Blog Post–”Jazz” and the Harlem Renaissance
27 November 2012
NY in Fiction ENG 4121
For my field trip assignment, I trekked down to 125th Street on the 4 train to compare the neighborhood of Toni Morrison’s “Jazz” to the reality of 21st-century Harlem. Morrison depicts a thriving neighborhood teeming with working-to middle-class African-Americans in her novel; despite ups and downs and drug epidemics which have harangued the area as the century wore on, I found Harlem by and large restored to the successful area of “Jazz.” Through the next few pages, I intend to illustrate a few scenes from the novel with pictures I found from the Harlem Renaissance area, as well a few snapshots I took from my trip for comparative effect.
On 116th Street and Park, where I got out intending to walk up to 125th,I found myself in a mainly Mexican neighborhood, where corner restaurants selling tacos and chicharrones, or fried pork skins, were in greater abundance than the soul food many of the novel’s residents would have been more familiar with. Yet as I left Spanish Harlem and walked north to the heart of Harlem on 125th, the landmarks of “Jazz” became more visible. Brownstone townhouses, which in the 1960s through ‘80s had fallen into disrepair, appeared tidy and filled with people–just as in the novel, neighbors crowded onto their wide front steps and chatted with each other. And while the broad avenues bisecting Harlem held few of the drugstores and lunch counters where Violet went for malted soda, seafood restaurants, large churches, and even a handful of nightclubs speckled Park, Fifth, and Lexington. On 123rd and 124th, as I walked west through streets flanked by brownstone steps, the most notable characteristic of each block was the large church on nearly every corner. Stained-glass windows adorned many of their facades, and large groups of families stood outside the entrances to daycare and Sunday-school classes along the side doors of most.
Yet the dive which Harlem took in the late 20th century was not entirely regained by a second cultural renaissance. In the neighborhood I visited, construction cranes and bulldozers stood still behind plastic fences. The signs in front of their empty lots advertised million-dollar townhouses and real estate corporations–by no means was Harlem a neighborhood for young migrant couples and families from the South. Yet even in “Jazz,” Morrison predicted these changes as unstoppable characteristics of New York: “Here comes the new. Look out. There goes the sad stuff. The bad stuff. The things-nobody-could-help stuff. The way everybody was then and there. Forget that. History is over, you all, and everything’s ahead at last” (Morrison 7). Upon closer inspection of the storefronts and business openings there–where a massive H&M now does a brisk business next to a Starbucks and a Bank of America–I realized that the gentrification which twenty-first-century Harlem was built on created a deep divide between the rich history behind “Jazz” and the growing homogeneity of modern Harlem.
Yet all of history, despite that dramatic proclamation, still clings onto the side streets and landmarked buildings of Harlem. Even as I entered the D train station, enormous photographs of Harlem from the 1910s through the ‘30s were bolted to the walls–evidently, history will always permeate the life of this neighborhood. It was satisfying, as well, to see that straphangers passing in and out of the station were pausing to read the captions and look and the photos more closely, even in the bustle of this busy uptown platform. Morrison captures the eternal relevance of this period in Harlem history concisely towards the end of the novel: “When I see them now they are not sepia, still, losing their edges to the light of a future afternoon…I wonder, do they know they are the sound of snapping fingers under the sycamores lining the streets? When the loud trains pull into their stops and the engines pause, attentive listeners can hear it” (227). As the familiar orange car shuttled north, I reflected on the buildings, restaurants, shops, and homes I’d observed today. Harlem, for all its waves of success and struggle, had woven its history and future together with a seamlessness rarely found in many Manhattan neighborhoods today.