Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

The loss of community: the case of Harlem


Communities are at risk to loose their voice – the example of Harlem, New York can illustrate how inward investments undermined the entire community eventually. During the first phase, the community was still represented by one spokesparty, the church, but once the first investments started to come in, proliferation and fragmentation set in. The people could no longer hold together by themselves the community. Differences in incomes split up neighborhoods. New York was breathing down hard on Harlem to make it into a more viable place for living and business. There is a lesson to be learned from that.

Retaining identity is more important in places where people have outside that specific community no voice at all in the overall planning process. Already in the sixties cities like Detroit were burning in the United States, while in Europe young student left conventional society and started to squat empty buildings in run down districts like Kreuzberg in West Berlin. Some of them dodged military services, others stern fathers while still others preferred the night life to boredome in the province. A mixture of motives made them prefer a place to escape to because of the inherent danger in Western Society, lest of that being conformist and the greatest a loss of morality.

Crucial since the student movement was, for instance, the work by Peter Weiss. In his 'Aesthetics of Resistance' he shows that art can make a fleeing person turn around and face without fear his enemies. After Herbert Marcuse had published his 'One Dimensional Man', it was clear that the Flaneur figure of Walter Benjamin was not enough to resist the world of consumption. Bunel with his films underlined the terror in that setting. Out of it followed the wisdom that at times the threat should not be faced openly, but rather in defiance. It would start to using the imagination subversively. These were the lessons to be learned from the arts as that was already a sign of resistance. [1] Yet most of these escapes into special districts ended up being too weak as to be able to give that entire community a voice to be heard at overall city level. In the case of Kreuzberg in Berlin the political movement around first the Alternative Liste, later the Greens did manage something, but then again here social, political and cultural structures conjoined to weather even the fall of the Berlin Wall and therefore retain a kind of special continuity in defiance of the rest of society whatever it wanted to be.

Still, the politically disenfranchisement of not only local people, but of entire cities, if not of nation states altogether has been addressed repeatedly by various movements. The answer to that challenge is not easy. Even the European Union as global player has to recognize its limitations as it struggles to keep regional development in line with this global challenge. Above all the movement of people, once it has become uncontrollable, means people respond to all kinds of threats from war to famine. That then can easily be transformed into unwanted immigrations to Western societies with cities ending up not coping with rising tensions between newcomers of a different cultural background and local societies afraid to loose their privileges within the social security system.

People tend to feel that way if they are themselves alienated due to modern life and espeically when without prospects of securing a decent income. Their anti-everything attitudes can reach dangerous levels. It can provoke political developments which leave governments at the mercy of radical groups. In Europe, there can cited, for example, the Northern Liga which helped Berlusconi win outrightly the 2008 election in Italy. In its wake a former Neo-Fascist became mayor of Rom - an unheard of thing until then. In Germany, the Right Wing party or rather the Neonazi movement is growing stronger as well, and this especially in former East Germany. Only late in 2011 have the political authorities realized fully i.e. in public, the danger arising ouf a Right Wing group willing to use methods of terrorism against immigrants. On the other side of the political spectrum the LEFT in Germany was gaining in momentum although a party of a former political elite which had ruled East Germany. It seems that their main wish is to vent their grievances in the new system because they enjoy no longer the same privileges as they did under Communism. A critical appraisal of their so-called left wing claim would show that this but another kind of political restoration on the move. All of these movements create political set-backs for the main ruling i.e. until now well establishes parties, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats in Germany, or for Nea Demokratia and PASOK in the case of Greece.

If not corrected, and there is no political reason to believe the system can prevent the increasing political fragmentation, there can be expected at many local levels a rise in xenophobic sentiments. If it gets out of control, it can ignite mass hysteria especially against 'foreign people'. Former Yugoslavia with its ethnic cleansing campaigns set already an example when violence against the stranger goes on a rampage.

Already lynch like actions against gypsies created ugly scenes in Rom while attacks on foreigners especially in the darker parts of former East Germany has become a common fear that it will not stop there. Similar incidences are reported as to what is happening with foreigners who are targeted in Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere. All these tendencies may not have their roots in cities, but this social crisis at community levels will have an adverse effect on how European cities face up to the social and economic crisis in the making.

For democracy to work a decisive voice has to be given to local communities. That is of crucial importance especially when plans are made for future development projects. Usually cities respond to local communities indifferently due to top-down measures following merely a general mode and therefore they are not specific enough to link up with local needs. At the same time, some localities have a distinct character precisely because of their resistance against any general plan. They refuse to follow the usual adaptation process.

It should never be forgotten or be overlooked that a local community may fail to respond to any given set of measures not out of defiance but due to life having reached in that community such uncontrollable levels of despair that des-illusionment has already set in. The local people just hang around and do nothing. Their apathy is a reflection of how they have become weakened especially by their own disbelief that anything matters anymore.

New Orleans revealed that after hurricane Katrina had struck. Often such forms of social resignation are based on years of neglect and mistreatment. It is also a matter of myth as to what sense of freedom a local environment may want to cultivate. In reality, the wish to be different to the rest of society may lower expectations below such levels that these people end up not able to organise themselves in time to save themselves. Nor will they be in a position to do anything about the problem of integration of not only others, but of themselves as well.

Naturally disjunctive communities lead to political tensions with the rest of the city and the state. This is mainly due to state administrations always wishing to bring restless and disruptive communities under control. All kinds of devices are used to undermine any form of serious resistance. They are usually successful once the community has lost its voice. Repeatedly this is done by destroying the cultural heritage basis of that community. It is done most efficiently by robbing them of their cultural spaces and by splitting the community. It can be done by making offers to one part of local society and because hard to resist will earn them aside from obvious benefits the reputation of betrayal. While some accept the offer, for example to move out or to let themselves be relocated, in order to make way for a new housing development scheme, those who stay and resist end up isolated and even worse as the losers. Repeatedly those who stayed until the end realize too late that the game was already tailored to let only certain people consider themselves to be winners. As the saying goes, power defines the rules according to which the game is being played out.

In search of its voice, a distinct community learns to respond to the fact that once cultural identity is no longer provided by the city as a whole, the local place has to make that possible. Hence the struggles of a community to articulate itself reflects an overall urban failure. That is generally the case once people no longer find easy access to the overall social strata and thereby due to lack of socialisation, experience in the hard way social exclusion.

When they no longer share the same cultural values with the rest of society in the overall sense of the city, it leaves them at the margin. They begin to think to fit only into such local environment where they might have a say. That uncertainty tends to be reproduced by holding onto definite world views which can be reaffirmed when talking with the others who make up the local community. Out of this develops a common vision and identity.

However, once local people begin to identify themselves with humanity and start to reflect consciously all the stories linked to all kinds of mistreatments, exploitations and injustices, then they begin to develop a much stronger bondage amongst themselves. This is when some political ideas can make themselves be felt among all members of the community. It will lead to certain types of organizations but also how representation to the outside world shall look like.

The bondage created in the community acts as a protective shield (some call it a ‘certain barn smell’ when everyone knows instinctively who is one of them in contrast to those who do not share their common interest) against the ‘outside’ world. It may break down into isolated pockets within the community when challenges are too big to handle but then there is always the possibility of regrouping and in finding a new way to recreate bondages with the rest of the community by upholding a kind of solidarity. Almost instinctively this behaviour perpetuates itself by adopting a specific code of behaviour, language, attire and attitude. It is not done as much out of nostalgic reasons but rather exemplifies what is left from life in such a world known to be tough and uncompromising.

An example for all of this has been Harlem until it was broken up as a distinctive, highly creative district of New York.

Harlem, New York

Harlem was viewed by outsiders for a long time as a crime invested neighbourhood where no one dared to go, especially not at night. But then New York City decided due to mounting pressure on the housing market to invest in Harlem. Negotiations with the community started with difficulties. Local groups wondered how they should deal with the potential of a sudden influx of a huge sum of money. Interestingly enough during the first phases of negotiations the Harlem community spoke with a single voice. All groups came together in the church which acted as mediator in negotiations with city officials.

It was clear to everyone a large influx of money will have a huge impact upon the community. However, no one knew the real intention behind such an offer and therefore could not really anticipate what was to follow. Of interest is that once this huge investment by the city was made, other capital ventures followed suit. They no longer required negotiation with the entire community since so to speak the ice had been broken. There was no more a need to listen to a single voice speaking on behalf of the whole community. Consequently the church had already been sidelined when the second wave of investments started to come in. Negotiations were then particular i.e. with just that one street or housing block. The new investors did more and more simply their business ventures on their own. Companies started to build new houses without any social regard that this meant driving out old tenants. Entire street societies ceased to exist and well known people in the neighbourhood simply vanished over night.

Surprisingly gangs which had ruled the streets at will, so it seemed, suddenly disappeared as if they had been disbanded. By creating exclusive high rise apartments the new dwellers with entirely different social habits altered the cultural scene. They would drive with their cars into underground garages and thereby come no longer into any real contact with the people still living in old houses across the street. Gone were the spontaneous concerts out on the porch. A clear indication of the change in Harlem was when Jazz was no longer being played in the streets. Such a music is only alive as long as there is a chance for improvisation.

After the community of Harlem was broken up successfully, its fragmented social entity could no longer bargain with the outside world in terms of own interests. The latter had become for those who were left an unknown territory as they were estranged themselves from their own culture which had given meaning to the place. Once the investors had moved in to revamp completely the place the local culture could no longer re-generate itself. As if drained of any creative energy, it shows when things go too far and people moving about are beyond self recognition, then the original culture created by local people went silent.

Planners from Columbia University in New York say the United States does not have any particular good record in preserving cultural heritages. They point to what happened to the Indians as indigenous people. Always the army or police play a crucial role in breaking up communities. With this enforced entry goes always the destruction of the local, equally subversive cultural heritage. Destruction of memory is a deliberate strategy to coerce people into submission. Without their living cultural heritage they incur a real loss of identity with place used till then by them in a certain way. [2]

In case of Harlem’s cultural heritage, it should not be forgotten that the community went through most interesting periods of artistic creativity. For example, during the Harlem Renaissance, there flourished a culture to the great enrichment of everyone. It can be reflected, for instance, in a picture taken in 1958 of Jazz musicians. When Harlem flourished as community, many stories were told through music, songs or the combination of the two. It says it all when the refrain ends in ‘she loves him no mo’! Such expressions were easily understood by everyone. After all they touched upon universal human pain anyone experiences once a true love has left.

The Harlem 1958 Jazz group [3]

Their creative impulses went far beyond the borders of the community. Not only the ‘Globe Trotters’, the famous basketball team, in reality artists with a basketball, gave this community a name. Equally but not yet really recognized as much but there to be seen, are the Harlem painters with their unique sense for space and colour. They depicted life in stark, but simple terms.

Unfortunately once that community was broken up, musicians and other artistic people, and not only they packed their few belongings and left. Looking back, it made streets once filled with voices, music and all kinds of scents look like all those abandoned places hit by some mysterious force. They left without looking back to where they had played for such a long time. Many of these musicians moved on to find spots not only in New York but elsewhere to play their kind of music. Gone was completely the creative spirit of Harlem, [4]

William H. Johnson [5]

and with it something a painter like William H. Johnson could evoke, namely a couple demonstrating their affection not only with their lips, but underneath the table a lot with their feet.

[1] Carol Becker, (1994). The subversive imagination. New York & London: Routledge.

[2] See here also the description by James Clifford ‘Predicament of Culture’ about Indians who fail to justify their collective decision making process on how to use the land accessible to all versus private land owners who through the court made their order a prime principle i.e. private property on the one hand and on the other public services

[3] The Harlem 1958 jazz portrait is used with the generous permission of the ART KANE Archives: http://www.harlem.org/

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harlem provides an overview of a district going from crime and poverty to a kind of urban renaissance.

[5] http://www.fatherryan.org/harlemrenaissance/

^ Top

« 19. Cultural investments - investment in culture | Museums »