By Jonathan Yardley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 6:49 PM
The Four Hundred Year History from Dutch Village to Capital of Black America
By Jonathan Gill
Grove. 520 pp. $29.95
In September 1609 the English explorer Henry Hudson, en route - or so he hoped - to China in a ship belonging to the Dutch East India Company and called the Half Moon, steered into the river that in time would bear his name. He was attacked by native residents of the northern part of the island they called Manahatta. Blood was shed, and lives were lost, "a foretaste of Harlem's future," Jonathan Gill writes. He continues:
"The clash of words and worlds, the allure of blood and money, the primacy of violence and fashion, the cohabitation of racial hatred and racial curiosity - they have always been part of what uptown means. But from its days as a frontier outpost, to the time when it seemed like the navel of the black universe, to the era when it became the official symbol of poverty in America, Harlem has always been more than a tragedy in the making. . . . Through it all, Harlem's contending forces of power and protest, intention and improvisation, greed and generosity, and sanctity and suspicion decisively shaped the American character."
This may seem at first glance the exaggeration of a historian trying to make a case for the importance of his subject, but there is a good deal of truth to it. Though Harlem's strongest claim on history's attention indeed is its long role as the de facto capital of black America, Gill's account of what has occurred there in the four centuries since Hudson's arrival makes plain that there is much more to the story than that. Harlem was settled by the Dutch, who were then displaced by the British, who were themselves dealt a serious blow by George Washington in the Battle of Harlem Heights. In the two centuries that followed, Harlem served as a resort for the wealthy of lower Manhattan, transformed itself from a bucolic community to an urban metropolis, was "one of the largest Jewish communities in the world," and then, early in the 20th century, became the true heart of the African American population, which it has remained ever since.
Gill, a historian who has taught at Columbia and is on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music, has done a stupendous amount of research, some of which might best have been left in his files. Though his "Harlem" certainly is authoritative and exhaustive, in addition to being well-written and perceptive, it also is exhausting and would have gained from being cut by at least 50 pages. Many of the details of Harlem's political life could have been set aside, and some of the portraits of its most notable and familiar figures - Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin, Marcus Garvey, Father Divine, Langston Hughes, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. et al. - would have lost nothing by being briefer.
It seems fair, though, to consider this excessive length as a sign of the author's enthusiasm for his subject. We are in Gill's debt for digging so deeply into Harlem's past, for describing it with no agenda beyond thoroughness and fairness, and for reminding us that there is so much in Harlem to honor and celebrate as well as to deplore and lament. It is one of the most significant neighborhoods in the country, and its contributions - in social leadership, in literature and the arts - have been huge and invaluable.
Except perhaps for the years after the Civil War, when Harlem was "the choicest spot on the island for horse racing, yachting, cricket, sleighing, swimming, and skating or simply glorying in the beautiful vistas and virgin forests that remained," Harlem has never had it easy. In its early years, when the Dutch called it Nieuw Haarlem - why is a matter of continuing debate - tensions and conflicts between the settlers and the natives were constant, and savage depredations were committed by both sides. Despite Washington's victory at Harlem Heights, by the end of the Revolution Harlem was "totally unoccupied, abandoned by the Americans and destroyed by the British." As Manhattan began to grow and prosper at its lower and middle ends, Harlem often felt itself a neglected stepchild, or, when attention was paid, felt itself at the mercies of more powerful people and institutions to the south.
That Harlem was an important Jewish center in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is now often forgotten, yet among those who grew up there were George Gershwin, Lorenz Hart and the Marx Brothers, whose contributions to American culture are incalculably large. But with the arrival of a large black settlement around the turn of the 20th century, Harlem found the identity it has had ever since. It is useful to be reminded, however, that "there had been a significant and continuous uptown black presence, free and enslaved, since the 1630s. Some owned property, practicing their trades in peace and profit, and by 1703 a census of northern Manhattan counted thirty-three black men, thirteen black women, and twenty-six black children." By the 1880s "there was a real estate agent who specialized in houses and apartments for Negroes along Second and Third Avenues below East 125th Street, then Manhattan's second biggest Negro neighborhood." That, though, was only the beginning:
"Historians may argue about when the New Negro movement became the Harlem Renaissance, but they all agree that by the end of World War I something new was happening uptown, and it wasn't just Prohibition, which was an economic godsend, at least in the short run. The seeds of political and economic change that Garvey, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, A. Philip Randolph, and so many others had sown were resulting in a cultural harvest that would include the poems of Langston Hughes, the songs of Duke Ellington, the vocal recitals of Paul Robeson, the films of Oscar Micheaux, and the photographs of James Van Der Zee. However dire economic conditions might have been in the tenements along the side streets, Harlem was becoming the 'joy spot of America,' according to Billboard magazine."
This coexistence of creative excitement and grinding poverty has been a constant in Harlem for at least a century - in Spanish Harlem on the East Side as well as Black Harlem to the north and west - and it is treated with care by Gill. Even as Ellington played to ecstatic (white) audiences at the Cotton Club, "black Harlem had become a community in crisis, leading the nation in poverty, crime, overcrowding, unemployment, juvenile delinquency, malnutrition, and infant and maternal mortality." All this only got much worse during the Depression, "when Harlem was 'on the verge of starvation,' as a writer for the Federal Writers Project put it." The Depression "turned Harlem into a black ghetto, 80 percent of whose businesses were owned by whites." Small wonder that anger and hopelessness were everywhere.
World War II jump-started New York's economy, and a few benefits trickled uptown to Harlem, but from the Depression to the 1990s times were hard, never more so than during "the fiscal crisis that engulfed New York City in the mid-1970s." It's easy to forgot that period today, with much of Manhattan a mecca for the uber-rich and Harlem enjoying a revival, but for a while back then it seemed as if New York was about to collapse, with Harlem a major contributing factor. If Harlem really does not merely revive but prosper, it will be a miracle in the eyes of many.
Over its long history, especially its history as capital of black America, Harlem has been both idealized and excoriated. Gill does neither. He doesn't wax sentimental about the Harlem Renaissance, and he reports the community's shortcomings without hectoring. His "Harlem" is so long and so clogged with detail that at times it's a bit of a slog, but it's worth the effort.