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Harlem: Dark Weather Vane

by Alain Locke

Professor of Philosophy, Howard University

August 1936

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HOUSING is the most serious special community problem of Harlem. The Negro's labor short dollar is further clipped by the exorbitant rentals characteristic of the segregated areas where most Negroes must reside. Whereas rents should approximate 20 percent of family income, and generally tend to do so, in Harlem they average nearly double or 40 percent. Model housing does not begin to touch the real mass need either as slum clearance or low cost housing until it brings the average rental down to $5 to $7 per room per month.

The Dunbar Apartments, erected some years back with Rockefeller subsidy, could not meet this need although at the time it gave middle-class Harlem a real lift in the direction of decent housing and neighborhood conditions. The new Harlem River Houses, to be erected with federal subsidy, will be the first model housing to reach the class that needs it most. The New York Housing Authority deserves great credit for initiation and for the principle of local Negro advice and promised Negro management which it has adopted. Harlem's appreciative response was clearly evident at the recent cornerstone-laying when Secretary Ickes, Mayor La Guardia and Commissioner Langdon Post of the Tenement House Department endorsed the principle of bringing modern housing to the congested sections of Harlem. Secretary Ickes said: "The record of American housing is proof positive of one thing. Private initiative cannot, unaided, properly house our low income families. It is simply not in the cards. It can mulct unenviable profits by housing our people badly; it cannot make money by housing them well."

That holds a fortiori for the Negro. But when the federally aided scheme has demonstrated its social and humane objectives, cut the cost of crime and juvenile delinquency, exerted its remedial influence on other negative social forces, including racial discontent, the subsidizing of still larger scale projects by the state and municipality will be wisely charged off to their proper balances in the saner bookkeeping of an intelligently social-minded community. The Commission's subcommission on housing under Morris L. Ernst was very active in its advocacy of progressive housing legislation before the State Legislature, and considerable progress in condemning old-law tenements and in slum clearance projects is contemplated under the progressive state legislation for which the Harlem investigation housing commission was directly responsible.

Tenement Family
A.H. Greene for Photo League

At home in the kitchen of a better than average tenement home
Model Housing
Courtesy N.Y. City Housing Authority

Model housing for 574 low-income families will be provided for by this project. Foundations were dedicated in June.

HEALTH is the second great problem and disease is the second grim link in the Ghetto chain which fetters Harlem life. Central Harlem's rate of infant mortality, tuberculosis, and venereal disease is expectedly high and in direct proportion to areas of congestion and poverty. Harlem's hospital and health facilities were handicapped over a period of years, directly by antiquated equipment, indirectly by political and racial feuds. Regrettable differences often brought the two professional organizations of Negro physicians in Harlem into conflict. Although these differences were often over divergent views as to the gains and losses of segregation, or of this or that tactic in securing the admission of Negroes to staff and internes' positions in the municipal hospitals, they were anything but conducive to the morale of Harlem Hospital or to any clear policy of the hospital authorities. It took years of agitation to get any Negroes on the staff and the governing medical board, and Negro internee were admitted to Harlem Hospital only within the last ten years. Until recently there was only one Negro on the Harlem Hospital Board, and one Negro physician of full staff rank. The situation both as to hospital facilities and staff personnel has shown material improvement recently under what promises to be a new and liberalized policy instituted by the present Commissioner of Hospitals, Dr. Goldwater. But that change was too recent to spare the Commissioner or his immediate subordinate in charge of the Harlem Hospital from adverse criticism by the Commission. Recent improvements offset some of the shocking and inadequate conditions that had existed for years.

On January 2 the opening of the new women's wing to Harlem Hospital increased its capacity from 325 to 665 beds. This pavilion, almost completed four years ago, had stood unfinished chiefly because of legal complications growing out of the failure of contractors. This relief from overcrowding, no doubt the basis for the most serious complaints as to previous maladministration, clears the way for remodeling and modernizing the older parts of the hospital, which is now proceeding under WPA grants. A new nurses' home has recently opened; plans for a new $1,500,000 outpatient department have been drawn, and an additional entirely new hospital has been recommended as an urgent item in the impending capital outlay for city hospitals. In the meantime, the Department of Hospitals has, with the assistance of the WPA, modernized a two-story building on the Harlem Hospital block, which will provide more than four times the space of the old clinic. These last projects are made necessary by the fact that the recently enlarged facilities of Harlem Hospital already are approaching a crowded condition at times.

Only incessant agitation brought staff appointments in municipal hospitals to Negro physicians. Recently, by a laudable departure in the direction of fairer play, five Negroes were given staff appointments to Queens' General Hospital and one to Sea View; and in the first six months of 1936 seven Negro physicians have been promoted from assistant to associate visiting rank, five from clinical assistants to assistant visiting rank, and seven new clinical appointments have been made. This, with three members of full attending rank and an increase of two members on the Medical Board of Harlem Hospital, represents a spectacular gain in comparison with the slow progress of former years. The Commission report, however, recommends "the admission of Negro physicians, internee and nurses to all city hospitals on merit in accordance with law, and the withholding of municipal financial aid from any institution refusing equal treatment to Negroes."

With the completion of the new health unit, there will no longer be ground for the present complaint that in the two health areas where Negroes are concentrated there is "conspicuous absence of the very agencies which deal with the major problems of Negro health—infant mortality and tuberculosis.

Harlem Hospital
Courtesy N.Y. Department of Hospitals
The New York Department of Hospitals points with pride to the improvement of Harlem Hospital. The new Women's Pavilion.


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