Harlem is best understood, I think, at the level of the individual block. Think of each as a kind of episode: comprehensible as a part of the larger whole, but happy — eager, even — to be plucked out of context and considered on its own terms. A stretch of street between avenues above the Park is at once microcosm and puzzle piece and incredible, invaluable rarity, suggesting all kinds of hidden meanings and attitudes, intimating little histories at every address. Each feels in some way personal (as in small, as in diaristic) and in some other way globally consequential, so enormous as to be almost invisible, a page from some half-forgotten textbook.
Several blocks come to mind:
In the latter part of his life, Langston Hughes owned a brownstone on East 127th Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues, number 20 to be exact, where the poet wrote, among other things, the famous Montage for a Dream Deferred and his second autobiographical volume, I Wonder as I Wander. The house sits there still: dull brown and vine-shaggy in the summer, the front railings, when freshly painted, an unnervingly vivid kelly green. On the same block, on the same side of the street, just a few doors down, is another brownstone in whose basement a friend of mine lived for a year or so with his then-girlfriend, now fiancée going on wife. I remember a party one night, years ago, out in the squarish back yard of that apartment. Strong drinks in plastic cups, the occasional fat feral cat, cigarette ends glowing like momentary lightning bugs in the dusk.
A bit west, on 127th between Lenox and Seventh, is White Rock Baptist Church, where, once upon a time, my parents were married in cream and white. In a shoebox somewhere there’s a photo of them post-ceremony, just outside the church’s door, washed in a yellow that might have been the sun but might also be a simple matter of jaundiced old paper. Dad (long gone) is smiling and gesticulating, mom’s eyes are liquid and threatening to overflow, both are impossibly young and slim and happy. The R&B songwriting duo Ashford and Simpson — Nick and Val to some of the people I know, or once knew — had their start at the same church, as did Freddie Jackson, of “You are My Lady” fame.
(Old Harlem — by which I guess I mean Harlem on every day before I was born — seems to have been so small. Poets and soul singers everywhere, every encounter a future Wikipedia entry.)
Madison Avenue between 125th and 124th Streets: my parents’ first apartment in the city, where one night, according to legend, a rat of considerable size came flying out of the lower cabinet of my bassinet. Soon thereafter, on my mother’s orders, we moved away. Across the street is a rocky square of a park that doubles as a whole history of the island. Renamed in the ‘70s after Marcus Garvey, it was in the ‘30s outfitted by Robert Moses with swings and slides for kids, and before that — much before — established as a Hessian outpost during the Revolutionary War, and back in the beginning used as a lookout by Native Americans.
Harlem is a kind of real-estate romance.
In perhaps the loveliest chapter of Claude McKay’s 1928 novel Home from Harlem, the protagonist, a magnetic wanderer named Jake, walks love-struck across 130th Street between Fifth and Lenox Avenues. Then, as now, the block’s houses, with their almost rural wooden porches and their brick facades set back from the street, were a curious architectural departure from the characteristic high-stooped Italianate Harlem brownstone. Here’s how McKay described what he called the “Block Beautiful”:
The whites had not evacuated that block yet. The black invasion was threatening it from One Hundred and Thirty-first Street, from Fifth Avenue, even from behind in One Hundred and Twenty-ninth Street. But desperate, frightened, blanch-faced, the ancient sepulchral Respectability held on…
…The Block Beautiful was worth a struggle. With its charming green lawns and quaint white-fronted houses, it preserved the most Arcadian atmosphere in all New York. When there was a flat to let in that block, you would have to rubberneck terribly before you saw in the corner of a window-pane a neat little sign worded, Vacancy.
A few summers back, my daughter’s day camp was a couple blocks north of 130th, on Fifth, and it gradually became part of our morning ritual to pass through the beautiful block. The real name of the place is Astor Row, after John Jacob Astor, who bought it for $10,000 in the mid-1800s. Astor was the first multimillionaire in the country — his great-grandson, John Jacob IV, was a sometime novelist and inventor who sailed first class on the Titanic and sank with the boat.
(“NO. 124 – MALE – ESTIMATED AGE 50 – LIGHT HAIR & MOUSTACHE … EFFECTS – Gold watch; cuff links, gold with diamond; diamond ring with three stones; £225 in English notes; $2440 in notes; £5 in gold; 7s. in silver; 5 ten franc pieces; gold pencil; pocketbook.”)
I would sometimes lag behind my daughter as she walked down the interminable-seeming block, her backpack half again as wide as her torso, her little legs jutting out from behind the bag like a turtle’s from a shell.
I would sometimes catch a glimpse of the kid — young, slim, happy; yellowed only by the sun — moving unwittingly through the past and into something else. Something perhaps less “Arcadian,” to borrow McKay’s word, but also perhaps (I hope) just as spontaneously and unprojectably Harlem as whatever came before.