The Once and Future Harlem

      Two children absorb the images and sounds of Harlem in 1943.

After a century of what the historian Richard B. Moore called "Africa Conscious Harlem," where can one find that sense of common destiny with Africans on the continent, let alone around the corner? The Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market on 116th Street, just off Lenox Avenue, is a bazaar featuring African jewelry, clothing, instruments, oils, incense — each stall selling nearly the same goods as its neighbor, variety being unnecessary in the service of tourists and locals seeking Afrocentric accents. Its existence dates to the mid-1990s, when the Giuliani administration moved to stop vendors from operating on 125th Street. The market, developed in collaboration with the nearby Masjid Malcolm Shabazz, was opened to house African traders displaced by the sweep. The mosque, whose green onion dome once dominated the skyline of 116th Street, is now overshadowed by a condominium tower.

When considering common destinies, this moment of local politics is instructive: the 125th Street vendors were divided between African and black American vendors. The African traders coalesced around the 116th Street market anchored by the mosque. A different location, Mart 125, was the stronghold of those black American vendors who chose to lease space in the city-owned building. But now it is defunct, shuttered by the city due to unpaid rents. It stands empty, awaiting "revitalization" as part of the new Harlem.

Walking along West 116th Street, I came to the Association des Senegalais d'Amerique. I stopped to look at a sidewalk table with reading material. Most of it was in Arabic, so I perused a copy of The African Sun Times, a New Jersey–based weekly whose front cover announced the wedding of a British-Nigerian NFL player to Miss Angola 2011. It is edited and published by Chika Onyeani, author of a self-help book titled Capitalist Nigger, as well as a spy thriller reviewed twice in his own newspaper's book pages. A man emerged from inside the association building; I asked if I needed to pay for the paper and he motioned no. When he remained standing in the doorway — half in, half out and taking my measure — I decided to broach a conversation. "What happens here?" I asked. He looked at me above the rims of his glasses with an expression both scolding and vaguely affronted. He didn’t say a word. Into the silence, I offered the obvious: "It’s the Association of Senegalese —" I began. "Yesssss," he said. The awning above him read: "A Community Center for the Community." I thanked him and wished him good day.

So when I came upon a similar group a few blocks away, the Association des Maliens de New York, I did not go in. In the windows were tourism posters for Dogon Country, Djenné and Timbuktu, announcing them as "l’Afrique Authentique." A sign out front less romantically advertised the "multi-services" on offer within: copy, fax, scan, notary. Through the vertical blinds, I could see walls covered with group portraits. They reminded me of similar photos showing members of benevolent associations that served Harlem migrants of a century past: the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina, the Virginia Society, the Georgia Circle, the Southern Beneficial League.

Later, I returned to the Association des Senegalais and was greeted by Kaaw Sow, who manages the center. He sat behind a small glass window that opened onto the storefront's main room; a poster on the wall advertised a fundraising campaign for the group to buy a Lenox Avenue townhouse, to be known as Senegal House. Sow explained his work connecting recent immigrants with housing and employment opportunities and how many of the association’s services—tax preparation, for example — were open to all. It didn't take long for our conversation to arrive at that most local of political issues: gentrification. Sow said it affected foreign- and native-born Harlemites alike. West 116th Street is full of recently emptied storefronts, and he lamented the entrepreneurs who are losing their businesses to rising rents.

Sometimes, in conversation with West African neighbors, or on a bus with a fellow passenger, or venturing a few words as I accept the black plastic bag with my just-purchased items, or chatting with the driver of a livery cab, I will ask, "Where are you from?" The response will be "Africa," as if that is a satisfying answer, a whole continent being too much for small talk. I always ask, "Which is your country?" Mali, Senegal, Guinea, I am told — the centers toward which African Harlem turns. A vendor on 116th Street sells miniature flags from those countries; sometimes you see them dangling from the rearview mirror of a cab. They share the same colors, the red, gold and green that many new African nations adopted upon independence, borrowing from the never-colonized Ethiopia. Those colors were adapted into Garvey's red, black and green black-nationalist flag, still seen all around Harlem.

Tags: african harlem, gentrification, harlem, new york city