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The Future of the City

Memories of the Sweet Life

Conor Friedersdorf

NEW YORK CITY -- On West 151st Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, an unobtrusive sign in a small park provides one version of neighborhood history: "Convent Garden lies in the heart of the Sugar Hill section of Harlem," it says, "so named because of the 'Sweet Life' of its residents during the first half of the 20th Century."

When I read the sign, I wondered whether local elders shared its romantic notions of the past. The lives of older people are almost always more interesting than they imagine, or so I've gathered from countless conversations with senior citizens, and lost youth typically causes them to lament the fading features of a golden past.

Is that a human trait, I wondered?

Do black people whose youthful memories include lynching and segregation, and whose children and grandchildren inhabit a more equitable, less bigoted society, nevertheless share the senior citizen's sense of nostalgia?

On the winter day when I wandered into an unusually quiet Wilson Major Morris Community Center I began to understand. As younger men and women, the lunchtime crowd might have braved the winter weather to get to the corner store, or a shift at work, or to hang out with friends, but those decades have passed them by. These folks hate to be apartment bound: they're lonely widows, or old married couples bored without grandchildren around; but it's hard to hobble three or four frozen blocks with a cane over icy sidewalks, not worth a fall and a broken hip.

Less treacherous days attract roughly forty seniors for inexpensive weekday lunches. They sit around circular and rectangular tables sipping juice out of tiny plastic cups, playing dominoes or cards, and watching Judge Joe Brown on television at otherworldly volumes. The pale yellow walls are cluttered with old photographs and announcements, the refrigerators sometimes give out, there isn't anyone who knows how to use the computers that sit collecting dust in one corner, and more often than not the folks who gather there consider it the best part of their day.

"Used to be more people here, too," says Annie, a 67-year-old who worries that dwindling numbers will force the center to close. A quiet woman, twice widowed, Annie has tried to distract herself at the center since her son got diagnosed with cancer. Alone at home she can't stop worrying. Three times a week bingo helps. The game is played on the south side of the rectangular hall, a former youth recreation center about the size of a middle school gymnasium. The church that owns the building still uses it for occasional functions on occasional weekends, so the seniors who use it during the week congregate beneath partly deflated Mylar balloons that linger forgotten above the dusty rafters, unobtrusively recalling livelier days that one can't quite visualize.

When I asked Annie about her past, she didn't have much to say about racism, or the 17 years she spent as a telephone operator, or what it was like when Martin Luther King came to Harlem, though she marched behind him. Her eyes lit up, however, when I mentioned the Savoy Ballroom, a once-popular venue for live music and dancing. Says a plaque at its former location on Lenox Avenue:

Here once stood the legendary Savoy Ballroom, a hothouse for the development of jazz in the Swing Era. Visually dazzling and spacious, the Savoy nightly featured the finest jazz bands in the nation... during a time of racial segregation and strife, the Savoy was one of the most culturally and racially integrated of institutions... it was the heartbeat of Harlem's community and a testament to the indomitable spirit and creative impulse of African Americans.

"Those are fancy words," Annie says.

Here is how she remembers it: "Oh, I loved to dance! On summer nights we'd get 10 or so girls together for the Savoy. We stayed out late but even if we were walking on the street nobody would bother us. We wore dresses. My favorite dress was blue, and all the boys would be dressed up nice too, not like the dungarees they wear today. I still remember all the songs. They'd have Marvin Gaye or Gladys Knight. I met her once in the washroom! She was going out, I was going in."

Annie still has albums from those days, though she never plays them.
 
"I just watch my Gunsmoke when I'm at home," she says.

Nor does she go dancing anymore.

"They don't have dances no more. The Savoy is gone. Everything is gone. All of them girls I knew is dead or else I don't know where they are, and the young people are so bad now they're afraid to give them dances."

Herman Williams never danced, but he's had a good life, he says, and now he can spend his eighties as he pleases. His favorite thing is to wake up early and take long drives with his wife in their 6-cylinder Oldsmobile Cutlass. He stops into the senior center once or twice a month, though his wife comes more often for--

"Bingo!"

Someone has won a game, but Mr. Williams is too engrossed in bygone days to notice; as he tells me about his past the caller plucks ping pong balls from the tumbler. "My grandfather told me to do every job to the best of your ability and you'll never have to suffer," he says. "And I never have."

Mr. Williams moved to New York in 1952, making his career as a driver for a wealthy man who owned racetracks and taxicab companies. "I love driving, and I'd go wherever he wanted to go, as fast as he wanted to go or as slow."

Ask Mr. Williams what the key is to living a happy life, and he leans back in his chair. "My father always told me to work for rich people, and I did: when he ate steak for dinner, I ate steak for dinner. I've never been in jail, I've always stayed away from rowdy people, and I'm still together with my wife," he says. "I've known friends who went out night after night partying, and they're dead now. I'm alive, and I've lived a good life."

He pauses.

"It's not that I've never had hard times," he adds.

It happened in 1955 in Little Rock, Arkansas.

"As soon as I drove into town the police pulled right behind me. I had a 1952 Oldsmobile in black. I knew he was going to stop me. I had that feeling."

On the side of the road, Mr. Williams got out of the car very slowly and politely addressed the officer, who asked for his driver's license, and demanded to know why he was out driving that day.

Mr. Williams: "If you want me to I'll call back to New York, and my employer will tell you exactly who I am, the exact time I left New York, everything."

Officer: "I don't want to do that."

Mr. Williams: "What else can I do for you, officer?"

Officer: "That's all boy."

Mr. Williams drove slowly away, and the officer pulled him over again five blocks later, demanding that he step out of the car.

"I thought, wow, he's really trying to get me upset," Mr. William remembers. "But this is Little Rock, Arkansas! Oh my, I thought, I'm in a bad spot. I've got to use psychology to get myself out of this. I decided I'd be as nice as I can be."

The officer asked that Mr. Williams open the trunk, rifled through his possessions, and finding nothing asked to see a ten dollar bill tucked into Mr. Williams' pocket.

Mr. Williams: "May I ask you something, officer? I'm not trying to be smart."

Officer: "Go ahead, boy."

Mr. Williams: "I'm American the same as you. We fought WWII together, white and black, and when you pulled me over I gave you all the information that you wanted. What do you want out of me?"

Officer: "I'll hold you 24 hours if I want to."

Mr. Williams: "Okay. I'm not going to resist. If you want me to stay I'll stay. If you want me to go, I'll go."

Mr. Williams spoke in a storyteller's trance now. "B9," the bingo caller cried, but he didn't hear her. "This officer could tell I'd been up in the north a lot, and he thought he was really going to make me mad," Mr. Williams remembers. "He looked right at me, got right up close, and he told me, "Boy, you is a goddamn good nigger."

Mr. Williams: "Oh, thank you officer, is that all?"

Officer: "Yeah, you is a damn good nigger, and now you can go."

So he got in his car and drove away.

"Later, I told a friend of mine that story, and he said, 'If he'd have called me a nigger, I'd have jumped up and got him.' And I said, 'No, you don't. You're in Little Rock, Arkansas. You're in his country. You've got to beat him with kindness.' I beat him with kindness. By being nice to him I beat him, because getting me mad is all he wanted to do. I was young and fast, and I could have got have got his gun away from him, but I couldn't win that way. Before I got my car out of the state of Arkansas they'd have executed me.

"That's the way I learned to beat people, like Martin Luther King, with kindness. Kindness beats the world. Now you have to fight sometimes. You have to. But if you can walk away and win, that's what you do."

"O 63," the caller said, and this time he heard her.

"I learned coming up in a very hard time," he said. "When my kids came up it was easier for them. They had more rights. I had a little more rights than my father, my kids have a little more rights than me, and the young generation has even more rights."

"A better world," I said, struggling to find a response to so powerful and intense a story.

Mr. Williams frowned.

"Some of them don't know how to use their rights," he said. "They walk around with a chip on their shoulder. It used to be that people went wherever they wanted to. Now I won't even go out at night. I used to walk river to river, and no one would bother you. Now they'll kill you. They'll kill you if you've got something, and they'll kill you if you don't have anything. Every generation of people is different, and this one is just looking at early death. When I was young, my greatest ambition was a wife and family. Now it's dog-eat-dog."

Nathan Bell, 66, is inclined to agree.

A jack-of-all-trades, he's helping out at the senior center on what he calls "a mostly volunteer arrangement," fixing things that go broken, locking up each evening and performing other tasks as they arise. "The center is so important to this neighborhood," he says. "It would mean a whole lot if somebody helped it out a bit more. This used to be a flourishing center, but a lot of it's falling apart these days. A lot of the older people have died. We need an activity coordinator here so we can take these people someplace."

He looked on as the half-dozen bingo players vied for prizes set atop an empty tabletop: two rolls of toilet paper, a package of tissues, a bottle of hand lotion, two spray bottles of generic cleaner, a package of cookies, a canister of air freshener and a bottle of Clorox bleach.

"I made a good living, I raised 10 kids, I sent most of them to college except my one son who went to jail, and I'd live right here in Harlem again if I had to do it over," Mr. Bell says. "But the neighborhood is changed now. Not only is it getting expensive, it's being taken over. The Hispanics are nice, but their culture sticks together, and some of the Hispanics are into drugs. All of these bodegas up here, they're selling drugs out of them. For them to pay the rent, they have to sell the drugs."

Even the social life has disappeared, he laments. There used to be poolrooms, bars, and black owned Laundromats. "We'd have dances in the schools," he says. "They'd have social rooms. We used to have movie houses."

And the Savoy Ballroom?

"Whoa, do I remember Savoy! The Red Rooster. Jacques. There were a lot of bars where we could go and dance. A fantastic area! People would get dressed up on Fridays. You couldn't be on 7th or 8th Avenue unless you were dressed up sharp, a tie, a suit, a hat."

He looks on wistfully.

"The area around here was called Sugar Hill--nothing but movie stars up around here. Jazz clubs! On Saturday nights you'd go out to them jazz clubs, whoo! They'd drink hard liquor, a lot of them were smoking the reefer. And even a dope fiend at the time was sharp!"

A few of the seniors overhear Mr. Bell. They nod in agreement, wistful themselves, remembering their own golden past; having seen friends older than themselves die, it beats thinking about the future, especially since so many seem convinced that the neighborhood they'll one day leave behind is doomed to further decline. Ask Gus Smith about racism and he'll tell stories about the bad old days, and reflect on the vast improvements he's witnessed.

But ask him, "How has Harlem changed?" and he'll focus on what he regards as its steady decline. "There were a lot of black owned businesses," he remembers. "Now you can't find one. All the bars closed down. These days if you don't speak Spanish you're lost. And everything is more expensive. Soon I don't see how we'll afford to live here at all."

Crime. Drugs. Gentrification. Disrespectful youth. An influx of immigrants with an unfamiliar culture. Everyone seems to agree that West Harlem just isn't what it used to be. They'll admit that their parents once felt the same way; but it's different now, they insist, asserting that hard to articulate quality has changed, and is changing still.

"I'm just glad I won't be around to see it," several of them told me, a sentiment this young man can't yet fathom.
 
On the last day I spent at the center another bingo tournament was playing out, everyone competing for small prizes: a package of toilet paper, a box of cookies, a bottle of household cleanser. The caller explained the next game: the players must cover the first two vertical columns on their BINGO cards, marking the squares beneath B and O, and also the last two horizontal rows on their card, the victor making a shape that gives the game its name: Double L.
 
Annie was upset by this turn.

"I ain't playing no Double L," she announced to everyone's bemusement.

"Why not?" the caller objected. "It isn't any different, Annie. Just a game like any other."

"I ain't gonna play no Double L," she insisted, standing up from the table and walking toward the back door. She has left her coat and hat, so everyone assumed she was coming back, and no one stopped her.

"Double L," she said dismissively. And as she exited, once more: "I ain't playing no Double L," but she said it matter-of-factly, a fait accompli. She used that senior citizen tone whose subtext is understand that I am set in my ways, and everyone suddenly acceded to her departure.

It's a small moment that I thought about often afterward when I'd reflect on nostalgia and change.

A strong case can be made that Harlem's Sugar Hill neighborhood did enjoy a golden past. The Savoy Ballroom is closed. Jazz is still played at Nick's Pub, but the venue is past its prime. Residents no longer count anyone as famous as former inhabitants like W.E.B DuBois, Duke Ellington and Thurgood Marshall among their neighbors.

Still. It is impossible to ignore the gains African Americans have achieved in the last several decades, or the successes enjoyed by mostly Hispanic immigrants who've made new lives in West Harlem these intervening years.

Perhaps it misses the point to attempt setting these pasts and presents against one another, as if it is useful to argue over which is better. It is enough to say that the past is always different, and that fleeting, bygone years include elements that cannot be preserved but are well worth remembering. Such losses prompt nostalgic laments that are reasonable enough as a reflection on the past. But nostalgia alone should not be understood as a rational evaluation of the present and its merits.


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