“125th Street, Harlem’s principal shopping center, ranks with the best retail streets in the city.” So states a 1940 broadside flyer in the New-York Historical Society’s collections. This description of Harlem’s main retail artery, also known as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, has a timeless sound, even as the struggle to make it equitable in terms of service, hiring, and ownership continues to be debated.
This 125th Street Shoppers’ Adjustment Committee was one very broad-based attempt to remedy the issues on the street in the early 1940s. Representation from church and women’s groups, bankers and the local chamber of commerce, and the city council, hoped to inspire confidence among Harlem residents that they would not be subject to price gouging or discriminated in hiring and treatment as consumers. Shoppers were assured, “On 125th Street you can get anything from a good fur coat, living room suite, a high grade radio, a diamond ring . . . right down to a paper of pins. Why ride downtown for what you can get practically at your front door?”
The handsome flyer mimicked an advertisement in the Amsterdam News. The newspaper eagerly sponsored and reported on how the effort met with success through increased shopper traffic and better relations between shopkeepers and customers. Within a couple years, however, complaints by Harlem housewives and calls for boycotts of unfair merchants returned. Even more dramatically, when a major riot engulfed Harlem in the summer of 1943, many of these stores suffered damage and looting. In fact, images of 125th Street in the aftermath of the riot served as a showcase for the issues of race in New York City.
As we know, controversies relating to 125th Street do not go away. Despite all these events, complaints about poor treatment of local customers by shop proprietors continued. As the storefronts closed and went into decline, debate began about what new stores would come in to a revitalized retail district. Much of the 1980s and 1990s saw discussion about the “mall-ization” of the street, bringing big box stores that were not community-owned but provided convenience for residents who were otherwise forced to shop downtown or outside of the city. Debate now centers on rezoning for high rises and residential properties and the inevitable gentrification that would drive out the long-term residents.
The 1940 broadside documents an optimistic time and a true community-wide effort. It also provides something else: On the reverse is a detailed list of cooperating stores on West 125th Street. As librarians, we are so frequently stumped by questioners who want to know what store occupied a certain location at a specific time. There are no systematic records kept of such things, especially as most shopkeepers are renters and not owners of their buildings. Here we can figuratively walk the street and be reminded of the existence of Pauline’s Kiddie Shop, Smilo’s Corset Shop, Alhambra Jewelers, and the Sunset Boot Shop, along with the better known Woolworth’s, McCrory’s, and Blumstein’s. These snapshots in time are just the sort of documents and images we value, collect, and preserve for our researchers.
This post is by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections