I’ve always felt a visceral connection to Harlem, the world’s most famous black community. Maybe that’s because Harlem is where I began my radio career.
The Harlem of 1973 was completely different from the Harlem people know today.
The community was, along with the rest of the city, sliding backward, much of it due to the heroin epidemic.
By 1973, the drug seemed to have Harlem firmly in it’s powdery grip. It was into this world that I first began covering news.
It was a world where Sylvia’s, the famous soul food bistro, was little more than a lunch counter. Mrs. Sylvia Woods, a great and gracious lady, still worked behind the counter. It was where we went for breakfast when we could afford it. There was also a Chinese restaurant where Sylvia’s Also now stands. Old timers in the neighborhood told me that Ho Chi Minh, the leader of North Vietnam, used to work there. I was never sure if this was true, but the guy who told me certainly thought so.
The Harlem of the 1970s was full of people who had lived there most if not all of their lives. Yet it was the white powder, which some pronounced “hair-on” that cast a pall over the community.
It was a time when cabbies would have preferred driving into the Hudson River rather than taking a fare north of 96th St.
My first assignment, not long after I made the transition from intern to paid reporter, was to cover a protest at the World Famous Apollo Theater. A group called the Harlem Salute Committee was picketing the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Thing is, James Brown shows at the Apollo were special events in Harlem. There were always lines around the block, and folks turned out in well coiffed afros, and their best clothes, then called threads.
I thought this protest, led by a man named Rabbi Judah Anderson, was barking up the wrong tree. He accused James Brown of refusing to co-operate with his Committee, and their efforts to honor Harlem’s black heroes.
My boss simply handed me a tape recorder, and with the words “there’s a protest at the Apollo, go see what’s going on”, sent me on my way.
The protest wasn’t all that large, and Rabbi Anderson, was easily available to talk. When I finished the interview, I came to the conclusion that the Harlem Salute Committee just wanted James Brown to write a check. The Godfather of Soul apparently came to the same conclusion, since he wrote about the protest in his autobiography. He called the protests a shakedown. No matter to me. I dutifully brought the taped interview back to the newsroom, where it was dubbed, edited, and used on the air that afternoon. My qualms about giving voice to a hustler were more than overwhelmed by my pride in putting together a report worthy of being broadcast on the radio.
That protest was the first of many stories I covered in Harlem through the years. Ten years after I started at WLIB, I lived in Harlem for several years. One thing that has stood the test of time is the neighborhood’s unique rhythm. By that I mean people uptown have their own way of doing things, of walking, of talking, of being. Working at the only radio station then located in Harlem made me attuned to that rhythm.
It’s why I love Harlem – then and now – and why I will always love radio.