A two-page spread on Digital Harlem appears in the Winter 2013 issue of New York Archives. The article offers a brief introduction to the site, using as examples a map of nightlife and two maps discussed in posts on this blog: prostitution in 1925 & 1930; and Morgan Thompson’s work sites.
In December 2012 & January 2013, I will be giving a series of talks on Digital Harlem in the US & UK:
“Digital Harlem,” Center for Cultural Analysis, Rutgers University, December 11, 2012
“Mapping Everyday Life: Digital Harlem, 1915-1930,” Digital History Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, January 8, 2013
“Digital Harlem: Researching and Mapping Everyday Life in 1920s Harlem,” Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London, January 9, 2013
“Harlem in Black and White: Mapping Race and Place in the 1920s,” Department of American and Canadian Studies, University of Nottingham, January 14, 2013
“Joining the Crowd: Connecting a Digital History Project to the Web,” Data – Asset – Method Network Workshop – So you think you’re an expert?, University of Nottingham, January 15, 2013
Our article, “Disorderly Houses: Residences, Privacy, and the Surveillance of Sexuality in 1920s Harlem,” has now appeared in the Journal of the History of Sexuality 21, 3 (September 2012): 443-466.
There are several maps already posted on this blog that are related to the article’s arguments. The police focus on street prostitution rather than what happened inside residences is evident in the map of prostitution arrests. Divorce raids, which offer a glimpse of the privacy that unmarried couples could obtain in residences, are mapped in this post. The night life venues that residents operated in their homes for a black clientele, away from the nightclubs and speakeasies frequented by whites, can be found on the map of Harlem’s nightlife.
Aggregated census data have been important in establishing the character of Harlem as a black neighbourhood. Census schedules individualize that data, and perhaps more importantly for Digital Harlem, locate individuals at an address, in a specific place. So while I use census schedules to identify and trace individuals, I just as often use them to populate places, as part of an approach that seeks to identify the variety of different places that made up the neighborhood and locate the events and individuals found in 1920s Harlem in the context of those places.
It is located in upper Harlem, right on the northern boundary of the black section in 1920. A six-story apartment building, one of a pair, it still stands today. What drew this place to our attention was a fight that took place on West 144th Street, a few buildings east of number 116, in June 1928. A man visiting the friends exchanged words with a 17 year old boy he believed was behaving inappropriately toward a girl, provoking a confrontation with the boy’s father, who we have given the pseudonym Morgan Thompson, that led him to cut the visitor 5 times with a knife. When police came to 144th Street that night to arrest Thompson, they found him asleep in his home, an apartment in 116 West 144th Street.
Thompson lived with his wife of seventeen years, Margaret, a domestic servant and their two children, the seventeen-year-old boy, George, and fifteen-year-old Elizabeth. The family had resided in New York City since 1917, living the whole eleven years at 116 West 144th Street. As late as 1910, the building and those surrounding it had been entirely occupied by whites. By 1920, all the residents were black, and would remain so throughout the 1920s and 1930s, as the area occupied by blacks spread further north and west. Just how many apartments there were in the building is unclear: the 1910 census recorded 29 households (as 118W144th), the 1920 census recorded 32, the 1925 State Census, 31 and the 1930 census only 25.
A number of the first black residents remained for extended periods of time, as the Thompsons did. While they moved out in 1929, four households residing there in 1920 were still in the building in 1930, 12 more remained from 1920 to at least 1925, and another five resident in 1925 were still there in 1930. The census does not tell us anything about the relationships of those residents, but their long-term presence represents at least the raw material for some sort of community.
Tracking comings and goings from the building offers another perspective on community. Its not possible to trace where most residents in the building came from, as the 1920s saw so many arrivals from outside the city, but it is possible to use census schedule to trace where many of those who left went to — 1/2 those who I can identify moved within a 7 block radius, close enough not to require the complete rupturing of any ties they had established
Identifying the building as occupied by blacks captures only part of its character. It is a picture drawn from one of the census questions. Moving across the census schedule to the question about birthplace reveals diversity obscured by the focus on race: ¾ of the building’s residents were West Indians like the Thompsons, whereas West Indians represented only about 20% of the overall population of Harlem. So this building appears to have been one in which West Indians gathered. With one in every five residents hailing from the West Indies, there was ample scope for them to live much of their lives in the company of fellow immigrants. That did not mean they were isolated from the larger African American community, but it certainly helped them retain an identity that created sometimes tense relationships with their black neighbors. West Indians could be distinguished from native-born blacks by their accent and language, and distinctive styles of worship, cuisine, and sartorial display. Color prejudice against dark Caribbeans also divided the two groups, as did the increasing prominence of West Indians as business owners, which stirred economic competition.
Another feature obvious feature of 116 West 144th Street was the presence of lodgers. The building went from having lodgers in almost half of the thirty-two households in 1920, to in over 2/3 in the depression year of 1930. As the black population of Harlem expanded and spread, the area of black residences did not keep pace with the number of newcomers. Rising demand for housing produced skyrocketing rents, encouraging landlords to subdivide apartments, and forcing families into fewer rooms, and into sharing that limited space with lodgers. Higher proportions of black households contained lodgers than did whites living in New York City, with the blocks between Lenox and Seventh Avenues became among the most densely packed residential streets in all of New York City, as crowded as the better known tenements of the Lower East Side. The abundance of lodgers led to large numbers of cafeterias, cheap restaurants, tearooms, cabaret and movie theatres to cater to them. 116 West 144th Street was well-situated in this regard, located within 2 blocks of the Odeon, Roosevelt and Douglas Theatres, and the Lincoln Recreation Center, with an auditorium and swimming pool, and with the Savoy Ballroom and the Renaissance Ballroom and Theatre two blocks further away, and restaurants and other businesses on Avenues and 145th Street.
116 West 144th Street shared many of these features with the 14 other buildings neighboring it on the block between Lenox and 7th Avenues. In total, 49 of the 322 households remained throughout the 1920s, just over 15% of the total, compared to 12.5% in #116 – although none did so at two addresses. West Indians resided in disproportionate numbers in those 14 buildings, with only 4 having less than double the proportion of West Indians in the population – but none had a larger proportion than number 116. This block was evidently an area of Harlem in which West Indians gathered. The picture in regard to lodgers is more muddled. Number 116 had a slightly smaller proportion of households with lodgers in 1920 than the average for the street (44% vs 47.5%), and a significantly higher proportion in 1930 (69% vs 51%), with a wide variation among individual buildings in both years (27%-62% in 1920, 23%-81% in 1930).
The recently released 1940 census schedules reveal significant changes at 116 West 144th Street and the neighboring buildings. At #116, none of the households resident in 1920 or 1925 remained in 1940, and only 2 of those resident in 1930 remained in 1940, together with 6 households resident in 1935. As the Depression hit Harlem, many residents (including Morgan Thompson and Perry Brown) faced eviction and changed circumstances that dissolved the residential stability of the 1920s. The proportion of West Indian households at #116 dropped to only 42%, with the proportion including lodgers also dropping to 42%. The rest of the block had also changed significantly by 1940: across all 14 of the other buildings, only 9 households remained through the entire 1930s (3% compared to 15% in 1920-1930). The West Indian population of the block dropped, from 46% of households to only 30%. At odds with the change at #116, the proportion of households with lodgers increased, with only 3 of the 14 buildings having lodgers in less than 50% of households.
What I hope this example demonstrates is how census schedules individualize data about locations as well as their residents, allowing the focus to be narrowed from enumeration districts of several blocks to individual buildings. As much as we think of the census as a source of information about individuals, it is also a picture of the places that made up the United States in the past.
This post is based on my presentation to “The 1940 Census as Digital Data,” a roundtable discussion organized by the Digital Innovation Lab at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill on April 10, 2012.
On April 10, 2012, I will be a participant in a roundtable discussion on the 1940 Census at the Digital Innovation Lab at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The other panelists are Constance Potter from the National Archives and Records Administration and Kenton McHenry, a Research Scientist at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.
I will be presenting a paper on Digital Harlem at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Milwaukee, on April 21. The paper is part of a session called “The Challenge of Virtual Cities” that also involves Bobby Allen from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
This session will explore historical analysis using virtual cities, that is, online reconstructions of historical urban spaces. The presentations will feature projects that use a humanities approach rather than the social science methodology long associated with historical GIS. Whereas the later approach employed proprietary software such as ARC GIS, which aggregates data and opens it to statistical analysis, but cannot easily be disseminated online, a humanities approach uses new web friendly location-based tools such as Google Earth and Google Maps, and Flash software, to map data and generate visualizations and animations, and to query the patterns that are revealed. The shift in approach has brought a change in scale, from aggregates to individuals, posed different questions, and shifted the focus from the descriptive to the explanatory. Those differences fuel the challenge virtual cities pose to our understanding of urban history. The presentations will address the ways in which the creation of virtual cities changed how each scholar saw and understood his subject, and how he undertook and disseminated his research. In this way, it will probe the substance of the spatial turn that has begun to occur in historical scholarship.
The session will feature presentations on three projects, including the first two winners of the American Historical Association’s Roy Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History. Stephen Robertson, of the University of Sydney, will discuss Digital Harlem, a site that maps everyday life in the neighborhood in the 1920s, focusing on places, events and individuals drawn from a range of legal records, newspapers and other archival sources. Robert Allen, of the University of North Carolina, will discuss Going to the Show and its spin-off, Main Street Carolina, sites which use Sanborn maps and other material from the North Carolina collection to provide a comprehensive picture of movie-going in early-twentieth-century North Carolina, and to provide a platform for projects that gather and map data on the state’s downtowns.
We had hoped to solicit questions in advance, but that feature did not make it into the program. If you do have questions you think I should address in the presentation, please ask them in the comments.
I will be presenting a paper entitled “Putting Harlem on the Map” at the Digital Humanities Australasia 2012 conference in Canberra on March 30.
This paper examines Digital Harlem and what it reveals about the kind of place Harlem was in the 1920s. The site employs a database that integrates a diverse range of archival and published material on the basis of geographical location, and connects that material with a detailed map of the neighborhood overlaid on Google Maps, capturing something of the complexity of everyday life.
The site is dynamic, allowing the results of users’ searches for events, places and individuals to be displayed on the map, searches to be limited in various ways, including by date, and different searches to be layered on the same map to allow comparisons and show change over time. Events that occur at a sequence of locations, such as parades, are linked by lines; lines also link the locations of an individual’s activities with their residence. In both cases, the lines convey a sense of how people moved through Harlem and the rest of the city.
The site differs from traditional GIS in employing a qualitative approach, promoting a spatial analysis that highlights the variety of different places that made up the neighborhood, and locating the events and individuals found in 1920s Harlem in the context of those places.
One feature revealed by our analysis of the Digital Harlem is that whites remained a prominent presence in the neighborhood. To be sure, there were a multitude of places within Harlem controlled by blacks, mostly residences, but also churches, fraternal lodges and some dance halls and theatres. But white controlled businesses, public places and visitors are present throughout Harlem, fragmenting the black district in ways obscured by maps that represent the district as a solid, segregated area of black residences, and making Harlem a place of racial contestation, negotiation, resistance, and accommodation.