Harlem: New York’s Centre for Black Thought and Creativity
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.
You can hear Santilla speak about New York’s diverse boroughs at Lindsay’s Launch Party on Thursday 6 April, 6—9pm at Allpress, Collingwood. Save the date via our Facebook event.
Shop the Print Issue
Issue No. 1
In Issue No. 1 we meet Australian fashion icon Jenny Kee, translator from Italian Ann Goldstein and French-Cuban music duo Ibeyi. We learn about Ramadan, the Aboriginal ball game Marngrook, the Kiribati dance, the art of pickling, and the importance of home. And we see what it’s like to dress up in Myanmar, live in Cuernavaca, make ceramics from different soil, and walk the streets of Florence.
Issue No. 2
In Issue No. 2 we meet New York-based Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson, and Croatian painter Stipe Nobilo. We discover how the French protect their language and the way women—all around the world—have used textiles as their political voice. We listen to lovers rock, prepare a boisterous Korean barbecue, venture to go to Feria de Jerez and eat our way around Hong Kong.
Issue No. 4
In Issue No. 4 we meet Nigerian-born artist Toyin Ojih Odutola, Indigenous Australian Elders Uncle Bob Smith and Aunty Caroline Bradshaw, and Palestinian-American chef and artist Amanny Ahmad. We peer inside the Parisian ateliers Lesage and Lemarié, muse over the iconic lines of European chair design and celebrate the colourful woodblock prints of Japanese artist Awazu Kiyoshi. And we venture along Morocco’s Honey Highway, get lost in the markets of Oaxaca and discover the favours of Ghana.
Issue No. 5
In Issue No. 5 we travel to the mountains with Etel Adnan, along coastlines wherever waves roll in, and then all over the world through the photographic archive of Lindsay James Stanger. We celebrate hair braiding in South Africa, Salasacan weaving techniques in Ecuador, Vedic jewellery traditions and the new sound of Ukraine. We meet artist Cassi Namoda, choreographer Yang Liping and lace-maker Mark Klauber. And we visit a bakery in Tel Aviv, discover the joys of making arak, and spend a summer stretching mozzarella in Italy.