the people (February 3, 2016)
Life Line Screening event set in Floresville Feb. 28 (February 3, 2016)
Mock Republican Debate Feb. 20 (February 3, 2016)
Nixon-Smiley livestock show set for March (February 3, 2016)
One dead in game-room robbery (February 3, 2016)
Pioneer Award honors Burnside (February 3, 2016)
Pirates Cove in Poth offers after-school care service (February 3, 2016)
Police Blotter (February 3, 2016)
Save the date for Lincoln Dinner (February 3, 2016)
School district cops ink deal with city, county (February 3, 2016)
Second responders to meet (February 3, 2016)
Stockdale, La Vernia units respond to back-to-back fires (February 3, 2016)
Tanneberger is top agent (February 3, 2016)
Weigh in on Loop 410 changes (February 3, 2016)
Wilson County Hermann Sons lodges meet new-member goal (February 3, 2016)
‘Loving’ heart-shaped treats are for the birds (February 3, 2016)