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The visionary community of Harlem YMCA

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The most important building on West 135th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in Harlem is not an elaborate church or a stately apartment building but the 90-year-old YMCA. the history tower and the large sign with the letters “YMCA” blazing in a red neon every night – can be easy to ignore: it has been a mainstay of the neighborhood for so long that its residents sometimes forget to notice it.

Yet the institution – and what it represents, not only for Harlem but for the advancement of 20th century black American culture – is monumental, a living repository of nearly a century of art, activism and history. Inside, the air smells waxy, like old pencils, and there’s an elegant patina throughout, from the sand oak paneled walls to the worn coral-colored floor tiles. Beyond the wooden reception booth shines a bronze mail chute from the United States Post Office – still in use – decorated with an Art Deco bald eagle. Down a few steps and through an arched French double door is a small white room with a mural by Aaron Douglas, a 20th century painter whose works are in Washington, DC, at the National Gallery of Art and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The 5-by-11-foot piece, titled “Evolution of Negro Dance”, was completed in 1935 and depicts different stages of black life in America. On the far left are gray silhouettes of enslaved people, their knees and wrists held together as if chained. As you move to the right, the characters move from a pleading stance to an assertive stance until, finally, you come across an illustration of a woman dancing with her head thrown back in laughter. while a band plays next to her. Like the rest of the building, it enshrines the development of black life in America, a story that ends when blacks become business and property owners, actors and writers, poets and singers.

After its founding, the YMCA became an incubator for the Harlem Renaissance. Prominent voices of the movement – essayist Alain LeRoy Locke, poet Countee Cullen, novelists Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison – all stayed or worked here in the early 20th century. The Y, which provided board and lodging for a few dollars, became a safe haven for artistic expression, a place to speak freely, away from the restrictions of a country still ruled by Jim Crow laws, and a common living room for some of the six million black Americans who came from the South as part of the Great Migration, which began in 1916 and lasted until 1970. Some would venture into other metropolises, such as Chicago and Detroit, but many would land in Harlem, a destination for black people of all professions and of all means. It was a neighborhood where they could eat in a black-owned restaurant, go dancing in a black-owned sweatshop or saloon, shop at a black-owned pharmacy, or play pool in a pool hall. belonging to blacks. They could acquire property from Jewish and Irish landlords who started leaving as soon as blacks started arriving in significant numbers around the turn of the century – and they could meet and learn from each other, in a place where they were. equal. In 1925 Locke, the first Black Rhodes scholar, who often worked in Harlem Y alongside the poet Langston Hughes, edited a magazine which called the surrounding area “the Mecca of the New Negro”: a man who is neither harassed nor harassed. condescension but, rather, moves under its own steam. Later, Hughes would write what would become one of his best-known poems, “Theme for English B” (1951), about a young man who lived in Harlem Y.

THE YOUNG MEN’S Christian Association was founded in England in 1844 and arrived in Boston seven years later, providing accommodation, meals, vocational training, and educational services exclusively to white men. The first dedicated Harlem branch building was established in 1868 at 5 West 125th Street – now a TJ Maxx – where, for around $ 5 a year, members had access to a lending library, gymnasium, and clubs. cycling and baseball, as well as courses in botany, typing, mechanical drawing, and languages ​​like Spanish and French.

This building was made of brown sandstone, with a gabled roof and two sets of large bay windows on its facade overlooking what is now called Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. An 1882 YMCA annual report noted that Harlem, then known as the Twelfth Ward – it had been annexed by Manhattan nine years earlier – was changing rapidly; Once a rural, village-like enclave for wealthy English, Dutch and French families, it had become desirable among urban elites. (Alexander Hamilton built his mansion there in 1802.) Harlem’s first black families had moved from downtown Manhattan after being displaced by European immigrants in the late 1800s. By 1914, the neighborhood had 50,000 residents. black.

Their arrival coincided with significant changes in the city’s racial demographics, and in 1867 a group of 35 Manhattan residents submitted a request to the Y board of directors asking for the creation of the first Christian association of young men in country color. The men first met at an independently run downtown branch in what is now SoHo. A few years later, some of these members began to lobby for a distinctly black YMCA. -68 annual report. He called his three dozen black members “self-sufficient” and described what was seen as their mission: “Without any political or sectarian bias, the members aim to educate their newly liberated brethren in anything that will tend to them. make them useful and happy. , and to unite them in the efforts for religious education as the true means of elevation.

After three decades of petitioning, a Christian association dedicated to young men of color was formed in 1901. In 1918, following a fundraiser, the group moved from its location on West 53rd Street to a property that he bought on West 135th Street in Harlem; a new building was constructed in 1919. During its early years of operation, the Color Branch served approximately 1,000 members and its dormitories sold out almost nightly.

IF HARLEM WAS become the epicenter of black America, then the Y was the epicenter of that epicenter. Members could start the morning with a Bible class, then attend a men’s meeting (the black women’s branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association moved from Midtown to Harlem in 1913), where topics ranged from health to life. ‘economy. Others have formed their own after-school clubs and organizations; artists like Paul Robeson, Richard Pryor and Sidney Poitier took to the stage in the small basement theater. In 1931 Hughes, then 30, became editor of the branch’s newsletter, The New Sign, in which he chronicled the bustling neighborhood and asked his readers provocative questions: “Why is- what, with all their pretensions to culture, their money and their diplomas, the “best negroes” have not yet produced a single writer who can write about the upper classes with anything close to Claude’s art McKay? Somebody tell me please, I would like to know.

As the Y continued to expand, so did black society. Men like Phillip Anthony Payton Jr., the so-called father of Harlem, have started real estate and insurance businesses and managed dozens of buildings in the area. People would go to nightclubs – there were hundreds of them back then – to listen to jazz and dancing. The ladies could get their hair done at Madame CJ Walker’s hair salon, run by her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, at a townhouse one block away on West 136th Street.

The Y and neighboring storefronts were some of the only places black New Yorkers could finally form their minds about who they were and wanted to be. They created campaigns like Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work of 1934, after which the Black Harlemites boycotted white companies who refused to hire them. They celebrated their own local luminaries like Douglas, painter and writer Zora Neale Hurston. And while none of these places have been truly utopian in a time of continued social and economic stratification, they have nonetheless provided some respite from everyday indignities. It was a place to sit and reflect, much like the historically black colleges and universities, whose students played a central role during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, or the current boom in corporate-owned businesses. Blacks – from florists and fashion boutiques to co-workspaces – amid the Black Lives Matter movement (and other local efforts), all of which continue to prove the power and necessity of creating your own space.

As Harlem became blacker (in 1930, blacks made up 70% of the neighborhood’s residents), several other cultural institutions dedicated to helping, chronicling, and celebrating life and religion. history of its inhabitants joined the Y: the neighborhood quickly became home to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture – named after Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a pioneering local historian – the New York Urban League and the New York Amsterdam News, a newspaper noir who often published editorials on the development of the neighborhood. As an unsigned article said in 1926, Harlem was now a neighborhood for a person “determined to have freedom in all its phases”, if “not necessarily a degree, a white collar, a salary from a charity – he believes in God and himself and his future and works hard.

Today, Harlem remains one of the nation’s largest and most vibrant black neighborhoods, a place where history meets innovation on every block. The Harlem Y, which moved to the streets in 1932, still offers neighborhood programs, from kids’ swimming lessons to adult exercise classes, and its dorms have been turned into a hostel and temporary accommodation for the homeless. shelter. It continues to welcome newcomers and people in need from across the country and abroad. This is where the dream of black America began – and this is where the dream continues, always.


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