Civil Rights and Gospel in Haarlem, Harlem and now Harlem

We only had a week in New York and after much research decided that the Harlem of today seemed like a suitable base from which to explore the city. Through an alternative accommodation website based on subletting we decided to take up the option of Trevite Willis’s second bedroom. See

What a wonderful choice it turned out to be. Two blocks from Central park, we finally got to understand why New Yorkers make such a fuss. This is a massive park, garden, wilderness,  a lung breathing into the heart of the island of Manhattan, where almost every other square inch is heavily inhabited.

Haarlem as it was originally spelt was built and settled by the Dutch displaced from New Amsterdam with the coming of the British (now New York see African Burial blog). Wide retail avenues were crisscrossed by narrower, often tree lined residential streets of two and three story brownstones and such like, all with stoops and outside fire escapes. Classic New York images. Taken up for a while by the Jewish community Harlem was eventually settled by the predominately African American descendants of slaves and other immigrants. They made Harlem their own as a Mecca of their newfound liberty.

Our taxi driver from the airport was startled when Fran sat in the front seat – this has only happened 3 times in his 25 years driving career – let alone when we asked for Malcolm X Boulevard, Harlem. He actually got lost – glad we asked for a set fee – and was glad to be gone. On our return trip we were heading for the train when a gathering of women on our neighbour’s stoop considered our destination too difficult on such a hot day and called Harlem Cabs, a Harlem business established when Yellow Cabs wouldn’t come into Harlem. These women epitomized the welcoming nature of the community we found.

Still low socio-economic but with encroaching (re)gentrification, Harlem is an active community with the hot evenings finding families and lively gatherings happening on other every other stoop. This exuberance was evident at ‘Amateur Night’ which we went to on the evening of July the 4th at the Apollo Theatre where contestants are judged by the audience and everyone gets involved. We walked home that night dodging fire crackers. We roamed the city day and night and never felt at risk, and were offered a greeting or a smile from more people than we might have had we been walking in Melbourne.

One comment was that, as opposed to Los Angeles where gang shootings were mostly drive-by occurrences with innocent bystanders being hurt, if you were shot in Harlem these days it was likely you were targeted for a reason.

The Civil Rights Tour guide was 84-year-old Andi, a lifetime Harlem resident. We met at Harlem Heritage Tours, a business established by the charming and highly entertaining Neil.  Located on Malcolm X Boulevard – don’t you love the name – how times have changed! –  It proudly displays a photo of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and several other civil rights activists right at  the shop front itself.

Growing up on the tail of the fiery dragon of the American Civil Rights Movement, Nettie and I had both reached our teens at a time when people were motivated to stand up and be counted, believing in the ‘power of the people’. When streets swollen with crowds driven by their conscience to attend, changed laws and stopped wars, insisting on government being answerable to the people. It was a time of powerful orators and visionary leaders. When did we lose the passion, slipping into the lulling opiate of comfortable consumerism? When did we start to whisper instead of roar our distaste and disgust for the corporate driven decisions of government? When did our leaders forget that the greater good means exactly that. That true wealth is found in compassionate community. This seemed to us the essence of what has rebuilt Harlem into the still rough but real neighbourhood of today.

Harlem had imploded in a scourge of crack cocaine addiction that laid to waste nearly every other home. Landlords walked away from buildings en masse generating a further downward spiral. Families that hung on did so by tooth and nail, at risk day and night. At one point New York City owned most buildings by default and was ready to pull them down.  A ground swell movement based on a cooperative union of Churches and Mosques offered up an alternative plan. One house, one street at a time they moved out addicts and families in. Along with those who had managed to cling on, resettlers were offered extremely low mortgages encouraging the commitment of home ownership and reward for their perseverance. Ironically the gentrification is increasing real estate values that may serve to displace those without secure tenure.

On our last day in Harlem we joined the Gospel tour with guide Neil who enthused about the positive impact the church has had on the community. Neil was an engaging and animated guide who illustrated his narration with musical interludes played through an ipad connected to speaker concealed in his backpack. So as the group of 10 of us meandered through the neighborhood strains of Bessie Smith and John Cohrane echoed through the streets. Nettie even gave an impromptu rendition of a few bars of Summertime’ in acknowledgement of Ella Fitzgerald’s performances at the famous Minton’s recording studio.

It was a very hot and humid Sunday and we were sitting in the dress circle of the Canans Baptist Church (the last church Martin Luther King Jnr visited 10 days before his assassination), having heard some rousing, heart-filled gospel singing, as the preacher continued his sermon it was a little hard to keep alert…. what with the heat and the noise of the fan and all…..until our eyes snapped open at the words……”and in the kingdom of heaven there will be NO gay marriage!!!!!!!” and watched the preacher swing his arms out and back in emphasis…..“there will be NO poverty, there will be NO rich corporations” and so on in, for us, strange bedfellows indeed. It was an experience.

The day finished at the famous Lennox Lounge where we listened to a real sassy jazz singer do ‘Summertime’ and other standards. Then it was time to race to Newark airport……..what a lovely note to end our New York  visit on…


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