Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History from Dutch Village to Capital of Black America

Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History from Dutch Village to Capital of Black America

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by Jonathan Gill

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Harlem is perhaps the most famous, iconic neighborhood in the United States. A bastion of freedom and the capital of Black America, Harlem's twentieth century renaissance changed our arts, culture, and politics forever. But this is only one of the many chapters in a wonderfully rich and varied history. In Harlem, historian Jonathan Gill presents the first


Harlem is perhaps the most famous, iconic neighborhood in the United States. A bastion of freedom and the capital of Black America, Harlem's twentieth century renaissance changed our arts, culture, and politics forever. But this is only one of the many chapters in a wonderfully rich and varied history. In Harlem, historian Jonathan Gill presents the first complete chronicle of this remarkable place.

From Henry Hudson's first contact with native Harlemites, through Harlem's years as a colonial outpost on the edge of the known world, Gill traces the neighborhood's story, marshaling a tremendous wealth of detail and a host of fascinating figures from George Washington to Langston Hughes. Harlem was an agricultural center under British rule and the site of a key early battle in the Revolutionary War. Later, wealthy elites including Alexander Hamilton built great estates there for entertainment and respite from the epidemics ravaging downtown. In the nineteenth century, transportation urbanized Harlem and brought waves of immigrants from Germany, Italy, Ireland, and elsewhere. Harlem's mix of cultures, extraordinary wealth and extreme poverty was electrifying and explosive.

Extensively researched, impressively synthesized, eminently readable, and overflowing with captivating characters, Harlem is an ambitious, sweeping history, and an impressive achievement.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Historian Gill documents Harlem's transformation from the early days of Dutch settlements and farms to its apogee as the site of one of the 20th century's most influential musical and literary flowerings in a dense, deftly told history. The author takes us from colonial Harlem, so strategically important in the American Revolution, to the 20th-century crucible of African-American arts and intellectual development, a place so vaunted that "Negroes wanted to go to Harlem the way the dead wanted to go to heaven." He invokes a veritable who's who of the black arts and intelligentsia who either called the neighborhood home or launched their careers in its embrace. Gill's analysis of Harlem's decline in the 1970s and the concomitant unemployment and crime is thorough, although his account of the Black Panthers and his analysis of the era's various "disturbances"--particularly a 1967 riot following a fatal episode of police brutality--wants a more nuanced interpretation. From the 1994 economic revitalization to the specter of gentrification, Gill makes a persuasive case that "change is Harlem's defining characteristic," and readers of this vibrant history will appreciate every step of its singular evolution. (Feb.)
From the Publisher

Praise for Harlem:

“The ancient bones of Harlem are bared, and its old Dutch farmhouses are uncovered, and the forgotten cattle in the pastures shake away a long-settled dust. In this retrospection, something remarkable happens. Page after page of Gill’s book removes brick after brick of the hulking substance of Harlem, paring it back through the jazz and the riots and the poetry to its ancient hours, until a quiet nothingness is left, and the place at last makes sense.” —The New York Times

"An epic worthy of its fabled subject.”—Edward Kosner, The Wall Street Journal

"Comprehensive and compassionate—an essential text of American history and culture." —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Kudos to Jonathan Gill for this savvy reconstruction of Harlem’s long, complicated, and often vexing history. A terrific read, with plenty of surprises along the way, it’s bound to become a classic or I’ll eat my hat.” —Edwin G. Burrows, Pulitzer Prize-winning co-author of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898

“Authoritative and exhaustive, in addition to being well-written and perceptive … We are in Gill's debt for digging so deeply into Harlem's past, for describing it with no agenda beyond thoroughness and fairness, and for reminding us that there is so much in Harlem to honor and celebrate as well as to deplore and lament. It is one of the most significant neighborhoods in the country, and its contributions - in social leadership, in literature and the arts - have been huge and invaluable."—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

“An exquisitely detailed account of the 400-year history of Harlem. … Gill details major figures from George Washington and Alexander Hamilton to Langston Hughes, Marcus Garvey, and Malcolm X as well as the vibrancy of music, art, literature, religion, politics, and urban sensibility that has come to signify Harlem. Richly researched … a vibrant, well-paced, engaging history of an iconic neighborhood.” —Booklist (starred review)

“Jonathan Gill writes with a novelist’s bold feel for character, landscape and the struggle of powerful interests. He is the perhaps first historian to grasp the full significance of ‘uptown’ New York City, and shows how the pious, conservative and deeply rural Harlem resisted the corruption and conflicts of ‘downtown,’ and then was transformed by industry, the railroad, the subway and by successive waves of immigrants. Harlem was re-made by African-Americans in the twentieth century, who created a new culture within the swirling, complexity of New York City. Gill’s Harlem, told in vivid detail, began as a rural village and became the site of the greatest avant-garde in American culture.” —Eric Homberger, author of The Historical Atlas of New York City

"Jonathan Gill's history of Harlem is so briskly paced and invitingly written that readers may not even notice how deeply and impeccably researched it is."—John Matteson, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Eden’s Outcasts

“Jonathan Gill has given us the most appealing trip to Harlem since Duke Ellington told Billy Strayhorn to "take the a train." Gill's gallantly researched, lovingly detailed cakewalk through the history of one of the world's great neighborhoods brings all the streets, pols, gangsters, hoopsters and hipsters vividly to life.” —Nicholas Dawidoff

“Over the years there have been a number of books addressing the Harlem Renaissance. But very few examined the years before or after that remarkable phase. Jonathan Gill has made a decisive and successful step in that direction. ... An engrossing, well-written, and comprehensive look at this storied community. A must read.” —Herb Boyd, author of Baldwin's Harlem

“A strong primer on the neighborhood’s long, exquisite life.” —Dallas Morning News

Library Journal
Gill (humanities, Manhattan Sch. of Music) offers a largely objective overview of a community usually studied only for its most distinctive, arguably most exciting, phase—the Harlem Renaissance of art and literature in the 20th century. He traces the entire history of this initially isolated northern outpost of Manhattan through its cycles as a refuge for different groups of both the propertied and the poor. Among possible surprises is that New York City did not annex Harlem until 1873 and that it served as an important home for Jews, Italians, and Puerto Ricans as well as for African Americans. The book demonstrates how Harlem experienced aspects of urbanization, marginalization, immiseration, and gentrification as well as its share of political corruption, organized crime, and cultural flowering. VERDICT This comprehensive, engagingly written treatment appears to be well researched; however, although it is buoyed by illustrations, a bibliography, and an index, the absence of source notes makes it more useful to general readers than to scholars. Anecdotes and vignettes about iconic places such as the Polo Grounds, 125th Street, the Apollo Theater, and the Globe Trotters should please New York City history mavens. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/10.]—Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Library of Congress
Kirkus Reviews

Holland Times arts critic Gill (American History and Literature/Manhattan School of Music) charts the astonishing transformations, upheavals, revolutions and continual renaissances that have affected the uptown terrain and population for hundreds of years.

In 1609, Henry Hudson glimpsed the Manhattan shoreline and exchanged fire with the local Indians, thus commencing the cultural clashes that continue in the present. The author traces the story of the area from its geological history to the current times of Al Sharpton (who fares poorly here). In the early chapters, Gill summarizes the stories of the Algonquin people and the original Dutch settlers, who laid out their New Haarlem in the mid 17th century. Then the British decided they owned the island, took over and fecklessly renamed New Haarlem "Lancaster," a name that didn't last long. The author follows the colonial history, the significance of the region in the American Revolution (Washington won a key victory at Harlem Heights) and the transformations wrought by the New York and Harlem Railroad and commerce (and greed). As Gill notes, Harlem was for many decades a center of recreation for downtowners, featuring plentiful forests and beautiful geological formations. Soon, it was human entertainment—music, drama, dancing, art and the allures of alcohol and assorted illicit behaviors—that became the principal attraction. Mansions rose, and the wealthy partied hard. Then Harlem began to attract a wide assortment of minorities—Latinos, African-Americans, Jews from Eastern Europe, Italians. By the early 19th century, more and more blacks were calling Harlem home, and as the economy cracked, racial fireworks commenced, raged throughout the Civil War and far beyond. As Gill writes, however, the area has long been home to an amazing assortment of talented individuals—politicians (Marcus Garvey), athletes (Lew Alcindor), writers (Langston Hughes), musicians and performers (Paul Robeson), intellectuals (W.E.B. Du Bois) criminals (Casper Holstein).

Comprehensive and compassionate—an essential text of American history and culture.

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Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
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Meet the Author

A professor of American history and literature, Jonathan Gill has taught at Columbia University, City College New York, and Fordham University, and is currently on the faculty at the Manhattan School of Music and Hogeschool van Amsterdam. He has written for The New York Times, Associated Press, and is arts critic at the Holland Times. After more than two decades of living in uptown Manhattan, he moved to Amsterdam.

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