Monday, April 03, 2006

New York City's Black "Evacuation" + Upcoming NYC Poetry Events + Poem: Langston Hughes

Today's New York Times reports that New York City is experiencing a significant decline in its Black population, the result of an exodus of African Americans to other regions of country coupled with a slowing Black birthrate and a lower influx of Caribbean-born Blacks and Africans. According to the Times, this is the first time this has occurred since the Civil War-era draft riots of 1863. By 2000, Census figures suggest, the Black percentage of New York City's population had fallen below 25%, while the total outflow from 2000 through 2004/5 was over 210,000 people.

MapAs the map at left shows (click on it to enlarge), most (49%) of the Black emigrants headed to the South, followed by the New York suburbs(3o%), with lower numbers moving to other parts of the northeast (14%), the midwest (3%), and the West (4%). The Times asserts that the primary reasons may be economic and sociocultural, which sounds about right to me. As the city and region become increasingly unaffordable, many middle and working-class Black people can find better cost of living options and job opportunities in other parts of the country, and many are choosing the Southeast because of ancestral and direct family ties, as well as because of the large Black population and familiar cultural frameworks already there. For retirement purposes, the climate and living costs in the South are hard to beat.
Over all, more black residents who left New York City moved to Florida than to New Jersey.

But black residents who left the city were more likely to remain in the region if they had higher incomes and were college educated. And while black migrants to the South include some aspiring professionals, a larger share were lower income, less educated and elderly.

"All this suggests that New York City out-migration of blacks is unique in its scope — net losses to most states — and pattern — especially destined to the South," Dr. Frey said.

Reversing a tide from the South who altered the complexion of the city earlier in the 20th century, the number of American-born blacks leaving the city has exceeded the number arriving since at least the late 1970's.

"You have older people who leave the North just to go back to a place that is kind of slower, or where they grew up or went on vacation when they were younger — and when you retire, your money doesn't go very far in New York," said Sylviane A. Diouf, a historian and researcher at the Schomburg Center and co-author of a study of black migration. "You also have young college-educated people who find that the South has lots of economic potential and a lower cost of living."

BeardenAs I was reading this piece, I thought about how C. and I know a few people who've left New York in the last decade. Several of them have moved to Washington, DC, Philadelphia or the Atlanta area, usually for job reasons. Two of C.'s coworkers left Brooklyn and bought a home in New Jersey. A good friend's parents, natives of Haiti, built a home in south Florida and retired there. A number of other friends and acquaintances have repeatedly spoken of leaving New York, with economic reasons almost always factoring into their rationales. The Times article doesn't really discuss which boroughs are losing the most people, but I'd imagine that Manhattan is probably hemorraging Black residents and probably more rapidly than the other four, since from the northern to the southern tip and from the Hudson to the East River it's pricing out almost everyone not earning a hefty salary. Once upon a time, I had several Black friends who lived in various parts of Manhattan, but now other than the ones living Harlem, which is steadily whitening, and one friend living in the east 20s, I can't think of any Black New Yorkers I know who don't live in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, or Staten Island, all of which used to be considerably more affordable than Manhattan, but which are becoming costly themselves as gentrification radiates outwards in all directions, including into Hudson County in New Jersey and Orange County on the west side of the Hudson River in New York State.

The Times does not report that despite the losses over the last half decade, New York City still has the largest Black population in the United States, at over 2 million people. Almost no American media have ever reflected this fact (and numerous TV shows and films have repeatedly reinscribed this visual erasure), though it's evident if you walk down (m)any city streets. A great deal of what we think of as "American" culture, as well as popular culture, has its origins in or has been shaped (or reshaped) by Black New Yorkers. Nor does it contextualize the fact that the city has had Black residents since its beginnings as New Amsterdam; these earliest Black settlers, free and enslaved, helped to build not only Wall Street (including the original wall that stood there), but many other neighborhoods throughout all five boroughs. Nevertheless, economics appear to be accomplishing the very eventuality that people like Rudy Giuliani seem to dream about, which is to push all the Black people, except for a few tokens, out of New York City, beginning with Manhattan, thus freeing up land and resources, and releasing racists from the ontological (physical and psychic) burden of racially inflected socioeconomic inequality and oppression....

The article does note that more than 500,000 white residents have also left the city, primarily for the suburbs (50%) and other cities in the Northeast (15%). This broaches what I think is the most important question underlining this piece, which is how will people of modest means--the majority of New York City residents throughout its entire history--be able to live in a city where housing and living costs now price all but the affluent out?

Update: One thing that came to me this afternoon was the situation of Black New Yorkers who in prison outside the city; what is the size of this population, and how does this factor into the population decline? The Times report article does note that people in the military are not counted as residents, but what about the imprisoned population outside Rikers and other city prisons and jails?

(Image above right, © The Dove, 1964, Estate of Romare Bearden, ACA Galleries, New York and Munich)


Here are some NY-area upcoming poetry readings and events (many thanks to Reggie, Erica, and Greg, who forwarded them):

At Dixon Place Homotext
Tuesday, April 4, 7:30 pm
New gay & lesbian literature night
hosted by Pamela Booker
welcomes R. Erica Doyle & Carol Zoref (or A. Naomi Jackson?)
Dixon Place, 309 E. 26th St. (betw. 1st & 2nd Aves.), 212-532-1546; $5.

At Poet's House:
Tuesday, April 11, 7pm
National Poetry Month Reading
With Michael Collier, Natasha Trethewey & David Tucker
$5, Free to Academy of American Poets and Poets House Members
Presented in association with the Academy of American Poets.

Thursday, April 20, 7pm
Poetic Bestiary: A Panel Discussion
With Sandra Alcosser, Mark Doty & and Linda Hogan
$7, Free to Members

Thursday, April 27, 7pm
Archipelagos of Poetry and Politics: A Reading and Conversation
With Édouard Glissant and J. Michael Dash
Introduction by Jayne Cortez
Readings by Brent Hayes Edwards
Admission Free
Presented in conjunction with PEN World Voices: The New York
Festival of International Literature.

Poets House -- 72 Spring Street, 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10012

At Medgar Evers College, CUNY
Tuesday, April 11, 2006, 7-9pm
Creative Writing Program

A discussion of contemporary, progressive BLACK POETRY featuring
2005 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellows in Poetry
R. Erica Doyle, Christopher Stackhouse & Gregory Pardlo
and special guest, Erica Hunt
in The President's Conference Center
Medgar Evers College
1650 Bedford Ave., Brooklyn,
Free admission, Reception to follow
Directions: subway: 2,3,4,5, to Franklin Avenue
For more information contact the English Department
at 718-270-4940.

This event is being presented in cooperation with the Cave Canem African American Poet‚s Workshop and Retreat and the Artists & Audiences Exchange, a public program of the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA).

At the New School University:
John Ashbery Festival (I'll write more about this tomorrow)

Thurs.-Sat., April 6-8. For more information, call 212.229.5611 or email
Location: All events take place at 66 West 12th Street unless indicated otherwise; see schedule below for room assignments.

The New School graduate Writing Program sponsors a three-day festival honoring the great American poet John Ashbery. Ashbery has won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, as well as MacArthur, Guggenheim, and other prestigious fellowships, and is the author of more than 20 books of poetry, including Some Trees (1956), Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), A Wave (1984), Can You Hear, Bird (1994), and Where Shall I Wander (2005). He is also the author of three books of critical prose and co-author, with James Schuyler, of the novel A Nest of Ninnies. In 1988 he served as the inaugural editor of "The Best American Poetry" series. He holds a titled professorship at Bard College. During the three days of the festival, poets, critics, and scholars from far-flung places will discuss various aspects of Ashbery's achievement. David Lehman, poetry coordinator of the New School Writing Program, is organizing the festival together with Robert Polito, the Writing Program's director.

Thurs., April 6
1:00 p.m.
Ashbery's Landscapes: Marit MacArthur, Timothy Gray, Ann Mikkelsen, and Kacper Bartczak on an Ashbery poem, room 510.
2:30 p.m.
Selected Prose and Selected Translations: David Kermani, Micaela Morrissette, Eugene Richie, and Rosanna Wasserman, room 510.
4:30 p.m.
Poets and Artists: Jane Hammond, Archie Rand, Jane Freilicher, and Karen Wright, Tishman Auditorium.
7:30 p.m.
Homage to Ashbery: A Group Reading: introduced by David Lehman. Mark Bibbins, Star Black, Marc Cohen, Billy Collins, Douglas Crase, Jacek Gutorow, Daniel Halpern, Vicki Hudspith, Tomoyuki Iino, Deborah Landau, Ann Lauterbach, James Longenbach, Geoffrey O'Brien, Ron Padgett, Robert Polito, Pawel Marcinkiewicz, David Shapiro, James Tate, Susan Wheeler, Dara Wier, and John Yau, Tishman Auditorium.

Fri., April 7
11:00 a.m.
Roger Glbert, James Longenbach, Meghan O'Rourke, Jacek Gutorow, and Melcion Mateu-Adrover, room 510.
2:00 p.m.
Tomoyuki Iino, Jennifer Quilter, Andrew DuBois John Emil Vincent, Pawel Marcinkiewicz, and William Burgos, room 510.
4:30 p.m.
John Koethe, Dara Wier, John Yau, and Lacy Rumsey room 510.
7:30 p.m.
John Ashbery introduced by James Tate, Tishman Auditorium.

Sat., April 8
2:00 p.m.
The Heroes: Bob Holman, Vicki Hudspith, and David Lehman, Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery (at Bleecker).
3:00 p.m.
"Litany": John Ashbery and Ann Lauterbach, Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery (at Bleecker).


HughesHere's a Black New York(er's) poem, Langston Hughes's "Jazzonia," which I'm typing out from The Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson, editor (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1969). I've always loved this poem, and Hughes (1902-1967), a Missouri native whose early poetry represents the quintessence of the Harlem Renaissance literary and cultural movement, captured the spirit, ethos and essence of Black New York City life and feeling in poem after poem. Here, Hughes presents the transtemporal, intracultural matrix that jazz presents:


Oh, silver tree!
Oh, shining rivers of the soul!

In a Harlem cabaret
Six long-headed jazzers play.
A dancing girl whose eyes are bold
Lifts high a dress of silken gold.

Oh, singing tree!
Oh, shining rivers of the soul!

Were Eve's eyes
In the first garden
Just a bit too bold?
Was Cleopatra gorgeous
In a gown of gold?

Oh, shining tree!
Oh, silver rivers of the soul!

In a whirling cabaret
Six long-headed jazzers play.

Copyright © Estate of Langston Hughes.


  1. It makes me think of your poem that begins "The Island of Manhattan." The one that feels like a telegram. It's funny the way we feel poems, especially when we don't remember them word for word. I remember the fracturing, the sense that the island would break off, which is in the poem itself, but which is also mirrored in the fratured sentences. This time when I think of the island of Manhattan (and those words in your poem) I not of the land that is fractured, but the communities

  2. When I leave New York (not if), it will be for both economic and quality of life issues. More of my paycheck keeps getting eaten up on daily living expenses, and as someone said in the article, you spend so much time here just surviving day to day you have little time left over to think about the future, much less plan for it.

  3. I keep thinking about how the survey was conducted. Apart from the economic and social factors, might there also be something about how people identify that needs to be considered.

    Faced with an increasing number of students who refuse to "identify," i.e., I'm more than my color so I am no color, I find surveys on race-based behavior increasingly fascinating from a methodological point of view.

    Now, to Bernie, have you seen the Historical Society's slavery in NY exhibit, and, if so, what was your response? I was in the city a few weeks ago and walked through. I'd be interested to know how other people feel.