Flashback: A Harlem I Remember

Whenever I see pictures of Harlem in the 1980s and 1990s---the Harlem of my childhood---I often see the images of vacant, debris-strewn lots, abandoned buildings and drug-ridden, blight-filled streets.  Rough looking kids, b-boys and b-girls, flyy girls and d-boys are the only images of youth.  The vacant despair of the homeless and the stress-frenzied stares of men and women as they move through life.  Just trying to make it through another day and a way to stretch nickels and dimes into dollars knowing that the accounting will never meet. 

And all of that is true.  But there was another side of Harlem life that I don’t often see depicted.

I don’t see pictures of the jams in the park; where local DJs would play music and a local organization or church would set up games and activities for the youth.

I don’t see pictures of kids playing in our popular neighborhood parks (St. Nicholas Park, Marcus Garvey Park and Jackie Robinson Park among others).

I don’t see families swimming in our neighborhood pools---Jackie Robinson, Marcus Garvey, Central Park and the Bath House.

I don’t see the neighborhood block parties and basketball tournaments---and there were some famous block parties and basketball tournaments going on each year including the famous Rucker Basketball Tournament.

There were neighborhood basement parties and holiday parties held by local churches and youth organizations.  I wasn’t old enough to attend some of the more famous neighborhood parties---1199 Plaza was famous for their parties.

I often see pictures of the old playas of the 1970s stepping out on Lenox Avenue or lounging in front of the more famous bars and lounges in the neighborhood.  But I hardly see pictures of the old hustler bars (as I like to call them) from the 1980s and 1990s.

The playas were still stepping out looking sharp and pulling up in their fancy cars, chrome rims glistening under the streetlight, their glamorous girlfriends in tow.

The young playas wore sweat suits, jeans and sneakers or Timberland boots.  They didn’t have the style of the old playas but they wore the best and defined the look of urban wear because they had the money to spend.

What about the regular working-class folk in Harlem?  The ones who went to work every day in their best.  Church ladies in their finest on their way to church.  The men who worked the shoe repair shops on the Hill on down to Lenox Avenue.  The men who sold newspapers out of the vintage newsstands painted in army green.  The building Superintendents keeping the buildings clean and the sidewalks swept and hosed down.  The handymen who walked the streets rolling carts filled with work supplies looking for work.  The people, men and women, going to and from work every day.

What about the homeowners who purchased their brownstones or inherited them and spent countless hours and all the money they had to renovate and rehab them?  Are there no pictures of their kids playing in the basements or out in the backyard?  Or standing in front of their homes?

These are just some of the questions that I have always had.

I realize that the selection of the images of Harlem, mostly by the media, plays a large part of how my community has been depicted and how it has been viewed by outsiders and to some extent newcomers.  And it factors in to the way many gentrifiers view and abhor “Old Harlem.”  Some believe that it never was a community and project the myth that we didn’t care about our neighborhood and it took the gentrifiers coming to save and salvage it.

Believe it or not, I have actually been told this by gentrifiers that were black, white and brown in my own neighborhood.  This is why it’s important that we Harlemites (still living here and abroad) to share our stories, our images and our love for old Harlem.

And I plan to do just that.

Here’s to Harlem.

Naj