Harlem: Myth Vs. Reality
By Anu Manchikanti '00


"You're going where tomorrow? By yourself? Is that safe?"

When I casually told my boyfriend a few weeks ago that I was going to Harlem for a class, this was his incredulous response, which was followed by concerned comments regarding my safety. And I'm sure if I'd said the same thing to either of my parents, they would react similarly. The funny thing, though, is my boyfriend is in South Africa, yet his reaction was similar to what I would expect from Americans who had never been to Harlem or had only been exposed to the area through the mass media. The stereotypical images people have embraced permeate cultures and the globe.

The myths of Harlem are pervasive. Images of urban basketball courts surrounded by graffiti-scrawled walls, crack houses, prostitutes and drive-by shootings spontaneously appear in the minds of people who haven't even set out to form an opinion about Harlem. In my own case, I've been thinking for weeks how my perceptions of Harlem materialized. I couldn't draw any specific experiences or media portrayals that influenced my views, even after re-watching one of the first movies that exposed me to Harlem - Jungle Fever. Though these images have been in mind, I never really concluded that they were true because I'm skeptical by nature.

Private entrance to a driveway

My visits to Harlem have certainly destroyed the stereotypes. Harlem is not a slum, nor is it just another neighborhood in New York that can be generalized, categorized and labeled. Under technical considerations, parts of the affluent Upper East Side and Morningside Heights -- the neighborhood of Columbia University -- fall under Harlem's boundaries. The northern edge of Central Park is in Harlem. Referring to Harlem like it is only one neighborhood is equivalent to clumping together everything south of Eighth Street and simply labeling it as "downtown," even though numerous communities exist throughout.

It's an area chock full of history. Like with any place, there are the good parts and the bad parts. Some of the most beautiful buildings in New York lie in this part of town. If you showed the average person a picture of some of these fabulous homes and asked them to guess where the photograph was taken, they might guess the Upper East Side or Gramercy Park. Not Harlem. I was quite surprised by how residential many of the areas were - it seemed less commercial than the Manhattan I know. For example, on Lenox Avenue, there is definitely a retail presence but it didn't appear comparable to other Manhattan avenues.

But there are other realities of Harlem. In January 1999 Central Harlem had a 15.8 percent unemployment rate, the highest in Manhattan, according to the 1999 Citizen's Committee for Children report "Keeping Track of New York City's Children. (In Manhattan, the overall unemployment was 6.9 percent, and in New York City, it was 8 percent at this time.) In 1996, nearly 37 percent of households had an income less than $10,000 and 75.5 percent of children were born into poor families in Central Harlem, as opposed to 18.9 percent of households and 52.8 percent for Manhattan. Central Harlem had more children in foster care -- 3,074 -- than any other area, according to the report.

The Kerner Legacy
It was the summer of '67, and the place was Newark, New Jersey. Racial tensions erupted into riots that are described by historian David Schwalbe as "the worst race rebellion since the 1965 Watts Insurrection."

The Kerner Commission Report was commissioned at the request of President Lyndon B. Johnson. The report said "the media have thus far failed to report adequately on the causes and consequences of civil disorders and the underlying problems of race relations."

In effect, this leads back to the definition of history and the role of the historian in the retelling of stories. Journalists, since they compose the first draft of history, play a crucial role in this process. Since every detail cannot be preserved, journalists must carefully select what to include, what they deem most important. In effect, the history we read is not the whole story. As Edward Carr writes in his 1961 book What is History?": "It used to be said that facts speak for themselves. This is, of course, untrue. The facts speak only when the historian calls on them."

And in my opinion, a lot of the details about the histories of minority groups have not been accurately recorded. . I can't comment on the media coverage of Harlem in the past since I only moved to New York in 1997. However, I can see that a lot of today's stories that focus on Harlem are about economic investment, the so-called "revival" or "revitalization" of the area, and real estate. Undoubtedly, factors that are affecting the United States and New York City on the whole don't bypass Harlem, though they might work at a slower pace: falling unemployment rates, economic upturn, a steep decline in New York City's crime rate, a lack of real estate boom in Manhattan that has made property in Harlem sought after.

"They say that 129th Street is a black hole...if you're born here you die here."

The problems with media coverage of Harlem are the same ones that plague newsrooms that cover

minority communities across the country. Many of the people writing about these communities are not sufficiently knowledgeable about them. Some of country's larger newspapers appear to be making a concerted effort to hire people with diverse backgrounds. The American Society of Newspaper Editors's diversity statement says reaching the goal will help "to cover communities fully, to carry out their role in a democracy, and to succeed in the marketplace."

ASNE targeted the year 2015 as the time when the nation's newsrooms must be reflective of the racial diversity of their coverage areas, a goal that was originally this year but was pushed back because it could not be met.

Bobbi Bowman, ASNE's diversity director, said that one of the main obstacles that the industry faces is the fact that the number of minority students studying journalism has leveled out. To top it off, the Freedom Forum found in a study released in July 1999 that more than half of journalists of color at daily newspapers in the United States expect to leave the industry.

A case study
An alcoholic mother on welfare. Two drug-dealing brothers, one paralyzed after being shot during a deal. A son observing his father buying crack.

These are the first descriptions presented in Felicia R. Lee's award-winning, three-part series "Another America: Life on 129th Street." For three days in September 1994, the New York Times ran on its front page Lee's articles, which chronicled the lives of several people on one Harlem block - at times, painting a dark picture. A 26-year-old woman named Vikki says in the first article: "They say that 129th Street is a black hole…If you are born here, you die here." In the same article, Lee puts forth what would appear to be a universality of the three articles. "It is a block in the other America, the America of the black underclass. It is a place -- and it could be in Chicago, Miami or Los Angeles -- with its own values, rules and economy," she writes.

But as Peter Parisi, an associate professor of film and media studies at Hunter College, points out in a study of the series, the articles almost entirely rely on personal narratives and profiles, with no socio-economic statistics or demographic data. And these stories, Parisi writes, supports the idea of "African-Americans as a 'problem people' solidly ensconced in an 'underclass.'"

Why don't we know anything more about this block? About the type of housing available, about the employment status of its residents, about their average incomes? Why doesn't Lee tell us how many people live on the block, and how many of these she interviewed? And what about those "scrappers on this block - the ones who call the police on drug dealers and who badger landlords for repairs"? Where are their voices, their stories?

There are times when Lee reveals her own impressions. "The block," she writes, "is haunted by the ghosts of many a relationship. Men and women often seem to be at war." At another point, she writes: "Many people talk of getting high school equivalency diplomas and jobs and moving away, but the reality is that almost no one ever does." But without any concrete examples, as a reader, I wonder where is this information coming from? Writing a series like this must have required extensive reporting, especially just to find this array of people on the same block. But Lee's stories, in the end, don't really reflect 20 or 30 or 40 interviews. Conclusions like the ones she makes really need to be validated; and without tell us more about where she gets her information, her credibility must be questioned.

Parisi brings up an interesting point as he digresses on the point that Lee is African-American. He writes: "Thus one important implication of the present study concerns the frequent contention that journalism will be able to 'do race' only when newsrooms are better integrated. This case study suggests that the search for compassionate, multi-racial coverage requires more than simply hiring black reporters."

Deteriorating housing conditions

Such a series presents the worst of the worst. Of course, these are true stories - they are not fiction. Just because these people support stereotypes doesn't make their experiences unworthy of news stories. The people of 129th Street deserve to have their stories told just as much as anyone. However, as Parisi said, it's stories like these that create the idea of African-Americans as an underclass. Stories about people like those featured in "Another America" are appealing. There's pain, suffering, drama, endless emotion, wrongdoing. Perhaps it's the stuff it takes to pull at heart strings, get on the front page, and win awards.

But something important is missing: factual data. Things like demographic information and socio-economic statistics in the story would have made it into something much more hard-hitting. Though the hard-knock lives portrayed in the stories are powerful, there is little background information or context for the reader. Lee doesn't come out and say that this is what life is like in Harlem or what life is like for African-Americans, but she contends that these are the stories of the "black underclass," a metaphor, a certain universality is implied. It would have been much more fair had Lee said from the beginning that these are isolated people in an isolated block. Perhaps she did accurately portray the life on this one block of 129th Street, but she does a disservice by making a direct correlation between "another America" - the America of blacks - to 129th Street.

Diversity = better coverage?
"The revitalization of 125th Street, one of Manhattan's premier commercial boulevards, is well under way. Shops are looking smart; Old Navy and Starbucks have arrived," writes Holland Cotter in a Feb. 28 New York Times article.

It's a recurring theme in recent articles about Harlem: an economic boom. A mini-mall just opened on 125th Street. Corporations like the Gap and Disney are forging uncharted territory. I can't really say too much about how media coverage of Harlem has evolved in the past 20 years, since I'm only 21 myself. But I know in the past three years that I've lived in New York, and especially in 1999, there seemed to be many articles about the economic investments in Harlem, as well as the rising price of real estate.

So maybe Lee's crack dealers and welfare moms aren't making A1 anymore. But that still leaves this question - what about the people who fall in-between? The average person who goes to work everyday, tries to make a living, comes home to spend time with their kids. The middle-class, the working-class - are we as journalists just not interested in them, or do we assume our readers are not?

I think for the news media to truly improve coverage, it needs to start approaching Harlem differently. Reporters need to get to know the area and the people who reside there, not just the statistics and the so-called experts in urban studies. To do a better job, reporters, and editors must do three major things: first, stop thinking of Harlem as something incredibly different than other New York neighborhoods; though it has a storied past and has also received a lot of negative coverage, reporters need to approach stories about Harlem in the way they would in any place, as the Kerner report advises. Second, if this first step is achieved, perhaps overly positive stories about Harlem would not be needed for balance. It shouldn't be contrary to popular belief that homes in Harlem can go for hundreds of thousands of dollars, because after all, Harlem is in New York City.

And the third is to make newsrooms less homogenous so people with different ideas and experiences can also play a role in deciding coverage. Diversity in race is one factor that brings diversity in thought to newspapers. As more people of different backgrounds get into newsrooms, things will start to change. In everything, diversity means more than just darker skin or being the child of immigrants, but different life experiences that affect the way that reporters view the world. The whole idea of objectivity is flawed because how everyone's past experiences influence how they view current situations.

But as the newspaper industry's failed attempt to gain racial parity between newsrooms and the communities they cover shows, there's a long way to go.

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