Photo: Former Renaissance Ballroom Site, 2015
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.
Bey was drawn to Harlem, the community where his parents lived and met, after being inspired to become an artist after seeing the exhibition Harlem on My Mind at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969. Bey’s photographs from this series, which were shown at the Studio Museum of Art in 1979, present ‘”types” of residents, in the vein of August Sander’s classic works of portraiture. From the barber to the church ladies, the cool cats to the patricians, Bey captured the diverse characters that made Harlem a place where legends were made.
Some forty years later, Bey has returned to the fabled neighborhood—only, it’s not what it once was. Harlem has been undergoing a period of rapid gentrification that makes it virtually unrecognizable. Countless landmarks have vanished while the influx of white residents has lead to mass displacement, radically shifting the demographics of the neighborhood. For many, the neighborhood is becoming unrecognizable as its history is being erased and replaced by a culture that has no ties to the community.
Bey has created a new body of work, Harlem Redux, which explores the changing face of the neighborhood. Currently on view at Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago, through December 3, 2016, the large -color photographs in Harlem Redux reads like an epitaph, a quiet, elegiac work of visual poetry.
In the exhibition catalogue, Bey reveals, “For this project I’ve adopted a more open-ended strategy for making the work. Rather than beginning in a particular formal or conceptual framework in place, I have let the circumstances themselves guide my choices and ultimately shape the work. This has resulted in a varied group of pictures that work together to form a larger narrative about absence, memory, change, and loss.”
For New Yorkers, or shall I say, Old Yorkers, who have lived in this city since it was left to save itself from government abuses waged far and wide, the New York of today brings a lump to the belly and a tear to the eye. There are flashes of what once was every now and then, flashes of the past that continue to live in the present but, for the most part, they are nothing more than fleeting moments to be cherished and remembered as who we were before gentrification began erase our histories.
All photos: © Dawoud Bey, Courtesy of Stephen Daiter Gallery
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.