Coming Up Harlem

A revival of the fabled New York community inspires pride and controversy

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 9)

Harlem is defined by a set of geographic coordinates, to be sure, but also by a feeling, or sensibility. For that reason, the Morris-Jumel Mansion on Edgecombe Avenue at West 160th Street may be said to be part of Harlem, though it’s technically just north of the 155th Street administrative boundary. The stately home, which dates from 1765 and which George Washington used as his headquarters for a month during the Revolutionary War, incorporates perhaps the first octagonal room in the Colonies. Shady gardens surround the house, which, improbably, sits on a kind of schist proscenium overlooking the towers of an enormous public housing project on the site of the old Polo Grounds, where the New York Giants played baseball. The Morris-Jumel Historic District, as the neighborhood is called, feels like Harlem, with its dignified homes, including 16 Jumel Terrace, which once belonged to   the incomparable singer, actor and fighter for social justice, Paul Robeson.


If you stand under the shade of the oak and hackberry trees on the Morris-Jumel grounds late on a Sunday afternoon, you might hear the most persuasive reason for feeling that you’re in Harlem: jazz, wafting out of an apartment house across the street. The sessions take place in the third-floor apartment of Marjorie Eliot, an actress, playwright and jazz pianist. Eliot’s 28-year-old son, Phillip, died of kidney disease in the summer of 1992. To mark the first anniversary of his death, she hired jazz musicians to play on the lawn of the mansion. Eventually, she had musicians play in her apartment on Sundays. Her living room, decorated since September 11 with a small cutout of an American flag, holds several dozen metal folding chairs. She serves juice and cookies. Though a tin is passed around for donations, no contribution is required. “Clubs are so costly,” she says, “and musicians don’t get a chance to stretch out and play. I want people to experience music uncompromised by commercial constraints.”


The nightclubs of the first Harlem renaissance are gone. Last June, a plaque was belatedly dedicated to mark the Seventh Avenue site of the Savoy Ballroom, once the “Home of Happy Feet” and the Lindy Hop. It’s now a housing project. Nothing marks the site of the original Cotton Club a block away. A club by that name today on West 125th Street caters largely to tourists, with offerings like a Sunday gospel brunch.


The Apollo Theater, which introduced or helped launch the careers of artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and James Brown, deteriorated over the years, despite the popularity of its Wednesday amateur night shows. A ballyhooed 1992 renovation barely stemmed the decline, and a more extensive, $53 million renovation is under way. But a widely trumpeted plan to incorporate the shuttered Victoria Theater a few doors away was postponed in September due to fears that the economic climate could result in lowerthan-budgeted revenues and donations.


The postponement was a blow to some in the community and a snag in its otherwise dazzling comeback. But the second Harlem renaissance is far bigger than any one reconstruction project. Investment in the place remains strong, and its undeniable mystique continues to grow. You can sense that energy at the sold-out performances of Harlem Song, the Apollo’s first long-running show, in which a supercharged cast dances and sings its way through 20 musical numbers touching on the community’s history. On the night I attended, the audience looked prosperous and included members of the city’s financial and political elites. The most familiar songs, like 1933’s “Drop Me Off in Harlem,” were from another heyday, but the natty throng and the limousines jockeying at the curb were very much of this one.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus