It's here! We're thrilled to debut our new Vintage Edition, sourced from the New York Public Library and painstakingly restored by our team: Harlem Tenement in Summer. Introducing this incredible '30s era photograph is Morgan Fletcher, 20x200 contributor, arts and advocacy specialist, and the Media + Comms Manager at NYC’s Girls for Gender Equity. Morgan is a Harlem dweller herself, going on 6 years—or if you ask her, “working diligently towards 10”—and her deep respect for the history and vibrancy of her home base comes across in her writing. In exploring what makes Harlem Tenement in Summer such a profoundly interesting and important image, she contextualizes the photograph in a piece inflected by personal appreciation. Read Morgan's thoughts below, and be sure to collect one of our limited-edition prints of Harlem Tenement in Summer today. — Team 20x200
Harlem in the early part of the 20th century is most closely identified with its Renaissance, when Black creative, intellectual, and political life took root in the community, but Harlem Tenement in Summer captures an everyday moment that has its own historical significance. Photographed sometime between 1935 and 1939, Harlem Tenement in Summer does not define Harlem by its legends. Instead, the unknown photographer has chosen to immortalize a quotidian stoop scene. Imagine stepping into this print, and that you, like the building’s residents, have escaped the stifling and stagnant summer heat in your apartment to sit outside in anticipation of a cool breeze. While the youngest Harlemites are at play on the sidewalk or clustered together on the stoop, the adults are mid-conversation, some leaning confidently out of wide open windows above to share a word. Nearby a woman’s laughter is so hearty you can nearly feel it in your own chest. This image boasts an openness and camaraderie that implores viewers to linger on every face, challenging us to try to connect the dots between the scene’s many characters.
In the 1880s, Harlem (once Dutch Haarlem) was established as an upper class white neighborhood, but as time churned on and the population’s demographics shifted, the area was primarily occupied by Black Americans as early as the 1910s. This population boom was fed in part by the Great Migration, a ten-or-so-year span where Black Americans packed up their belongings and kin and left the South with the hopes of a more equitable life up North. Many made their homes north of Central Park, where overly ambitious development meant that landlords were eager to fill their properties with anyone who could pay.
With this new population and the energy it rode in on, a generation of intellectuals, artists, writers and playwrights debuted and ignited the Harlem Renaissance, more than a decade of Black artistic creation that earned the area the reputation of being a Black cultural mecca. Notables like Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, Louis Armstrong, Paul Robeson, Augusta Savage, and Josephine Baker enriched the city, and subsequently the nation, with their cultural capital.
It’s impossible to overstate the impact and lasting effect that Harlem’s Renaissance had—and still has—on American culture, but the moment of ease depicted in Harlem Tenement in Summer cannot be taken for granted either. Life for Black Americans in the 1930s was marred by racism; the Harlem Race Riot of 1935 took place just around the estimated creation of this image. Unsurprisingly, the riot was born of mounting frustrations from growing economic hardship, valid distrust of police, and systemic racism. On March 19th - 20th of that year more than 10,000 people took to the streets. Over 100 were injured, and 3 people were killed.
With that context, this photograph of a seemingly innocuous moment in Harlem is even more striking. At a time of such socio-political upheaval, to consider this scene worthy of documentation is a celebration of the historically denied humanity of Black Americans. Throughout the 19th and much of the early 20th century, photography had been used to represent subjects of color as objects of study, and the ethnographic images were tools for justifying the continuation of racial stereotyping. While we don’t know the photographer’s intentions behind Harlem Tenement in Summer, we can note that there is a significant and willing shift in perspective.
This image is also an opportunity to meditate on the small helpings of joy one can find in the day-to-day: an exchange of kind words, the musicality of laughter, and in Harlem Tenement in Summer in particular, the radical notion of continuing to thrive. The effects of the recent Great Depression, redlining policies, unfair rents, and socially accepted racism were a constant, but at least in our Harlem, on our stoops, there was community, laughter, and life. — Morgan Fletcher