Women Mobilizing Memory in Harlem

October 25, 2019

In September 2014, vendors hawked mussels and shoppers slipped into H&M while Women Mobilizing Memory moved with a different purpose through Istanbul’s Istiklal Street. Our CSSD working group was embarking on a “gendered memory walk,” an activist-scholar intervention coined by our counterparts in Turkey. Ayşe Gül Altınay, anthropology professor and Director of SU Gender at Sabancı University, and several graduate fellows, including Bürge Abiral, Armanc Yildiz, and Dilara Çalışkan, organized the walk as part of the Curious Steps Program. Their goal was to highlight memory sites central to political movements towards feminist and queer liberation that risked being subsumed in history and the changing face of the city.

They led us through the bustling foot traffic on Istiklal and up steep medieval side streets to recognize landmarks we would have missed otherwise. Contemplating the ghosts behind these sites of social change, we beheld spaces like an independent bookstore known for selling radical literature and an LGBTQI organization persisting in human rights work despite being virtually illegal under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime. In the essay titled “Curious Steps: Mobilizing Memory through Collective Walking and Storytelling in Istanbul” in our new anthology, Women Mobilizing Memory, our counterparts scrutinize their conception of this public humanities project in their own words.

As we prepared to bring these colleagues from Chile and Turkey to New York for the first time in 2015, the gendered memory walk in Istanbul stood out as one of the most inspiring events we had shared. The walk not only brought us together to bear witness to marginalized histories at risk for cultural amnesia; it also democratized academic knowledge as an activity that could be simultaneously interesting and freely available to the public sphere.

When we decided to stage our own walk in New York, we navigated some difficult questions. Whose history was most threatened by erasure in New York City? To what extent did we, as a group of highly educated, middle-class and predominantly white activist-scholars, have the right to represent that history? And which neighborhood was best positioned to address these questions?

Because our transnational peers had rooted their public interventions in critiques of the collective traumas that most deeply affected their nation’s histories, we aimed to do the same. Although the 9/11 terrorist attack is the trauma most readily associated with New York, we felt a more persistent and insidious history deserved a spotlight: the founding of America in the transatlantic slave trade, and the long history of racial animus that has instigated wide-ranging injustices from police brutality to gentrification in the present.

In this light, Harlem emerged as an important choice for many reasons— not the least of which was our own university’s ongoing colonization of one of the most famous Black neighborhoods in the U.S. Historically, Harlem has also been a contested zone for cross-cultural contact, influenced by an exceptionally wide range of competing desires, claims, and identities. Before gaining its international reputation as “Black Mecca,” Harlem was an entertainment epicenter where many performers were Black at venues that only served whites. An emphasis on entertainment also made the area a vibrant hub for queer nightlife in an era when homosexuality was strictly policed. The “Harlem Renaissance” started with the Renaissance Theater, also known as the Rennie, where Black patrons were allowed access for the first time; as time wore on, this theater hosted not only films and plays but also sports events and grassroots political meetings.

Collaboration in Harlem was historically intersectional, too. Women of color helped each other across social classes at Utopia Children’s House. White and Black book collectors desegregated libraries starting with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Artists across the sexual identity spectrum, like Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, threw rent parties to keep each other solvent at community living spaces like 267 House. Thus the neighborhood was a vital center of intellectual, cultural and artistic creativity in New York City long before becoming stigmatized for criminal activity through the crack epidemic of the 1980s.

Our team of graduate students from Columbia University and New York University, including Henry Castillo, Andrea Crow, Alyssa Greene, Rüstem Ertuğ Altınay, Leticia Robles-Moreno, and myself, spearheaded the project. We strove to juxtapose well-known landmarks like the Apollo Theater alongside long-ago demolished businesses, like the row of queer-friendly bars that once occupied the block where a massive luxury condominium complex now stands. We also connected the stories of spaces on our route to broader national crises surrounding race relations, like the accelerating rise of white supremacy and white nationalism, the ongoing problem of police brutality disproportionately affecting Black men and transwomen of color, and the pervasiveness of gentrification pushing lifelong residents out of their homes.

We are thrilled to re-release the Harlem Memory Walk as an independent digital experience in anticipation of the debut of Women Mobilizing Memory. The walk is now available to anyone in the public sphere via PocketSights, a free mobile app on Apple and Android. Download the app, and search for the walk (if it doesn’t appear automatically) by searching for Columbia’s zipcode (10025 or 10027). For those who do not have smartphones, an updated version of the walk can also be accessed via Google Docs. We hope you will share the memory walk widely and thank you in advance for joining us on our journey.

Submitted by Nicole Marie, Gervasio, Ph.D.
August 30, 2019