City Lit: Harlem Benighted

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Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto, by Gilbert Osofsky, Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 1997 (orig. 1966), 276 pages, paper $14.95.

Gilbert Osofsky’s Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto is back in print, which is good news. Osofsky, who spent most of his career on the faculty at the University of Illinois, is widely recognized as a pioneer of African-American urban history. Thirty years after his book was first published, and more than 20 years after its author’s untimely death at the age of 39, Osofsky’s narrative is still the best history of Harlem we have. Unfortunately, the book is bleak to a fault.

Despite its place as the country’s premier African-American neighborhood, Harlem has not been nearly so blessed with historians as, for example, Chicago. Osofsky’s contemporary, Allan Spear, wrote a similarly harsh history of the ghettoization of African Americans in Black Chicago (1967), describing black life there as a battle with the overwhelming forces of racism, poverty and overcrowding. But more recently, James Grossman’s Land of Hope (1989) and Nicholas Lemann’s The Promised Land (1991) have given us more nuanced and complete stories of the formation of Chicago’s black community, emphasizing what residents did as opposed to what was done to them. Grossman and Lemann each give attention to both hardship and hope.

To Osofsky, Harlem is a place with no hope. It is the squalid product of the racism and poverty that excluded Southern black migrants from much of New York City. As a left-leaning scholar of the 1960s, Osofsky emphasizes the misery of Harlem, not out of a racist blindness for cultural and political strengths, but out of a desire to illustrate the need for the era’s sweeping antipoverty initiatives.

Certainly there is great value in Osofsky’s detailed chronicle of the neighborhood’s origins. He details the collapse of the Harlem real estate market in 1904 after an ill-fated building spree that outpaced the anticipated northward expansion of the subways. As a result, fine residences intended for white businessmen and their families were left standing empty at a time when black New Yorkers were desperate for decent housing. Osofsky tells us that African-American entrepreneur Philip A. Payton, Jr. convinced cash-strapped landlords to accept black tenants, who jumped at the chance to move in. The homes were not just decent; many were luxurious. The beautiful brownstones on 138th and 139th streets, for example, designed by the famous architect Stanford White, are enduring evidence of the fundamental quality of Harlem’s housing stock.

Osofsky, however, does not emphasize the quality of Harlem’s housing; he emphasizes the neighborhood’s troubles. He focuses on deteriorating living conditions, which he blames on high rent, low wages, rural migrants with little training in urban sanitation, and racist landlords’ reluctance to maintain their properties. Also, in one of his most troubling analytical turns, Osofsky blames some of Harlem’s plight on what he describes as the African-American “attitude toward family life.”

He argues that slavery “initially destroyed the entire concept of family life for American Negroes” and was in part responsible for juvenile delinquency in Harlem and for the neighborhood’s eventual decline. His line of reasoning found many adherents in the 1960s and ’70s–and some conservative theorists still follow it today. But the argument ignores the well-documented, deeply held commitment of slaves to their spouses and children despite horrific obstacles created by slaveholders.

The positive aspects of Harlem life get short shrift in Osofsky’s narrative, despite his particularly strong chapter on the growing political clout of the concentrated black community. But in addition to leverage in politics, the black community in Harlem fostered a flourishing of black art and literature, encouraged businesses and a black middle class to thrive, and provided a network of support for migrants from the South.

In Osofsky’s telling, even the Harlem Renaissance loses its glamour. He confines it to an epilogue and characterizes it as a false image masking the squalor that was truly Harlem.

Ironically, the fashionable, smiling women beneath the bleak title on the cover of this new edition don’t evoke a miserable ghetto but the Harlem of hope that Osofsky neglected.

In his assessment of the overwhelming impact of outside forces on Harlem, Osofsky certainly reflects the thinking of his day. It is unfortunate, therefore, that this new edition offers no historiographical context, a shortcoming which could easily have been remedied with the inclusion of a new introductory essay.

Still, Osofsky teaches us something invaluable, albeit unintentional: A history that focuses on disembodied forces and processes affecting a community, rather than on the beliefs and actions of the members of that community, can’t tell a complete story.

Ellen Stroud is a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. Urban and Environmental History at Columbia University.

A version of this review first appeared on the electronic discussion group h-urban.

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