Essay on Gilbert Osofsky’s Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto

Essay on Gilbert Osofsky’s Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto

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Gilbert Osofsky’s Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto paints a grim picture of inevitability for the once-exclusive neighborhood of Harlem, New York. Ososfky’s timeframe is set in 1890-1930 and his study is split up into three parts. His analysis is convincing in explaining the social and economic reasons why Harlem became the slum that it is widely infamous for today, but he fails to highlight many of the positive aspects of the enduring neighborhood, and the lack of political analysis in the book is troubling.

In “Part One: The Negro and the City,” Osofsky describes the early Black neighborhoods of New York City, in the lower parts of Manhattan: from Five Points, San Juan Hill, and the Tenderloin. He describes the state of Black community of New York in the antebellum and postbellum, and uses the greater United States, including the Deep South, as his backdrop for his microanalysis of the Blacks in New York. He paints a grim picture of little hope for Black Americans living in New York City, and reminds the reader that despite emancipation in the north long before the Civil War, racism and prejudices were still widespread in a city where blacks made up a small portion of the population.

Through his research, Osofksy is able to conclude that there was a decline in the Black population leading up to the Civil War. In 1825 there were 12,559 Blacks living in New York, in 1865 9,943 Blacks were living in New York City. But by 1900, due to the great migrations of free Blacks from the south, the Black population expanded, and over fifty-three percent were born outside of the State. The tension created by this migration was not only between the new Blacks and the White population of New York, but also between the ex...


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... start and the Great Depression hammered to nails into its coffin.

This book was written in the 1960’s so it is hard to tell what were Osofsky’s biases, misconceptions, and influences while writing this book. There are a few passages that come across as ignorant or biased towards the Black community, but there is no doubt that this extensive analysis does do justice to the history and situation of Harlem, New York. Osofsky does a great job of framing his study socially, economically, and philanthropically, but he does little in the way of politics. His analysis does not include a political framework that would help answer some questions of political racism, de facto segregation, de jure segregation, public welfare, impoverished schools, etc. At some points throughout the book, it seems as though Osofsky is blaming the Black community for their own troubles.

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