1970s Harlem afro women

The popular afro style was everywhere. Source: Mashable.

French photographer Jack Garofalo’s photos of an iconic New York neighborhood have been making some impressive rounds on the Internet lately, catapulting viewers back to a time before it was a brunch destination; when those who lived there did so primarily because they couldn’t afford to move away.

Harlem’s history in the 1960s and 70s was one of violence and loss: the Harlem Riot of 1964 claimed the life of an unarmed black teenager; Nation of Islam members assassinated Malcolm X, and riots again rocked Harlem’s streets following Martin Luther King Jr.’s death in 1968. Many in Harlem responded by moving out in droves – in what some would call an exodus.

70s harlem black panthers

Two members of the Black Panther party stand by a storefront. Source: Mashable“.

With crumbling infrastructure and trash-lined streets, the New York Times described the neighborhood this way: “Since 1970, an exodus of residents has left behind the poor, the uneducated, the unemployed. Nearly two-thirds of the households have incomes below $10,000 a year. In a community with one of the highest crime rates in the city, garbage-strewn vacant lots and tumbledown tenements, many of them abandoned and sealed, contribute to the sense of danger and desolation that pervades much of the area.”

Despite the grim description, business as usual went on for those who stayed; beauty parlors were often full, families grew, and cultural vitality was being renewed. Around the country, the decade of the 60s saw the popularity of Motown music, fashion, and a boom in visual arts media, and Harlem –despite its economic status- became a site of a number of these trends.

1970s Harlem newspaper

Selling newspapers on a street corner.

Thought President Lyndon Johnson’s Model Cities anti-poverty program came to Harlem and dropped $100 million into improvements, job training, and education, the area seemed to make no visible progress.

That is, until 1987 – when the city installed new water mains, curbs, sidewalks, and even planted some trees. National chain stores opened in what used to be some of the worst neighborhoods, and over the next few years, people began moving back. After years of decline Harlem finally found its way back, but these photos prove that even through the worst of times, Harlem at its core was always about the resilience of its people.

70s Harlem stoop
70s Harlem tunics
70s Harlem street fire
70s Harlem newlyweds
Before Brunch, There Were Riots: 1970s Harlem In Photos
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Want more New York? Check out our galleries of 1969 in New York and staggering photos of the New York subways in the 1980s.

Erin Kelly
Erin Kelly is a freelance writer, artist and video editor that splits her time between the humid Midwest and the dusty corners of her mind.
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