“There’s nothing like being a clued-in stroller navigating Harlem,” says this long-time resident of NYC’s most vibrant neighbourhood. So who better to ask for his meditation on the past and the present, the architecture and fashions of the area he describes as ‘a brand greater than Chanel’.
“I grew up in
Philadelphia, a city founded by the Quaker William Penn in 1701 and
historically referred to as ‘the City of Brotherly Love’. For me, that turned
out to be an omen. Mount Airy was the neighbourhood where I was raised and,
today, like then, it remains an economically and culturally diverse community.
“One benefit of growing up there was that as an African American I never
felt there was any barrier to pursuing whatever I desired. The area was rich in
American history and unique architecture, with homes and churches that date
back to the 1700s and the period of the American Revolution. That exposure and
interest inspired my enthusiasm for architecture, history and drawing early in
my school life. As a teenager in 1965 I came to New York City with family to
visit the World’s Fair and we stayed with relatives in Harlem. From then on, I
was hooked on visiting the neighbourhood and finally in 1980 I moved here.
“I was educated at Yale University’s School of Architecture and had two
really amazing and influential professors there. One was the historian of
African and Afro-Atlantic art Robert Farris Thompson and the other was the
architectural historian Vincent Scully. Both were dynamic presenters of history
and culture who honed my sense of cultural observation. Their imparted wisdom
made me particularly observant of architecture, open space and their effects on
human engagement. I scrutinise these environments with the same probity a
scientist reserves for peering through a microscope.
“Observing Harlem through that lens, it was not lost on me how
empowering the area’s natural landscape and architectural streetscape were,
with its panoramic view of Manhattan’s towering icons serving not only to
inspire its residents spiritually, but act as a touchstone of Harlem’s place
within the orbit of the city’s towering mecca too.
“An important part of my career as an architect has been involved in
organising and advancing contemporary monuments and the enhancement of public
spaces in Harlem, so that they further the neighbourhood’s African-American
presence and history in the context of New York City. Projects include a
monument to the writer Ralph Ellison by the artist Elizabeth Catlett, a plaza
commemorating Harriet Tubman, a liberator of enslaved African Americans, by
artist Alison Saar, as well as a traffic circle in Central Park designed by
Algernon Miller and Gabriel Koren in memory of the leader and abolitionist
“Langston Hughes is, without a doubt, my patron saint. I feel I owe him
everything; all my love and eventual exposure to the Harlem Renaissance of the
1920s and its players I owe to my exploration of Harlem life through his eyes,
writings and personal associations. In particular, his correspondence with
writer, critic and fellow man-about-Harlem Carl Van Vechten provided me with an
informative lens through which to evaluate the creative engagements and global
influence Harlem’s LGBT artists had on the international LGBT community of the
time. In the 1930s, for instance, poet and writer Gertrude Stein, composer
Virgil Thomson and ballet choreographer Antony Tudor were engaged with gay
African-American artists, dancers and singers composing and rehearsing the
opera Four Saints in Three Acts in the basement of Harlem’s St Philip’s Church.
“Harlem’s biggest asset is its communal spirituality. There’s a public
engagement of emotion and an ever-clever ‘shade’ to the reading
of human acts and behaviour that often cuts to the bone in its observation and
humour. In reading the works of Harlem writers Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison,
James Baldwin and Maya Angelou, one recognises similar ironies and rhythms that
resonate with the beat of Harlem life. Because the rhythm of Harlem inhabitants
has evolved from a diaspora of the African experience, it has a lilt that
encompasses Jamaica, Georgia, Nigeria and New Orleans, Havana and 125th Street.
The community embraces many tongues that speak through varied modes of dress,
hairstyles, music, art and other aspects of the culture. Even today, Harlem
remains a receptive audience to those beats.
“The most diverse and interesting communities to me are always to be
found in ports. Waterways in their day were the true highways of commerce and
human movement. Travel by ship in the early 20th century afforded the Jamaican
black nationalist Marcus Garvey and others like him of African descent from
South America and the Caribbean the opportunity to access lives in America and
Harlem and connect historically in a supportive community, where they could
share their ancestral stories of culture and enslavement.
“Other figures, such as the entertainer Josephine Baker, Langston
Hughes, left, and the family of James Baldwin, found access to Harlem by way of
the railroad and the train lines connecting America’s rural south and Mid West
to New York City. The richness of this diversity, exposure and exchange
fostered an artistic movement that centred in Harlem and inspired musicians,
writers, artists and the political players of the day to make it home. For the
generations of us that have followed, I feel Harlem remains, because of its
history, a mythic place. Much like New York City itself, it’s a global black
beacon, an ever-changing barometer of how we see and empower ourselves and
through that how we project to the world our collective voice.
“New York City and Harlem, in particular, were centres of
African-American wealth, culture and political influence. Fundraising
performances at the Apollo Theater and collections at local churches provided
financial support for the civil-rights efforts in the south. Harlem also had
many gay residents active in the movement. Activist and organiser Bayard Rustin
and composer Billy Strayhorn both used their influence to involve others, while
James Baldwin engaged not only with African-American peers Nina Simone and
Harry Belafonte, but worked to bring into the movement whites such as actor
Marlon Brando and the photographer Richard Avedon, who’d been his high-school
friend and classmate.
“I have always admired Harlem’s architectural beauty, its broad
boulevards and natural landscape, with its variation from the heights to the
plains. African Americans of the 1920s strolling along Harlem’s wide avenues
lined with buildings that evoked the streets of Paris must have felt a certain
pride in possessing a community that challenged the stereotype of for ever
residing on Gershwin’s ‘Catfish Row’. That era’s photographs of Harlem life
were the Ralph Lauren ads of their day for African-American aspiration. Many of
these boulevards look very much as they did when the Harlem Hellfighters
infantry unit, with James Reese Europe leading its marching band, paraded up
them during the armistice celebration that followed World War I.
“Harlem’s atmosphere quickly changes, however, as one turns from the bustle of
the boulevards to the more subdued residential character of its side-street
brownstone homes and smaller apartment blocks. Walking down those streets, one
finds neighbours chatting on their ‘stoops’. In the heat of summer, when school is out,
that same street might be animated by a locally hosted ‘block party’, with its
offerings of free food, music and games for the street’s families, children and
neighbours. The fortunate and observant visitor stumbling on such a block will
possess a memory universal to generations of Harlem residents and a visual akin
to a 1990s urban rap video.
“From the beginning, I found a very supportive and engaging LGBT
community in Harlem. It was an affordable place, where artists, dancers and
creative young professionals engaged socially and supportively with the
community. I have neighbours and fellow churchgoers who danced with Alvin Ailey’s
company or who are young artists engaged at Harlem’s Studio Museum. In just the
randomness of a day I might spot any of them on the street and fall into
conversation with them or casually drop in to say ‘hi’. Since my time in
Harlem, the Studio Museum has had numerous LGBT artists-in-residence, including
Glenn Ligon, Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, Derrick Adams and a host of
others who’ve drawn on the culture vibe of the neighbourhood and its
“Among the most vibrant residents is Michael Johnson: in 2011 he and his late partner Michael Roberts were one of the first same-sex couples to be legally married in New York. Every Christmas, they pulled out the silver and the crystal and regally entertained an anointed tribe of Harlem’s gay elite. This annual event was always much discussed, both by those who attended – and by those who did not. The house is chock-a-block with quirky antiques and phallic murals and is long overdue as a setting for a fashion shoot or full-out spread in a nesting magazine.
“Nearby, the poet James Fenton and his partner, writer Darryl Pinckney,
right, are lovingly restoring one of the neighbourhood’s grandest houses,
completed in 1890 for the John Dwight family, manufacturers of Arm & Hammer
baking soda. For decades prior to its current owners, the building served as a
synagogue for a sect of black Jews known as the Commandment Keepers of Harlem.
In just the short time they’ve been owners, Fenton and Pinckney have been true
citizens and supporters of the neighbourhood, offering their home for the area’s
annual house tour and other events that promote community-based activities and
“I try to remain optimistic, but at least one person in every tour group
I have still presents me with that question posed by Laurence Olivier’s
character in the film Marathon Man: ‘is it safe?’
“It’s so ridiculous. I’ve never heard of a tourist being physically abused
or injured. After all, we welcome visitors into what is for African Americans
our most sacred space, our churches, yet that hospitality isn’t translated into
our community as a whole. Through its religious and civic institutions, the
Harlem community was instrumental in the formative stages of the neighbourhood’s
revitalisation. It focused on affordable development to support and attract
working families, improve schools and coax supportive businesses and services
to the area.
“In recent years Harlem has served as a refuge for numerous Louisiana
artists who fled the region after Hurricane Katrina and ended up settling here.
Many New Orleans artists, such as singer and pianist Davell Crawford, have come
here and several of his fellow ‘Steinway’ artists, such as composers Jason Moran and
Aaron Diehl, are actively engaged in music education and performance, working
with local Harlem churches and cultural institutions.
“West African emigrants as well have made homes for themselves in
Harlem. Arriving about a decade ago, the African presence has enhanced Harlem’s
restaurant scene with a mastery of African cuisine partnered with coffee
counters brimming with exquisite French pastries. The import of unique African
fabric, worn in combination with modifications of traditional African dress,
has moved beyond the streets of Harlem to impact the purveyors of fashion in
Soho and the pages of Vogue. I often say ‘Harlem is a brand greater than Chanel’
and I feel that the African infusion represents a return of my gene pool, come
to assist in reinvigorating the Harlem brand.
“An early Harlem fashion renegade in a similar vein was designer Dapper
Dan, who in the 1980s produced what he tagged as ‘knock-ups’ of Gucci’s logo
and styles. His designs became must-haves as street and performance wear for
the golden age of rap artists, such as Big Daddy Kane, Salt-N-Pepa and LL Cool
J. Today, Dapper Dan has partnered under a licence with Gucci to create fabric
and fashion for the design house and has an atelier in a landmark Harlem
brownstone, from where he can often be seen stylishly strolling along Lenox
Avenue, as he might the runways of Milan.
“I always encourage visitors to New York to check out Harlem. It’s a wonderful and ever-evolving neighbourhood and its residents are welcoming hosts. They know that, for visitors to be in Harlem in the first place, they’ve already crossed some perceived culture barrier. We realise that you either have a lover here or are in love with our culture. Or maybe even both.”