Wednesday, February 9, 2011

"Harlem" by Jonathan Gill

From the silver tipped wooden leg of Peter Stuyvesant, which was given to him as a reward by the East India Company for continuing to fight, even after his leg was shot off, to Jan Rodriquez, a Portuguese seaman who went to live with the Rockaway Indians, fathering the first mixed race child in America, this book will disavow all you think you know about the early Dutch in New Amsterdam. It will also give you a whole new perspective on Harlem, and it's journey on the way to becoming a bastion of African-American Culture in the early years of the 20th Century.

It is still too early in the year to proclaim this book as the must read for 2011, but this sweeping history of Harlem ,which rivals the scope of the 1999 release of Edwin Burrows' and Mike Wallace's "Gotham", will certainly be in the running.

From Henry Hudson's first step ashore at what is now 130th Street in Harlem (and you thought he went ashore at the Battery) to the Revolutionary War, when Harlem was a small village and considered the "country", through the War of 1812, the Civil War and right on through the 20th Century, each page will surprise you with the richness of the history you didn't know.

Some of the misconceptions that are righted in this fascinating book concern the Lower East Side. We all have this impression that the Marx Brothers, Rogers and Hart, and a host of other entertainment figures, came from the Lower East Side. Not true. The Marx Brothers, as well as Rogers and Hart, and Oscar Hammerstein all came from Harlem. Even the original Little Italy was located in Harlem.

The Manhattan Project, which had it's beginnings in a warehouse adjacent to Columbia University is also represented in this treasure trove of history. Carefully researched and well written, this book will entertain you on so many different levels, that I hardly know how to begin a coherent review. The history of the tenement, and how it came into being, is a rare look into the background of early urban real estate and the forces which drove it.

The Christmas Riot of 1901, which began when a group of white Irish youngsters attacked an old Negro drunk, who was then defended by a pasing white man, sparked the riots that re-drew the color line in Harlem. Prior to the riot, Harlem, like the rest of New York, was divided into ethnic neighorhoods. There were Irish, German, Spanish, Jewish and Italian areas, each with it's own set of rules and rituals. The Christmas Riot began the ethnic change, and also sparked a cultural revival of the local arts scene. This was the era of Langston Hughes and Du Bois; the so-called Harlem Renaissance. It is one of the most exciting portions of the book.

The narrative follows the history of Harlem from Henry Hudson through the present day and it's hopes for the future. Along the way you will be introduced to such luminaries as James Europe, the bandleader turned soldier in the First World War. He enlisted over 2,000 men from Harlem, forming them into the "Harlem Hellfighters", an all black group that included Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. This band of soldiers trained in the streets, with brooms in lieu of weapons. When they arrived in France they introduced the people to jazz before spending 191 days in the trenches, longer than any white battalion in the war, on either side. They were also the only regiment to continue to move forward during that time, never giving up one single foot of the ground that they fought so hard to gain. They even amassed an extraordinary 171 Croix de Guerre's and Legions of Merit.

Modernist painters, gangsters, politicians, criminals, prostitutes, actors and prize fighters are all represented in this fantastic compilation of what made Harlem the unique Mecca of African-American culture that it became, and continues to be.

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