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Harlem snapshots 1928

Harlem occupied less than two square miles of northern Manhattan, composed of a rough triangle bounded to the west by St. Nicholas Avenue, running from 114th Street to 156th Street, and to the east by the East River. The poorest and most crowded section of New York, Harlem was nevertheless the most livable of the city’s ethnic ghettos. Freer of smoke and grime than the Lower East Side, it featured broad avenues flanked by solid brick and brownstone buildings erected by German and Dutch settlers, and it streets were animated by a parade of brightly dressed residents from the South, the West Indies, and Africa. Harlem offered a kaleidoscope of literary, political, and hedonistic activity unmatched anywhere in the United States. The snapshots that follow were all taken in 1928, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance.

In the fall of that year, in the heart of Harlem’s toniest neighborhood, Strivers’ Row, silver-turbanned A’Lelia Walker transformed her Stanford White-designed town house into a parlor-cum-nightclub-salon. In deference to the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance, she had named her extravagant establishment “The Dark Tower” after a newspaper column by black poet Countee Cullen, while a poem by Langston Hughes had been lettered by a local sign painter on an opposing wall. Walker’s guest list, as one observer noted, “read like a blue book of the seven arts,” mixing young black writers and singers with European royalty and Broadway performers. A’Lelia served the best bootleg liquor and champagne, and her guests could either remain downstairs listening to Jimmie Daniels or Alberta Hunter singing cabaret hits, or they could ascent to the third floor where more intellectual conversation was conducted.

A few blocks north, the two-year-old Savoy Ballroom was teeming, its block-long burnished mahogany dance floor filled with Lindy-hoppers and Shim-SHammers inspired by a pair of battling bands, for example Fletcher Henderson and Jimmie Lunceford vs. King Oliver and Fess Williams. This Uptown answer to the Roseland Ballroom held four thousand people and featured the most uninhibited social dancing in the world. The gratin of performers gathered in the northeast corner, known as "Cat’s Corner", where their gyroscopic routines brought not only applause but occasional tips from white spectators seated behind a brass rail. "At the Savoy Ballroom", observed the Amsterdam News, "social, racial and economic problems fade away to nothingness."[1] The stylish white crowd from downtown took the “A” train or ordered their Hispano-Suizas north to Jim Crow speakeasies along 133rd Street’s Jungle Alley. Here reigned the Cotton Club and Connie’s Inn, where chorines performed in Ziegfeldesque extravaganzas and Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington played, while waiters deftly Charlestoned through the crowd, spinning their trays without missing a beat.

The more adventures downtowners might follow Carl Van Vechten, the Nordic self-appointed arbiter of Harlem chic, to the fringes of Harlem—the “buffet flats” which displayed a variety of sexual tableaux, the extravagant drag balls at the Rockland Palace, and the smoky speakeasies known as “rat cellars in raw cellars.” As entertainer Jimmy Durante exclaimed, "You sort of go primitive up there." Less affluent Harlem residents—the laundresses and cabbies, numbers runners and domestics—paid anywhere from a dime to a half-dollar for the impromptu gatherings called "rent parties," They were staged in their apartments to raise the monthly rent before the furniture was thrown in the street on Monday morning, the regular practice of many landlords. The lights were red and blue, the music was played by three-piece pick-up bands, and songs were belted by amateur torch singers, while boiled pigs’ feet and hopping John, ham hocks, and cabbage were served up in the kitchen. As the piano player beat out rhythm with his feet and encouraged guests with his calls, the dancers slow-dragged around the crowded parlor as the floorboards sagged and creaked. The rent party, Wallace Thurman observed, "is as essential to "low Harlem" as the cultured receptions and soirées held on ‘strivers’ row’ [sic] are to "high" Harlem."[2]

In the hothouse atmosphere of a bohemian boardinghouse at 267 West 136th Street, the alcoholic, suicide-threatening, homosexual writer Wallace Thurman was trying to convince fellow “New Negroes” to contribute a radical little magazine called Harlem. The renovated tenement, dubbed “Niggerati Manor” by habitué Zora Neale Hurston, had become a local legend for its ribald residents, the bright phalluses painted on its walls, the sourmash rumored to fill all its bathtubs, and the gin that flowed from its taps. However exaggerated the local rumors were, they helped create the legend of Harlem as “a Negro Greenwich Village.” Everywhere he looked Thurman found people expressing themselves—writing novels and plays, painting oils, singing spirituals and blues—and he hoped to funnel their creative energy into a journal that represented the younger generation. The high-toned social event of the 1928 season was the marriage of Harlem’s twenty-five-year-old poet laureate, Countee Cullen, to Yolande Du Bois, the only daughter of the revered intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois. The ushers were distinguished black writers, the sixteen bridesmaids wore green and white georgette gowns, and the fantastic decor included caged canaries and tall palms. Nearly six thousand people gathered at dusk on APril 9, and those who could not squeeze into the cavernous Salem Methodist Church spilled into the streets, vicariously experiencing this crowning event of Harlem aristocracy. Inside, the bride and groom kneeled on a white satin pillow as a soprano sang Teschemacher’s “Until” and a white dove cooed overhead.

Six days a week Seventh Avenue was Harlem’s Broadway, and for a few hours of the seventh it functioned as Harlem’s Fifth Avenue. After church, Harlemites promenaded in their Sunday best. On the stretch between 138th and 125th streets, one recalled, “you would see every important person you ever knew.”[3] They paraded their furs and feathers, their form-fitting dresses and bright shawls, checkered suits and gay parasols, their white spats and silk handkerchiefs protruding from a breast pocket—even a freshly washed gingham dress or a black suit looked elegant in the afternoon sun. Many wearing those elegant clothes earned less than $100 a month in their jobs as waitresses, redcaps, and stevedores, and their sartorial aplomb owed a great deal to installment houses—and to the discounts offered by Harlem’s ubiquitous “hot men.” These local institutions offered strategies for achieving the public stylishness that was so valued in “lodge mad and procession wild” Harlem. The parade reached its climax on Sundays. As novelist Rudolph Fisher observed, “Indeed, even Fifth Avenue on Easter never quite attains this; practice makes perfect, and Harlem’s Seventh Avenue boasts fifty-two Easters a year.”[4]

Our camera could be focused on many other subjects in that Harlem heyday: on Jessie Fauset's genteel drawing room where young men and women discussed literature in French; on West Indian mobster Casper Holstein, "the Bolito King," whose thriving numbers operation at the Turf Club financed Harlem's Opportunity awards; on Pig-Foot Mary, who plied her culinary wares from morn ing until evening at the corner of 135th Street and Lenox Avenue always wearing one of her two starched, checked gingham dresses on James Van Der Zee's photographic studio at 109 West 135th Street, where Harlemites posed against romantic backdrops—a villa, garden, a moonlit lake, a domestic fireplace—Each of these snapshots contributed to the glittering mosaic, of that fantastic decade when Harlem was in vogue.