Harlem. The name speaks for itself, eliciting images of African-American life in its many-splendored forms throughout the twentieth century. Harlem came into vogue as the Great Migration sent thousands of southern black folk up north beginning in 1905. By the 1920s, the neighborhood became a focal point for artists from all walks of life, giving birth to the legendary Harlem Renaissance.
Harlem, which had originally been developed in the nineteenth century as an exclusive suburb for the white upper class, was home to stately homes, grand avenues, and places like the Polo Grounds and the Harlem Opera House. With this backdrop, a new culture came forth, one that celebrated African Americans and Afro Caribbean arts and history.
But with the Great Depression and the deindustrialization of New York City after World War II, Harlem fell victim to de facto segregation practices like red lining, which denied services like banking, insurance, healthcare, mortgages, credit cards, and retail to the black community. Adding to this, there was an influx of drugs in a war waged by the Nixon White House designed to corrupt and criminalize African American communities.
By the 1970s, Harlem, like much of New York’s black and Latino communities, had been decimated, left as a shell of its former glory. Yet at the same time, it was a strong, committed community, one built by Mom and Pop businesses going back decades. This was the Harlem that photographer Queens-native Dawoud Bey (b. 1953) documented for his first completed project, Harlem USA, made between 1975-1979.
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Photo: Former Renaissance Ballroom Site, 2015. © Dawoud Bey, Courtesy of Stephen Daiter Galler