Compiled by Jim Mackin working with Jim Torain — both Jims are members of the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group’s Planning Committee.
The OLD COMMUNITY is the African-American community of West 98th and 99th Streets between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue that was decimated by urban renewal in the mid-1950s. A number of outstanding achievers were raised in the OLD COMMUNITY, as described below. Its legacy continues with an annual gathering of its surviving members and with celebrating its history. A 7-munute long video entitled THE TRAGEDY OF URBAN RENEWAL recounts how the OLD COMMUNITY was physically destroyed. The critically acclaimed, award-winning video was written, produced, shot and edited by Jim Epstein and narrated by Nick Gillespie, the Editor-in-Chief of REASON magazine. Jim Epstein grew up in our BLOOMINGDALE neighborhood. He donated his research papers on THE TRAGEDY OF URBAN RENEWAL to the BLOOMINGDALE Neighborhood History Group and they have been placed in the BLOOMINGDALE Branch of the New York Public Library. The TRAGEDY OF URBAN RENEWAL may be seen on Youtube at:
Here are some of the notable people who were part of the OLD COMMUNITY:
SIMON P GOURDINE (1940-2012) – He was a lawyer who in the 1970s became the highest-ranking Black executive in professional sports as Deputy Commissioner of the NBA. He was also Commissioner of Consumer Affairs under Mayor Koch, General Counsel for the NYC Board of Education, and Chairman of the NYC Civil Service Commission.
HENRY “JUGGY” MURRAY (1923-2005) – He was co-founder of SUE Records (with Bobby Robinson) whose repertoire included Bobby Hendricks (“Itchy Twitchy Feeling”, lead on Drifters “Drip Drop”), Baby Washington, Barbara George (“I Know”), Inez & Charlie Foxx (“Mocking Bird”), Ike & Tina Turner (“A Fool In Love”).
CHARLES ALSTON (1907-1977) – He drew posters at PS 179 before going on to Columbia University and was related to Romare Bearden by marriage. As a painter, sculptor, illustrator, and muralist he was part of the Harlem Renaissance known for his WPA mural for Harlem Hospital. His bust of Dr. Martin Luther King was the first image of an African-American displayed in the White House.
RICHARD T GREENER (1844-1922) – He was the first African-American graduate of Harvard University and Dean of the Howard University School of Law. He held numerous prominent positions, including Secretary (and chief fund-raiser) of the Grant Monument Association, which created the largest mausoleum in the United State: Grant’s Tomb.
GRANVILLE T. WOODS (1856-1910) – His 60 patents including one for the “troller” which is the grooved metal wheel that allowed streetcars (later known as “trolleys”) to collect electric power from overhead wires. His most important invention was the multiplex telegraph, also known as the “induction telegraph,” which allowed men to communicate by voice over telegraph wires. But he is most well known for the power pick-up device, which is the basis of the “third rail. He turned down Thomas Edison’s offer to make him a partner, and thereafter Granville T. Woods was known as “the Black Edison.”
PHILIP A PAYTON, JR – He was the entrepreneur known as “The Father of Harlem” as his Afro-American Realty Company struggled and successfully opened Harlem to African-Americans.
WILL MARION COOK (1869-1944) – He was a violinist and prominent African-American composer of classical, popular songs, and Broadway musicals. He gave us the very significant show “In Dahomey”, the first full-length landmark American musical written and played by Blacks.
ARTURO SCHOMBURG – He was a Puerto Rican historian, writer, and an important intellectual figure in the Harlem Renaissance. His collection of literature, art, slave narratives, and other materials of African history constitute the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
JAMES WELDON JOHNSON (1871-1938) and brother
JOHN ROSAMOND JOHNSON (1873-1954) lived in 52 West 99th Street – James was a poet and much more, and John was a composer and much more. We know them mostly for giving us the hymn “Life Every Voice and Sing” which has come to be known in the United States as the “Black National Anthem.”
THELMA “BUTTERFLY” McQUEEN (1911-1995) –She was called “Butterfly” in tribute to her constantly moving hands in performance of the Butterfly Ballet in a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
ROBERT EARL JONES (1910 – 2006) – He was the great actor father of the great actor, James Earl Jones with a long stage, TV and movie career. He was at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance in so many productions, but is most fondly remembered for his role in Robert Redford’s “The Sting”.
BERT WILLIAMS (1874-1922) – Partnered with George Walker, he is thought to be, by many such as W. C. Fields, to be the greatest vaudevillian of all time.
MARCUS GARVEY (1887-1940) – Marcus Garvey – a protégé of Booker T Washington, he was a political leader, publisher, journalist, entrepreneur, and orator who promoted the return of the African Diaspora to their ancestral lands and, in so doing, championing Lack nationalism.
BILLIE HOLLIDAY – “LADY DAY” (1915-1959)– Her mother ran a restaurant on West 99th Street. She was one of the greatest voices of the 20th century.
EARL LEWIS and the CHANNELS – In February of 1956, there was a talent show at a community center in PS 179 that featured Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers (of “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” fame.) That show brought together 3 guys from 115th and 116th Sts with 2 guys from the OLD COMMUNITY. One of them from West 99th Street, EARL LEWIS, became the lead singer and another, CLIFTON WRIGHT, sand bass. A few days later they won a talent contest at PS 113 nearby on 113th Street. Just one week later they came in 2nd at the weekly talent show on the stage of the Apollo Theater. In June, they recorded a song that the lead singer wrote when he was 10 years old. That song. “The Closer You Are”, was the number 5 song for the entire year of 1956 on the charts of Alan Freed’s WINS Radio Show. They also had a hit song with “That’s My Desire.”