What was it like to live in 1920s Harlem?
Using Digital Harlem to put the Harlem Renaissance in context

Stephen Robertson

(This is a preprint of a chapter scheduled to appear in a collection entitled Teaching the Harlem Renaissance, to be published by MLA. The chapter was written in July 2018; due to a variety of delays the collection has yet to be published)

What has become known as the Harlem Renaissance was not limited to New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. Many of the writers and artists associated with it lived and worked elsewhere, in Chicago, Boston, Washington, DC, and in Europe, for at least some of the years between the wars spanned by the movement. At that time, the era was labeled the New Negro or Black Renaissance. Reconceiving the moment around Harlem came later and spoke to the symbolic power of the neighborhood. Invoked as the “capital of the race,” a “refuge” and a “mecca,” Harlem represented the promise of the modern city to bring together African Americans, promote their self-expression and self-determination, and produce a new racial consciousness. The frequent representations of the neighborhood by Harlem’s writers invoked both that promise and its failure, describing both unity and tension, refuge and oppression. However, the space of Harlem was not only “signified;” it was also “lived.” It had material and social dimensions: streets and buildings, and residents, visitors, and workers. (Sherrard-Johnson 1–4; Lobbermann; De Jongh)

In courses on the Harlem Renaissance, the “lived” neighborhood commonly appears in two forms: as a counterpoint to the symbolic place, a “real” Harlem against which to measure the representations in order to discern the ideals of their authors; and as a context, a source of explanations for the origins and character of literary and artistic works. In both regards, historical accounts offer limited pictures of Harlem. The richest and most individualized accounts of Harlem are of what Lawrence Levine labelled “high culture.” Epitomized by David Levering Lewis’ When Harlem Was in Vogue, this scholarship focuses on writers and intellectuals and the incipient civil rights movement, and the high society in which they moved. Other Harlems appear only dimly in these accounts; as Levine noted in reviewing Lewis’ book, “he acknowledges the importance of jazz and blues, of the sporting life, and of religion, but subjects none of it to close scrutiny”(Lewis; Levine). One consequence of the lack of scrutiny of the worlds beyond high culture is that our picture of Harlem has not entirely shaken free of the story of the 1920s told by Gilbert Osofsky in the first major historical study of the neighborhood. In that account the years of the Harlem Renaissance saw the making of a ghetto:  the emergence of a large, segregated community, and the transformation of the area it occupied into a slum from which black residents could not escape (Osofsky). Recent studies have explored specific threads of experience marginalized in Osofsky and Lewis’ studies: nightlife, numbers gambling, sexual commerce, religion, sports, and consumption (White et al.; Hicks; King; Harris). These histories have enriched our picture of the neighborhood, adding some of the other dimensions of Harlem that Levine identified. But threads remain missing, as does an account that weaves them together into a broader tapestry of life in Harlem.

Digital Harlem offers a way for students to develop a complex picture of the neighborhood by exploring a diverse set of historical sources revealing everyday life, and to situate places and events in Harlem’s material environment. Created by a team at the University of Sydney, the site uses digital mapping tools to combine fragmentary evidence and visualize it on real estate maps that represent every building in Harlem. Digital Harlem features all the events and places identified in a variety of sources: the case files of the Manhattan district attorney; the two major black newspapers published in Harlem, the New York Age and the New York Amsterdam News; probation files; prison records; undercover investigations; social surveys; and material collected by the Federal Writers Project for the 1939 New York City Guide.

The site is interactive, allowing users to explore places, events, and individual lives that interest them, and to layer different combinations of information on the same map to examine relationships and change over time. At the same time, the site was built as a research tool, and offers limited guidance on what information it contains and how to use it to examine the key features of life in Harlem. This chapter will provide some pathways through the site and point to content in the related blog that teachers can use to guide student exploration of specific aspects of the neighborhood. Blog posts also offer additional sources, particularly photographs, that students can be asked to analyze alongside the map. The overall approach suggested here is to have students to explore life in the neighborhood in terms of what happens in the course of a day, a week, and a year in Harlem. My most recent publication offers an interpretation from that perspective (Robertson, “Constrained”).

Opening Map of Digital Harlem
Opening map of Digital Harlem

The empty map with which Digital Harlem opens offers an opportunity to (re)orient students to the neighborhood before they start exploring its features. The site uses Google Maps as a base layer; if necessary, students can zoom the map out to locate Harlem in New York City and in the US. The historical map overlay covers the area generally understood as Harlem. A set of lines marking the shifting boundaries of black Harlem in the 1920s: the area in which blacks resided expanded over time, but still never encompassed all of Harlem.

Opening map zoomed to intersection of West 135th Street and Lenox Ave

The heart of that black neighborhood is not 125th Street, now the best-known address in Harlem, but 135th Street. Having students zoom in on and compare those two streets, even without mapping any information, provides a contrast useful in highlighting the possibilities and limits of the black neighborhood. 135th Street featured stores on the street level of multi-floor apartment buildings (identified on the map with a “S”), together with a public school, public library, the Lincoln Theater, and the YMCA.

Opening map zoomed to West 125th Street and 7th Avenue

125th Street, by contrast, was home to a series of large department stores that stretched across a whole block, several large office buildings, a bank, a post office, two hotels, and six theaters. All those businesses were owned and frequented by whites in the 1920s and drew blacks away from the black businesses uptown, highlighting the limited economic power of black Harlem. In addition, students can toggle off the historical map layer to contrast the historical and contemporary neighborhoods.

The areas of black settlement marked with outlines in Digital Harlem generally appear as solid black space in population maps of Harlem. That is a misleading image of the neighborhood. In the first place, the black population was a diverse group, with about 20% immigrants from the West Indians, a growing group of migrants from a variety of southern states, and the remainder longer term residents of New York City who had relocated from midtown and downtown. Digital Harlem does not contain sufficient data on individuals to map this diversity, but students can read the blog post analyzing the residents of 116 West 144th Street and the surrounding block that does highlight the West Indian population.

In addition, while whites did not reside within the boundaries of black Harlem, they were a significant presence. Around 75% of Harlem’s businesses were owned, and mostly staffed, by whites, who also made deliveries and collected rent, and staffed the neighborhood’s schools, public hospital, and fire station, and drove the buses, streetcars, and trains that travelled on, above, or under its streets. And, of course, whites dominated the police who patrolled the neighborhood. As those whites traveled to Harlem from homes outside the district they do not appear in population maps. The lack of systematic data on businesses means we cannot map that largest dimension of the white presence, but mapping the other locations and routes gives an indication of its spread. Both the scale and scope of the white presence made Harlem a place of racial contestation, negotiation, resistance, and accommodation, not an area simply dominated by blacks (Robertson, “Harlem in Black and White“).

This significant white presence limited the opportunities for paid work for blacks in the neighborhood. In addition, little of the work to which discrimination restricted blacks was available in Harlem: two-thirds of employed black men worked in manual labor, as longshoremen, janitors, elevator and switchboard operators, porters, day laborers, and waiters. Three-quarters of the employed women worked in domestic and personal service, as laundresses, hairdressers, domestic day workers, and maids. As a result, residents had to travel far beyond Harlem to work. The set of maps of individual’s lives available in Digital Harlem’s “select a person” menu highlight that movement. Students can compare the maps of the men’s lives with those of the woman to consider the different spatial experiences – and daily journeys through the city – of black men and women. Blog posts on each individual offer a narrative of those maps; further details can be found in a published article freely available online in GMU’s institutional repository (Robertson et al.).

Map of Annie Dillard’s Life in Harlem

While crowds of residents left Harlem to work, children remained in the neighborhood. Digital Harlem offers a variety of maps that visualize children’s lives. Families used various forms of childcare for children of working mothers. There is no data on the most common, care by friends and relatives, but it is possible for students gain a picture of children’s lives by mapping the alternatives:  day nurseries run by churches and other organizations; home nurseries run by individual women; the neighborhood’s public library; and the grounds of its schools. Blog posts provide detail of the nurseries and schools, and the neighborhood’s playgrounds (Robertson, “Childcare”; Robertson, “Schools”; Robertson, “Playgrounds”). At the beginning of the 1920s, Harlem lacked any playgrounds outside the schools, and the city government was slower to build them than in other neighborhoods. Private groups and churches stepped in, but the neighborhood’s playgrounds remained few in number and on the boundaries of black housing. The lack of places for children led many to spend their times in Harlem’s streets; evidence of their presence can be found by mapping traffic accidents, which highlight the consequences of the lack of places for Harlem’s children and are explored in a blog post (Robertson, “Traffic Accidents”). In addition, students can examine one of the individuals featured in Digital Harlem, Fuller Long, a teenager whose experience of living in Harlem spanned school, basketball, swimming, dance halls, church, and paid work in and beyond the neighborhood is elaborated in a blog post (Robertson, “Fuller Long”).

Black businesses that appear in Simms’ Blue Book (1923)

A map of businesses with black owners on quick glance seems to show a mass of activity; students need to zoom in to see the gaps in the map and recognize that it shows businesses that operated at any time in the 1920s, not those operating at one time. Although the data does not exist to map all the white businesses surrounding the black enterprises, a blog post on black businesses puts that map in context and highlights how small a proportion of the neighborhood’s businesses those black businesses represented and their concentration in the personal service and domestic sector.  In the context of the refusal of white banks to provide capital for black businesses and landlords to lease them space outside black neighborhoods, it is important to recognize business activity as an achievement not frame it as a failure. Barbers, the beauty trade, and undertakers were the engines of the black economy, benefiting from a lack of white competition, and proving more resilient in the face of the Depression than larger businesses (additional details of those businesses can be found in blog posts (Robertson, “Black Businesses”; Robertson, “Harlem’s Beauty Parlors”)). A lack of capital also contributed to a significant amount of black business activity taking place in homes on cross streets not the north-south avenues. The largest category of black business, beauty parlors operated by women were roughly evenly spread between those in retail spaces and those in homes. The offices of professionals such as doctors, lawyers and dentists likewise could be found in both homes and commercial buildings.

Marginalized in the legitimate economy, a small group of blacks found success outside the law, running a gambling game called numbers. Invented in 1920 or 1921, numbers had by 1924 exploded into a racket turning over tens of millions of dollars every year in the form of thousands upon thousands of small bets of only a few cents. Mapping numbers arrests provides an indication of the pervasiveness of this activity. Blog posts explain how the game was played and how it operated in Harlem (Robertson, “Arrests”; Robertson, “Numbers”). Bets were placed with numbers runners, who went door to door and stationed themselves on the city’s streets and avenues. Storekeepers also worked as agents, taking bets for runners. Both runners and agents worked on commission, skimming off twenty percent from their total receipts before they passed the day’s bets and takings on to their “banker.” As well, if a client’s bet hit, the individual gambler was obligated to pay the runner ten percent of her or his winnings. In the 1920s there were many runners making $20-30 a day, and it was not unusual for some to make in excess of $50. But, of course, it was the bankers who had the opportunity to make huge sums. The most successful became the Numbers Kings and Queens of Harlem, living ostentatious lifestyles that extended to supporting local charities, providing loans to businessmen, and owning sports teams.

While businesses and public and government institutions made up Harlem’s white spaces, the neighborhoods black spaces extended beyond its residences. Students can map a combination of locations to reconstruct that geography, many of which are explored in blog posts. Harlem’s churches had the largest physical footprint, a combination of church buildings purchased from departing white congregations and new structures. More than Sunday services occurred in those spaces. Churches hosted organized athletic clubs (particularly basketball teams), classes ranging from vocational training to art, choirs and musical groups, and social clubs (Robertson, “Churches”). Fraternal lodges also established headquarters in Harlem, buildings that housed dance halls as well as offices, and were home to bands and orchestras (Robertson, “Perry Brown”). Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) had its headquarters in Harlem, and also owned Liberty Hall, the site of weekly meetings and an annual convention, and operated a range of businesses in buildings in the heart of Harlem (Robertson, “UNIA”). Notwithstanding the presence of white police and drivers, the sidewalks and streets of Harlem, particularly Lenox and Seventh Avenues, were also black spaces. Residents strolled the sidewalks, particularly on Sundays. Street speakers set up on corners (Robertson, “Harlem’s Soapbox Speakers”). Fraternal orders, political organizations, and the 369th Regiment regularly paraded along the streets, in the process displacing the white drivers who otherwise dominated Harlem’s roadways (Robertson, “Parades”).

The nightclubs and cabarets that loom large in Harlem Renaissance literature drew enough whites to have a more mixed racial character. Students can use Digital Harlem to map those venues, together with the speakeasies that formed the other best-known feature of Prohibition-era nightlife. They can also add to that map the buffet flats that blacks set up in their homes as alternatives for residents seeking to avoid the whites who came to Harlem. The locations of those venues were identified by a black man working undercover for a white anti-vice organization. Buffet flats represent a further dimension of how a white presence shaped black Harlem (Robertson, “Harlem Undercover”).

Digital Harlem can also be used to help students think critically about the attention given to Harlem’s nightclubs and venues associated with liquor. There was more to do with your leisure time in Harlem than drink. Seeing that fuller picture requires also mapping dance halls, theaters, poolrooms, and the halls that hosted basketball games and boxing bouts (Robertson, “Basketball”). In addition to commercial venues, students should add to the map the churches, fraternal lodges, community organizations and social clubs at whose meetings residents spent their evenings. The complexity of the resulting map highlights just how small a segment of nightlife in Harlem actually appears in discussions focused on Prohibition and whites. Restoring other dimensions of evening leisure creates space for ordinary residents in our pictures of Harlem, producing a map visually at odds with arguments that vice shaped the neighborhood.

Map showing the range of leisure activities available in 1920s Harlem

Beyond the evenings, Sundays represented the other opportunity for leisure for working residents of Harlem and brought additional options. Within Harlem, Sunday was the primary time for parades. Both black baseball and cricket teams played on Sunday afternoon, at venues outside the neighborhood (Robertson, “Harlem and Baseball”; Robertson, “Cricket”). Mapping the locations of those sporting events will highlight to students that black residents of Harlem did not spent their leisure time only in Harlem, just as the maps of individual lives highlight that many residents also spent the working day outside the neighborhood.

Summer more often saw residents travel beyond the boundaries of the neighborhood in their leisure time. Social clubs gave up their weekly gatherings for the season in favor of day trips outside the neighborhood, and, particularly by late 1920s, to Rockaway Beach in Long Island (Robertson, “1920s Harlem’s Beach Resort”). Individuals travelled by train and bus, and church groups and social clubs used chartered buses, typically on Thursdays, Sundays and holidays. Summer camps provided smaller numbers of children the chance to go further from Harlem and spend longer outside the city (Robertson, “Summer Camps”).

Drawing students’ attention to all the places residents spent time outside the neighborhood sets students up to think about Harlem as part of New York City, not simply as a place apart. Movement in and out of the neighborhood also connected Harlem to the rest of black America. In summer, Harlem was a destination for thousands of students and tourists, at the same time as its residents traveled to visit family and vacation in other cities. Students can map the hotels where visitors stayed in Digital Harlem but the site is not designed to map their origins. However, a blog post on 1920s Harlem as a destination uses newspaper reports of hotel guests, society parties, and conventions of fraternal orders and other groups to examine where visitors to Harlem came from and what impact they had on the neighborhood (Robertson, “1920s Harlem as a Destination”). That picture is far from complete. Additional groups traveling to Harlem are mentioned in other blog posts, such as sports teams: black and white basketball and baseball from cities in Northeast and Midwest and cricket teams from the West Indies came to Harlem to play local teams.

Origins of Visitors to Harlem 1930 (Amsterdam News, July 9, 1930)

Seeing Harlem as linked in lived experience with other northern black communities can help students question the notion of a Harlem Renaissance. Visualizing these journeys in and out of Harlem presents black urban space in more expansive terms than the neighborhood: as a network. Such connections point to a more widely based movement better labeled the New Negro Renaissance. In that way, a spatial exploration of the lived neighborhood can lead students to reconsider the power of Harlem as a signifier of black America.


Works Cited

De Jongh, James. Vicious Modernism: Black Harlem and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Harris, LaShawn. Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy. University of Illinois Press, 2016.

Hicks, Cheryl D. Talk with You Like a Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New York, 1890-1935. The University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

King, Shannon. Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway? Community Politics and Grassroots Activism during the New Negro Era. NYU Press, 2015.

Levine, Lawrence W. “David Levering Lewis. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1981. Pp. Xiv, 381. $17.95.” The American Historical Review, vol. 87, no. 2, Apr. 1982, p. 552. academic.oup.com, doi:10.1086/ahr/87.2.552.

Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. Knopf, 1981.

Lobbermann, Dorothea. “The Renaissance’s Harlem: Representing Race and Place.” Teaching the Harlem Renaissance: Course Design and Classroom Strategies, edited by Michael Soto, Peter Lang, 2008, pp. 13–28.

Osofsky, Gilbert. Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto: Negro New York, 1890-1930. 2nd edition, Harpercollins College Div, 1971.

Robertson, Stephen. “1920s Harlem as a Destination.” Digital Harlem Blog, 29 July 2018, https://digitalharlemblog.wordpress.com/2018/07/29/1920s-harlem-as-a-destination/.

—. “1920s Harlem’s Beach Resort: Rockaway.” Digital Harlem Blog, 26 July 2018, https://digitalharlemblog.wordpress.com/2018/07/26/1920s-harlems-beach-resort-rockaway/.

—. “Arrests for Numbers Gambling.” Digital Harlem Blog, 17 Apr. 2009, https://digitalharlemblog.wordpress.com/2009/04/17/numbers/.

—. “Basketball in 1920s Harlem.” Digital Harlem Blog, 3 June 2011, https://digitalharlemblog.wordpress.com/2011/06/03/basketball-in-1920s-harlem/.

—. “Black Businesses in 1920s Harlem.” Digital Harlem Blog, 6 July 2018, https://digitalharlemblog.wordpress.com/2018/07/06/black-businesses-in-1920s-harlem/.

—. “Childcare in 1920s Harlem.” Digital Harlem Blog, 9 Sept. 2016, https://digitalharlemblog.wordpress.com/2016/09/09/childcare-in-1920s-harlem/.

—. “Churches.” Digital Harlem Blog, 17 Apr. 2009, https://digitalharlemblog.wordpress.com/2009/04/17/churches/.

—. “Constrained but Not Contained: Patterns of Everyday Life and the Limits of Segregation in 1920s Harlem.” The Ghetto in Global History: 1500 to the Present, edited by Wendy Z Goldman and Joe William Trotter, Routledge, 2018, pp. 223–38.

—. “Cricket in 1920s Harlem.” Digital Harlem Blog, 30 July 2018, https://digitalharlemblog.wordpress.com/2018/07/30/cricket-in-1920s-harlem/.

—. “Fuller Long: A Teenager’s Life in Harlem.” Digital Harlem Blog, 17 Apr. 2009, https://digitalharlemblog.wordpress.com/2009/04/17/fuller-long/.

—. “Harlem and Baseball in the 1920s.” Digital Harlem Blog, 27 July 2011, https://digitalharlemblog.wordpress.com/2011/07/27/baseball-1920s-harlem/.

—, Shane White, Stephen Garton and Graham White. “Harlem in Black and White: Mapping Race and Place in the 1920s,” Journal of Urban History 39, 5 (September 2013): 864-880.

—. “Harlem Undercover – the Maps.” Digital Harlem Blog, 17 Apr. 2009, https://digitalharlemblog.wordpress.com/2009/04/17/harlem-undercover-the-maps/.

—. “Harlem’s Beauty Parlors.” Digital Harlem Blog, 10 Sept. 2010, https://digitalharlemblog.wordpress.com/2010/09/10/beauty-parlors/.

—. “Harlem’s Soapbox Speakers.” Digital Harlem Blog, 13 May 2010, https://digitalharlemblog.wordpress.com/2010/05/14/harlems-soapbox-speakers/.

—. “Numbers on Harlem’s Streets.” Digital Harlem Blog, 30 Nov. 2011, https://digitalharlemblog.wordpress.com/2011/12/01/numbers-on-harlems-streets/.

—. “Parades in 1920s Harlem.” Digital Harlem Blog, 1 Feb. 2011, https://digitalharlemblog.wordpress.com/2011/02/01/parades-in-1920s-harlem/.

—. “Perry Brown: A Lodge Member’s Life in Harlem.” Digital Harlem Blog, 14 July 2010, https://digitalharlemblog.wordpress.com/2010/07/15/perry-brown-lodge-member/.

—. “Playgrounds in 1920s Harlem.” Digital Harlem Blog, 18 July 2018, https://digitalharlemblog.wordpress.com/2018/07/18/playgrounds-in-1920s-harlem/.

—. “Schools in 1920s Harlem.” Digital Harlem Blog, 16 July 2018, https://digitalharlemblog.wordpress.com/2018/07/16/schools-in-1920s-harlem/.

—. “Summer Camps for 1920s Harlem.” Digital Harlem Blog, 20 July 2018, https://digitalharlemblog.wordpress.com/2018/07/20/summer-camps-for-1920s-harlem/.

—. “The Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Harlem.” Digital Harlem Blog, 25 Apr. 2011, https://digitalharlemblog.wordpress.com/2011/04/26/unia-harlem/.

—, Shane White, Stephen Garton and Graham White. “This Harlem Life: Black Families and Everyday Life in the 1920s and 1930s.” Journal of Social History, vol. 44, no. 1, Oct. 2010, pp. 97–122. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jsh.2010.0003.

—. “Traffic Accidents in 1920s Harlem.” Digital Harlem Blog, 1 Apr. 2010, https://digitalharlemblog.wordpress.com/2010/04/01/traffic-accidents-in-1920s-harlem/.

Sherrard-Johnson, Cherene. “Introduction: Harlem as Shorthand: The Persistent Value of the Harlem Renaissance.” A Companion to the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, John Wiley & Sons, 2015, pp. 1–14.

White, Shane, Stephen Garton, Graham White and Stephen Robertson. Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars. Harvard University Press, 2010.