The first thing that comes to most minds when someone says Harlem probably isn't Australia. Sure a group of teenagers in Queensland is credited for sparking the Harlem Shake meme, at least by Wikipedia, but that's much more about shaking than Harlem, per se. There is, however, an online effort that stands to forge a bond between the places in a far more robust (if less viral) way.
Presenting Digital Harlem: a research collaboration, centering on everyday life in the neighborhood between 1915 and 1930, run by four historians at the University of Sydney. Started by Shane White — with the assistance of Stephen Garton, Graham White, and Stephen Robertson — Digital Harlem has led to scholarly articles about family, vice, and black-white interactions in the area during the interwar period, as well as a book about gambling. In 2009 the site won a prize for digital innovation from the American Historical Association.
"I think DH gives us a richer perspective on what it was like to live in Harlem, on what kind of place Harlem was, than the approaches historians have taken before," says Robertson.
The seeds of the project began about 30 years ago when Shane White "lucked into" the question that would dominate his career: What did it mean to be a black person walking along a New York City street? Writing about his work in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2011, White said he was drawn to "the gritty details of the everyday life of ordinary black men and women — the stuff of culture all too often dismissed as mere ephemera."
White and the others used archival material from New York, especially legal records, to create the interactive historical nature of Digital Harlem. The site can be searched for people, places, or events that occurred during the 15-year window, with an emphasis on everyday experiences. With a few clicks, users can find out where residents went to church, where they got into traffic accidents, where they held parties, where they bowled. You can even track the entire life of an individual, as Robertson's done with a man named Perry Brown.
"DH offers a more detailed reconstruction of a neighborhood than has been attempted for any other part of the city — one that offers not just a historical version of the picture we've become used to on Google Maps, but a way of looking at the complexity of life in a neighborhood," Robertson says.
A map of Harlem nightlife in 1925 produced by Digital Harlem. Courtesy of Stephen Robertson.
Robertson's most recent scholarship to emerge from Digital Harlem is an investigation into the neighborhood's under-explored white presence. He says a large number of whites came to the area each day to work, but Census figures alone fail to reveal this presence since they didn't reside there. These interactions often drained money from the community (when white business owners went home every evening they took local money with them) and over time produced interracial tension. The next project on tap, he says, is a thorough study of the Harlem riot from 1935.
Robertson hasn't always lived half a world away from the place he studies for a living. He did his doctoral work at Rutgers in the 1990s. Since then he's typically spent a few weeks a year in New York — often working from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem.
"When I go, I find myself frequently looking past what is around me at the traces of 1920s and 1930s that survive in the neighborhood, looking for ghosts rather than taking in what is going on around me," he says.