Think about everyone you’ve ever met over the course of your life so far, and then try to imagine someone not quite like any of them. Native New Yorker Livingroom Johnston is that person. A remarkable writer, artist, gangster of knowledge, and one of the only gentlemen to skate convincingly in gators, Livingroom is bigger and more fantastical than the urban legend that surrounds him.
As someone raised in Harlem, there are few people better placed to tell the story of the Harlem Renaissance—one of the most significant periods in the area’s cultural history. What you’ll find below are facts told through fiction, left exactly as Livingroom wrote it.
MY NAME IS HARLEM. Harlem Farfromsquare to be exact. My stepdad was old. He died. His name was Irv. And Irv used to be a hustler and his dad was a hustler too. That’s why Irv turned out the way he did. Irv’s dad was named Harlem too. Grandpa Harlem hustled in the 1920s and ’30s. People called the ’20s “The Roaring ’20s” because people were getting money. New York, Chicago, and other cities were getting it in financially. Black people were still suffering though. But there was more opportunity than there was in the South for Black people.
My real dad wasn’t there when I was born so Irv had a hand in naming me Harlem. Harlem FAR-FROM-SQUARE. Square like a box, a person who follows the rules. Irv wanted me to think outside of the box though. If I had to break the rules to survive then so be it. Irv wanted me to be prepared. He would tell me stories about his youth and about his dad in his prime. I’m more of a square now because it’s hard to hustle with the whole city under surveillance, nowadays.
When slavery was abolished most Black people in America lived in the south. A shit load of White people were earning their income through slaves. So the new rules fucked their shit up. They were enraged and did a lot of crazy shit to Black people. As time went on there was minimal opportunity for Black people to put food on the table. They, (We), were fucked up in the game of life. Imagine this: ‘get a whole bunch of people from foreign lands. Make them breed and work as slaves, forbid them to speak in their native languages, forbid them to learn to read and write then…tell them they are “FREE TO GO.”
My Great Grandmother told me about this shit. She would say, “FREE TO GO WHERE? WE WAS FREE TO GET THE FUCK OUTTA THE SOUTH! SHIIIIT! Ain’t was no freedom down there. People were starving and getting their heads whooped by them damn crackers!” That kind of language isn’t really used nowaday. It is what it is though. That’s what led to what is called ‘The Great Migration’. It started in 1905 and lasted throughout 1930. ‘There was actually two Great Migrations but historians got the math fucked up. Who cares? Black people moved to Northern America in droves, by the million, hopeful for better lives. A lot of Black women had been raped by White men or given illusory promises and had mixed babies. That’s why you see a lot of banana yellow Black people. Some are mixed with Native American. Some will tell you they are part ‘Indian’ but that’s a fucking lie. That’s what old Irv would tell me. My mother is banana yellow and so are my siblings. My Great Grandmother was part German and Native American. She had no eyebrows and long gray hair and was mean as a motherfucker. Life made her that way. I don’t blame her at all. She would hit me with her cane when I was little and called my brother a bitch for taking my toys.
Old Irv was a drinker and smoked a lot of cigarettes. He was on heroin but he got off of it years before I was born. He played numbers. I would ask him a lot of questions and he would answer them. “Old Irv,” I would say. “What it is Little Man?” ready to answer whatever I asked. He was very open about life with me.
Irv called me ‘Little Man’. He told me that in the ghetto when you’re about 14 years old, “You’re a grown man. There ain’t no time for child life in the ghetto. Motherfuckers will eat your ass up alive!” He would take me out on what he called his ‘Runs’. He wanted me to see him cop, snort and hustle—so if I ever turned down that road I would know what to do.
“C’mon Little Man. We going on a RUN!” We went to the liquor store where Irv got a cheap bottle of wine. He drank ‘Night Train.’ I remember Irv asking me, “Did you know it was illegal to make or drink liquor in the US?” I looked up at him. He wore gold-framed glasses, a black Kangol hat and a suede front sweater. Irv was the coolest dude on planet earth to me as a youth. “Nah I ain’t know that.” I answered. By this time we were across the street at the bodega store where Irv bought me a bag of chips, a quarter water and a few peppermint candies. The bodega was also a numbers spot and a guy called ‘Sticks’ sold coke in the back. Sticks was also a Jazz Drummer on the side. Irv collected five hundred dollars from numbers he played the previous day and played a few more. He showed me the money, “This is rent money Little Man! This is one way how I get shit done! I’ll spill the history of this shit in a minute. I’mma finish telling you about Prohibition right now though.”
We went out front of the bodega. Irv lighted a cigarette. “Harlem, on January 17th, five days before your birthday, but in the 1920s, there was an Amendment passed that stated: ain’t was no liquor to be manufactured or sold in the entire US, period. It was called Prohibition.” Liquor was a hustle just like coke, dope and reefer is now. There were some mean motherfuckers controlling the racket. You had the Italian mafia. They were real bad asses. Then you had the Jews and the Irish gangs. All of them battled against each other for control of the market. The streets was on fire!” It’s in man’s nature to be dominant over things. Regardless of what it is.
Irv toked on his cigarette and sipped from the Night Train bottle.
“What about the Black people back then Irv? Were they gangsters too?” I was curious. I wanted to know everything there was to know.
“Little Man…” Irv took another sip. Another drag from his cigarette. “In the 1920s and ’30s there was a rebirth of the ‘Negro’. People used to call us ‘Negroes’ back then. They called it the Harlem Renaissance. Black people were creating a new identity. From literature to music to hustling. Everything was brand new within the minds of the people. The old ways of the South were out the door and new beginnings were happening.”
I snatched Irv’s cigarette, took a drag, coughed and handed it back. I felt a little dizzy. “Don’t tell you mother you doing that shit boy!”
“Okay… tell me about the Black hustlers of Harlem Irv!” “Look…” Irv said, “you had the ‘Bolito King’. His real name was Casper Holstein. He was African and Danish. He ran the numbers game. Numbers is basically a lottery game. Holstein was a well-known hustler. Back then technology wasn’t as advanced as it is now so they had messengers. The messengers would be all over the place, collecting money and delivering news of what numbers won, lost, etc. Then there was St. Clair, Stephanie St. Clair was her name. She was a bad assed bitch. She had a dude named Bumpy Johnson as her main muscle. She was competing with men, you know what I’m saying. She kept her shit tight. St. Clair and the Bolito King were rivals. They were both getting money and in serious competition with each other. The White gangs and mobsters wasn’t really serious about numbers until the end of Prohibition.”
We were approaching 135th Street. My wheels were turning. “So Irv that meant that the White mobsters and gangsters were losing money so they turned toward that Blacks right!”
Irv smiled as we entered into a building we didn’t live in. He handed me his bottle of Night Train to hold, as he took out a bag of sniff coke, spooned a little out with a key and snorted. “Exactly Harlem! You’re sharp. I like that! The Whites wanted in on the numbers racket so they put pressure down on St. Clair and The Bolito King. Bolito was kidnapped for about three days by some White dudes. Who really knows the story? Anyhow, he eventually quit the game and became a philanthropist. I guess his conscience got to him. He donated money to all kinds of shit. Colleges, writers, poets. The largest thing he did was copped the mortgage of The Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities (Imperial) League (UNIA-ACL) it’s called. Marcus Garvey had created it.”
“We are creative! As a people. Black people are very creative. We had our own social settings. They were called ‘Speak Easys’. When prohibition was in effect Black people had private and hidden clubs where they partied and carried on their own.”
We were still in the building hallway. Irv sat on a step. I stood there thinking, watching Irv sniff his coke. “Gimme a cigarette Old Irv!” He didn’t say anything. He handed me the pack and his lighter, sipped his wine and snorted on the coke out the key. I lighted a cigarette. This time I didn’t cough. “What happened to Stephanie St. Clair, Bumpy Johnson and her numbers racket, Old Irv?”
Irv stood up and stretched his arms after placing the half empty coke bag in his pocket. “Harlem there was a mobster named Dutch Schultz putting pressure down on them. Johnson ended up working for Schultz, St. Clair laid down her cards and got out the game. It was too much pressure coming from the Whites. You know how they do… It’s also said St.Clair lived a peaceful life until she passed away.” Irv put his hands in his trouser pockets and slowly paced back and forth in the building hallway. “Old Irv… during this Harlem Renaissance there must have been more than just hustling. What are some other things that went down?” Irv smiled and glanced up at the ceiling then around the hallway. “Let’s take a walk,” he said. We went outside and strolled up the block toward 136th St. “One dude a lot of people don’t know about was Philip A. Payton”, Irv stated, “The Father of Harlem they called him. He was a Real Estate Buff. The first rich Black Realtor in New York. He made a lot of money and of course the Whites ain’t like that shit! They ain’t want to see no so called Negro earning the big bucks! They needed him though. I don’t think the Whites realized how powerful he was within the community until they tested his power.
“How’d they test his power?”
“There’s a story that actually took place right around the corner from where we’re standing”.
“Well?” I asked, anxious to hear.
“These White boys owned a company called Hudson Realty Company. They wanted to make more money than what they already had. There’s a lot of money in Real Estate with investors, builders and the likes. And since most of the money was in the hands of Whites they bought buildings and some land on 135th St. They kicked the Blacks out who were already living in a few buildings and moved in White folks. Like I said, they wanted to make more money”.
“Okay”, I said, “What did Payton do about this?”
“Payton bought the bought two buildings across the street, kicked out the Whites and moved in the same Blacks Hudson Realty had kicked out. That was a big mother fucking deal that went down in history!” Irv held his stomach laughing.
“That’s how Payton got his reputation?”
“You damned right Harlem! And dig this shit right here! Ain’t was nothing Hudson Realty could have done about what Payton did, so in the end they sold the same ole buildings to Payton. After that it was on. Payton was crowned ‘THE FATHER OF HARLEM’ and went on to make a gang of bread. He died early though. But that’s a whole nother story”, said Irv.
I crossed my arms thinking of how interesting all of this information was. I already knew a little about the south. I thought about how Black people were forbidden to speak their native tongues and at the same time were forbidden to read. “Old Irv, isn’t it interesting that Black people were forbidden to read and Payton turned out to be a Real Estate Buff in Harlem and stuff ?”
“Yeah Harlem,” Irv lighted another cigarette and let me have a drag. “You know Harlem. Speaking of writing, during the Harlem Renaissance some real heavy hitters came from that era”.
“Like Langston Hughes!” I cut in. “They have his books in the library at school!” Irv turned to me, “have you read any of them?”
“No…” I answered shyly, “should I read them?”
“Absolutely!” Irv shouted. He patted me on the back to reassure me I wasn’t doing anything too wrong. “You have time for that. You’re still a boy. I’ll tell you what though. Langston Hughes was a strong voice in and out of Harlem, during and after the Renaissance. There were a lot of great writers. W.E.B Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, and many more. Langston Hughes wrote more than just poems. One of my favorite poems of his is called ‘When the Negro was in Vogue’. He spoke up for the community—about what was REALLY going on. Hughes talked about how Whites were coming up to Harlem from downtown to party and shit. There was a lot of that going on. There were Jim Crow laws in some of the nightclubs like The Cotton Club and Connie’s Inn. Blacks couldn’t go in unless they were performing. Just Whites and the mobsters. Knuckleheads.” Irv shook his head in disgust. “A lot of Blacks were pissed and torn about that was happening. But…” Irv waved his finger toward the sky. “We are creative! As a people. Black people are very creative. We had our own social settings. They were called ‘Speak Easys’. When prohibition was in effect Black people had private and hidden clubs where they partied and carried on their own. Some let in a few Whites but not all. It was a new thing back then. Black people were finding their way any way they could in some instances. For instance there was a lot of prostitution going on back then, so Pimps were getting a lot of money from the business of prostitution also. Police were corrupt and getting paid from all angles. I’m sure there were a few straight-laced back then. But for the most part most were corrupt”.
“Oh man!” I remarked. “A whole lot of stuff happened during the Harlem Renaissance huh? That guy sticks, who is always in the back of the Bodega. I noticed he always has drumsticks in his back pocket. Was he in the Harlem Renaissance?”
Irv giggled. “Naw man. Sticks was a tiny little baby back then. His father was a musician. A drinker, druggie and a damned good drummer. Sticks followed in his father’s footsteps and became a friggin drinker, druggie and drummer his damn self. Sticks’ mother was a pianist. She passed away a few years ago. During the Harlem Renaissance there were the haves and the have nots in the Black community. In Harlem especially.”
“What do you mean?” I frowned.
“I mean there were Black people with More money than others. Most Blacks were poor and scraping by, even though literature, dance, hookers and music drew White people to Harlem. They called us Primitive back then.”
“What about Sticks’ mother? Was she in the Harlem Renaissance?”
“Yes. She wasn’t a well-known pianist. She didn’t make a living off of it. Back then some Blacks wanted to conform and get along in life like the Whites, so they looked down on Blacks who didn’t have much to get by on. So there was a divide even with the music. Blacks with money focused more on instruments like the piano. The Jazz musicians mainly played brass instruments like horns and shit. Then the jazz musicians started fucking with the piano and mixing it in. And you know that drew some attention from the Whites. So the Black Jazz musicians made a few more dollars off of them. They called it ‘The Harlem Stride Style.’ I still got some records. I’ll play a little something for you when get get home”.
“What’s up Little Man?”
“When did the Harlem Renaissance end?” I inquired. Old Irv took a minute before he answered. He seemed to be seeing as he was thinking.
“Different people have different opinions on that. A couple things happened that put a cap on the Renaissance, from my opinion. There was a crash in the stock market, which led to The Great Depression in the 1930s and there was The Harlem Riots. One of the most brutal riots next to the Rodney King riots. A lot of people suffered from the Great Depression. Not just in Harlem but in other parts of the world as well. Then of course… White people started playing Jazz and becoming used to the New Blacks. They weren’t as interesting as in the beginning. Things go in cycles though. Like I said before: Black people are very creative. Therefore we’ll always be a main attraction.” Solid Gold…