I first arrived in Harlem in 2008 on the heels of a failed love affair. From the copper mines of Falun, Sweden with crimson ore powder stuck in my lungs, to the stop by stop tour of 125th Street on the M60 bus, I finally found my true love in her glorious streets. Harlem.
I first arrived under the romantic notion that Harlem’s crumbling edifices hid the soul of the great literary, musical and political revolutions it had caused, and surely I was not disappointed. I fell in love with its buildings’ architecture, its people and culture like one would with a time capsule.
A neighborhood set apart from the big business of Manhattan, Harlem was peaceful, cheap, and while feeling miles away from the big city, was smack dab on the express trains that probe the island.
But the double-edged sword of increased safety and inexpensive property lured a tsunami of people who could no longer afford rent in lower Manhattan to the neighborhood that was once home to the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural revolution in the early 1900s that transcended all forms of art. The incubator I so enjoyed was changing as it always has, as inescapably as the passage of time.
In memory of the Harlem that once was and in testament to the diverse place it is becoming, the non-profit organization, Citizens Community of New York earlier this month awarded a grant to Underground Books, to showcase Harlem’s diverse talent at the newly launched Jackie Robinson Poetry Day.
Named after the first baseball player to integrate into major league baseball, Jackie Robinson Poetry Day is an open-air poetry festival at Jackie Robinson Park in Harlem. Designed to showcase the poets of this transforming neighborhood, the festival is an homage to Robinson’s ability to excel across barriers and a reminder that while Harlem is changing, its roots have always been founded in diversity.
Harlem has had a history filled with the blood of Irish, Italians, African Americans, Puerto Ricans, people that came together to survive during less forgiving times. Harlem stood for many years as a cultural center, a racial amalgamation where the great poets, writers and jazz musicians created some of the most influential art of the past century.
Zora Neale Hurston studied here, Countee Cullen wrote some of his best poetry here, and the figurehead of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, is buried beneath the Schomburg Center for Black Culture on 135th Street,
By the time I first arrived in Harlem much had already changed. So rundown was the neighborhood that a small investment of 60,000 dollars would have netted you with proper upkeep and restoration what today could easily cost over 2 million dollars in certain areas (and the prices keep going up).
The haunted empty buildings littered with squatters, vegetative overgrowth and chilling views through burned out windows are now prime real estate.
While the improved quality of life should be welcomed, a certain peace existed in this forlorn run down and off limits playground that whispered the will-o’-the-wisp serenades of blistering horns piping out of Small’s jazz club (now an IHOP) or the Savoy Ballroom known for its non-discriminatory policies (now a housing project).
By the time I co-founded Underground Books shortly after I arrived, Harlem’s poetry was already less obvious, the music left for the subways and the sewer rats. Now, that haunted past has almost completely passed into a night of gentrification.
The grand boulevard of Lenox Avenue, that was created in the guise of the Champs-Elysees in Paris and decorated my vision with the wondrous sights of immaculate churches and ornate infrastructure now seems to beg for restoration beside hip bars going up all around them.
Harlem once stood as a wonderland of vagrants, vagabonds and artists. The tapestry of those alluring brownstones, the immaculate stonework, the wide boulevards and immense flowering trees set the stage for some of the most exciting moments in American literary and political history. And it can again, as its population experiences yet another transformation.
With such a dynamic legacy, and vital importance to American culture, to Jazz culture, to Poetic culture, Harlem still stands in name, but it is being subjugated by a vision of a New York that is cookie-cutter and fashioned for the ugly decadence of the rich.
The soul is sucked from the once majestic buildings, the sweet sounding horns fade into the moon lit air, leaving behind what sometimes feels like little more than the wilt and specter of Federico Garcia Lorca, author of “The King of Harlem,” lingering in the night.
In many ways the culture is being stolen or replaced. New landlords who have long moved older inhabitants out through unsavory tactics now seem to be accelerating their work. The children that once roamed and frolicked freely on these streets are gone, replaced with the trendy hipsters of Williamsburg hedging their bets on an upcoming L train closure and wishing for an expedited commute.
But not all the new inhabitants are so. Some of us fell instantly in love with the beauteous ramparts of Sugar Hill as they were, the fortuitous beauty in the laid back nature of its people. I truly enjoyed being what sometimes felt like the only white boy on the streets, wearing my bright yellow hat so that one could see me for blocks.
I loved it when the trains emptied out on 86th Street or 96th Street leaving me to sit alone. It was that special remembrance of iconic Harlem that held me earnest hungry and lean. But I am no longer alone.
While the onslaught of Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks can have its homogenizing effects, the new influx of different kinds of people can also help return Harlem to its roots as a swirling mixture of cultures coming together not in competition, but for support.
Times change, but there still exists a throbbing pulse of artistic ambition, the call for a new vanguard to assume its place. Whether through the Harlem Arts Festival that brings together artists, poets, and musicians each year at Marcus Garvey Park, or the Poet’s Den Theater on the East Side that surrounds its local voices in its beautiful velvet soaked theater. The beat is not completely gone. It’s beating, and we are helping take the pulse.
Founded in 2008, Underground Books now publishes from its headquarters in the historic Paul Laurence Dunbar building in upper Harlem. We help continue the neighborhood’s tradition of supporting its local and international talent by printing hand made poetry books by writers that seek to push the form to its limits.
On June 24th and 25th Underground Books will host a book making table at the Harlem Arts Festival at Marcus Garvey Park where members of the community will be invited to create their own chapbooks of Harlem Renaissance Poetry.
Poets interested in participating in Jackie Robinson Poetry day can submit by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org. To help promote the event and others like it Underground Books will host a table at the New York City Poetry Festival July 30th and 31st on Governor’s Island. We invite everyone to participate in the event and help create a new Harlem Renaissance.