Not too many days ago some friends of mine were chatting on line about the changes they saw taking place in Harlem; a kind of revitalization seems to be going on there. The place is becoming “gentrified”. That means it’s now becoming attractive to live in Harlem for white people. That’s if you have enough money. Some may not remember that about a hundred years ago white people did live in Harlem. It didn’t take as much then, even if you allow for a dollar being a dollar back then.
My mother and her brothers and sister grew up there, and went to school and went to church there. They lived in a lovely apartment building at 120 Mt. Morris Park South, and attended Mass each Sunday at All Saints Church, a Gothic structure which is on the list of National Landmarks. So is, I believe, Mt. Morris Park. Only don’t go looking for Mt. Morris Park on a map. John Lindsay, who used to be the Mayor of New York, and wanted to keep on being the mayor, thought it would help him to stay mayor if he re-named the park. So he called it Marcus Garvey Park. Nothing changed on the ground, though. Everyone in Harlem calls it Mt. Morris Park.
In City Hall it’s Marcus Garvey, and probably no one knows where it is.
What happened in Harlem? A lot of things happened, I guess, the same kind of things that happened to the neighborhood where my mother’s mother grew up in the late 19th Century, Five Corners of movie fame; a combination of cheap labor flooding in, greedy landlords and grubby politicians looking for a little easy money and a way to stay in office.
I once arrested a heroin dealer who lived in one of the rooms in the apartment that my mother’s family once called home. It had been subdivided because the City of New York said a landlord could do that if he wished to “expand” his property in order to rent more places for more money to more people. Landlords in New York City swing a big bat.
Well, all of the talk about what a wonderful place Harlem has (once more) become to settle in and raise a family got me thinking of some of my own experiences not so long ago in another Harlem at another time, the Harlem of poor people, rich landlords and corrupt politicians.
I remember this one:
Why do these things always happen on cold days? At night? In the
rain? I’m not setting a scene, just telling the facts. I was still in
my first, probationary, year at the FBN. I was going along with three
other agents to serve a search warrant at an address in Harlem, off
Madison Avenue, on the south side of the street, at about 118th Street.
We were looking for heroin, which was, and may still be, as plentiful as
marihuana in some places in Cos Cob where many the new colonizers of Harlem probably grew up.
The building was one of those one probably sees now filling up with
“nice” people, the right kind, the ones who work at the mid-six figure
salaries three or four miles south, and write e-mails back and forth to
each other asking for advice on schools in the area, where it’s safe to
walk and where’s the best place to get authentic Ghanian cuisine.
They’d be horrified to know that heroin was once kept in about every
nook and cranny the place had, and used all over it…perhaps in their
Anyway, as the rain fell we descended the stairs to the basement and kicked in the door. It was the building’s superintendent who was supposed to be the dealer du jour, and we had decided that the judge had issued us a no knock warrant on the way over from Rao’s or some other place the real powers ate in Harlem before white folks came back …we had had a late meal. Inside a dim bulb gleamed in a filthy ceiling shedding its light on something straight out of a Dickens nightmare. There was no furniture, only rags and heaps of rags, odd platforms of refuse, which could once have been furniture, and the two inhabitants, dark and furtive creatures vaguely human, or what might have been. They spoke. They moved. Their “quarters” were separated from the old furnace by a sort of half wall, and it dawned on me that they lived in what had been the coal bin.
“There’s not enough money in the world,” I thought, “to make me want to
look at, through or under anything for anything else in this place.” It
was the same thought going through everyone else’s mind, I figured,
because the fellow whose “case” this was simply ordered one of the
wretches to give us the heroin he knew was in there. She got up from
something or other and motioned him to follow her. I joined him, more
out of curiosity than anything else. I was still curious then.
We walked out of the coal crib to the rear of the place behind the
furnace. It was getting quite dark, but this creature knew her way. Did
I mention they were both female? They were a lesbian pair, or so the informant had told the fellow with the “case”. I mention that because, well because it was odd then. Perhaps that’s all they could do, in that place at that time. One makes “arrangements”. Anyway, she
stopped and reached up to pull the string on another light, which
illuminated a scene I don’t think I’d seen before and know I’ve not
seen since for its squalidity. There in a hole in the wall she removed
some package or other and handed it over to my partner. It contained
about an ounce or two of heroin, already bagged. She was a retailer of
the product, of course. Probably had never been in Rao’s. Probably had
never been off 118th Street, or out of her hole for years.
We were in her bathroom. I could tell because the floor was covered
with piles of dung and small pools of urine I think. At least they were
Both women were arrested and removed to the Federal Detention Center on West Street, not far from those places today where lesbians and other
homosexuals gather in public and private . Times change. The FDC is something else, too.
I went home. We lived on Cannon Place near the Jerome Reservoir. I
removed all my clothing outside my apartment and left it there, keeping
my wallet, gun, badge and credentials with me. Sheila was, not
surprisingly, surprised to see me enter the house in that state, but
understood when I told her why, and agreed that most bugs would not have had time to establish themselves on what I brought through the door. She urged me, however, to shower and bathe, quickly. The clothes were
bagged and thrown away.
I think of that night when I read about “renewal”, and hope that the
ones responsible for the conditions I experienced in 1966, and those two
women lived in, will get to enjoy the same in some hot place for eternity.