Portraits and Landscapes – South Harlem

photo 3photo 4photo 1I was recently in New York in Harlem. There has been quite a revitalization going on.   Perhaps I should call it an over “gentrification.” I am not sure what to think of it. There has been a huge change. It is no longer the gritty, soulful place it used to be. The Apollo still stands strong on 125th, and the Red Rooster crows loudly on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, where enough means buys you a splendid Sunday gospel brunch, with fried chicken, collard greens and macaroni pie.

 

Located in the northern section of NYC, Harlem is known as a major African-American residential, cultural and business center. It is also home to Africans from around the continent of Africa and one hears French and Portuguese frequently on the streets there.

 

It’s interesting that Harlem’s black population was at its highest in the 1950s.   However, in 2008 for the first time, the Census reported that it switched; blacks now holding only a 4 to 10 ratio.

 

Standing on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, I thought of its namesake, Frederick Douglass, born Frederick Augustus Washington Baily. A man who distinguished himself as a speaker and statesman; a great leader of the abolitionist movement in the United States.

 

A man who wrote on his arrival in Harlem:

 

“I have often been asked, how I felt when first I found myself on free soil. And my readers may share the same curiosity. There is scarcely anything in my experience about which I could not give a more satisfactory answer. A new world had opened upon me. If life is more than breath, and the ‘quick round of blood,’ I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life. It was a time of joyous excitement which words can but tamely describe. In a letter written to a friend soon after reaching New York, I said: ‘I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions.’ Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted; but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil.”

 

And who later wrote, once he left American soil for the first time:

 

“Eleven days and a half gone and I have crossed three thousand miles of the perilous deep. Instead of a democratic government, I am under a monarchical government. Instead of the bright, blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle [Ireland]. I breathe, and lo! the chattel [slave] becomes a man. I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave, or offer me an insult. I employ a cab—I am seated beside white people—I reach the hotel—I enter the same door—I am shown into the same parlour—I dine at the same table—and no one is offended… I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people. When I go to church, I am met by no upturned nose and scornful lip to tell me, ‘We don’t allow niggers in here!'” – from My Bondage and My Freedom.

 

As I walked slowly down this wide, busy, boulevard in South Harlem, from the Double Dutch a new high-end coffee shop to get a Cappuccino, and then next-door to get an almond croissant at the Patisserie Des Ambassades’, I wished Mr. Douglass would magically appear by my side. Oh, what might he say?

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