What was it like to live in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance?

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rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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During the Harlem Renaissance, Harlem represented the largest urban concentration of African-Americans anywhere in the country. While the population was largely black, it was nevertheless very diverse, as older New York families of blacks shared space with recent arrivals from the American South as well as immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America. Many of these people lived in crowded, dirty tenements, but while urban poverty certainly existed in the neighborhood, it was also full of prosperous black-owned businesses, which made it an economic as well as a cultural and social mecca for black America. 

At the same time, Harlem's very existence attested to the fact that New York still was a de facto segregated town, and while crowds of whites came to Harlem to experience the "exotic" nightlife in various clubs, Harlem residents themselves were not welcome in white-frequented establishments outside the neighborhood. Nevertheless, Harlem crawled with artists, writers, intellectuals, and musicians who won national acclaim and helped to form the image of the "New Negro," able to participate in American cultural and intellectual life while still retaining much of their own cultural identity. Harlem became a symbol, if only temporarily, of what was possible for African-Americans. As noted intellectual Alain Locke put it:

Harlem is neither slum, ghetto, resort or colony, though it is in part all of them. It is—or promises at least to be—a race capital. 

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