For most of us who have the privilege to travel, there are certain pilgrimages that one needs to make. And there’s one city that almost always makes the list—New York. It’s one of the most written about cities. Songs have been written about it, and movies and television shows have centred around this cultural melting pot. In many ways, for that reason, New York always feels familiar.
But the New York I’ve experienced is rather different. It doesn’t involve drinking cocktails at fancy bars in Manhattan recommended by Vogue, taking selfies at Times Square or outside Carrie Bradshaw’s apartment, or even hanging at a Brooklyn cafe. While this is certainly part of New York’s identity, in my view as a documentarian, getting to know a city is about understanding its people and the struggles the average resident has; it lies in the silent labour. To understand them, is to understand a city.
“To understand Harlem, is to understand the civil rights struggle and to understand black America.”
For me, in a city of eight million inhabitants, the pulse of the city lies in Harlem—located in the borough of Manhattan. To understand Harlem, is to understand the civil rights struggle and to understand black America. Harlem is also the centre of black thought and creative talent. During the Harlem Renaissance in the earlier part of the last century, it attracted a large number of black intellectuals and artists and became a black mecca. Almost every significant African American leader has been through Harlem. Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, Langston Hughes… And the list goes on.
Some associate Harlem with drugs and crime. President Richard Nixon’s so-called war on drugs in the 1970s saw Harlem targeted at a time when many who lived there were poor and that inequality gave rise to crime and violence. It is a complex story which highlights the impact government policies had and continue to have on minorities in America. But it is also a small part of Harlem’s history. Whilst remnants of the hardship many people there endure are still visible today, Harlem is more than the negative stories written about it.
“It’s common to be accosted by African braiders the minute you jump off the subway, each haggling to give you the best price to braid or weave afro hair.”
At its heart is 125th Street. Small businesses run by African-Americans populate this iconic street—and not just the conventional brick and mortar stores. It’s common to be accosted by African braiders the minute you jump off the subway, each haggling to give you the best price to braid or weave afro hair. Many people trade on the sidewalk, selling everything from bootleg CDs, to perfumes, to T-shirts. Due to regulation, informal economies don’t exist in Australia, but it’s quite commonplace in many parts of the world. And in Harlem, enterprising people from around the world, trade their wares. In a city that has some of the wealthiest people in the world, it’s a stark contrast to see just how hard many New Yorkers have to work to put food on the table. Many of those are migrants and minority groups. But despite this, there is hopefulness to Harlem. One of the most recognisable spots on the street is the legendary Apollo Theater. There isn’t a notable African American musician from 20th century who hasn’t played at this venue. Jimi Hendrix got his start here after winning amateur night. Prince, the Jackson Five, Diana Ross… You name them, they’ve all played there. Their images still grace the walls of this historic venue.
Then there’s the Studio Museum in Harlem, a gallery established in 1968 to promote the work of artists of African descent. You have Red Rooster where live music is performed every night and Sunday brunch is a must. Owned by Ethiopian-Swede celebrity chef, Marcus Samuelsson, it serves up comfort food whilst celebrating the diversity and richness of African-American cuisine. Just downstairs, is Ginny’s Supper Club, where live performances—including I’m told—a gospel brunch, bring the space to life.
Like Brooklyn before it, Harlem is not immune from gentrification. And like Brooklyn, many original inhabitants are being pushed out to make way for white collar workers and Whole Foods. Whether this black mecca will be able to hold onto to its cultural authenticity after the developers leave, is yet to be seen. But I have a feeling I won’t have to worry about that.