A day in Harlem

Gerry and Lotta went up to Harlem on a sunny weekday. Straight out of the metro they ran into two rappers selling their records on the street. After much discussing they got to hear a bit about why Harlem is great and were given an impromptu performance outside Harlem's Apollo Theater, the very building they'd come to see. It totally made their day.

The Apollo

The Apollo Theatre is an iconic building at 253 West 125th Street, between Adam Clayton Powell Jr Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard (aren't these street names great!). The theatre was finished in 1914 and was then called the Hurtig and Seamon's New Burlesque Theatre.

It became the Apollo in 1934 when the doors were first opened to black patrons. Until then it had been a “whites only” place. It became a fashionable spot for jazz performances, with several famous acts performing on stage. Ella Fitzgerald made her singing debut at the age of 17 at the Apollo theatre.


Harlem is perhaps mostly known for its problems during the 1970s and 80s. But the area has seen a fair share of drama and change throughout the centuries. Believe it or not, but it was originally a Dutch village north of Manhattan, founded in 1658 and named after the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands. Before the Dutch came the area was inhabited by the Manhattans, a Native American tribe.

In 1664 the English took over the area and changed the name of the community to Lancaster. The name never really stuck and in the end they settled for the anglicised Harlem. The village grew slowly and became a popular resort for the rich of New York City.

Harlem remained largely rural during the 1800s. According to the Commissioners' Plan for the city in 1811 it was “improbable that the grounds north of the Harlem Flat will be covered with houses for centuries to come”. Oh how wrong they were.

In the late 1800s the estates were sold off and the developers had grand schemes for the area. The Harlem Monthly Magazine wrote “it is evident to the most superficial observer that the centre of fashion, wealth, culture and intelligence, must, in the near future, be found in the ancient and honourable village of Harlem.”

But the same year real estate prices fell which attracted a lot of immigrant Eastern European Jews and Italians to the area. Both the Jewish and Italian Mafia were started in East Harlem.

Although Harlem has had a black populations since the 1600s, the mass migration of African Americans into the area began in 1904. It was part of the great migration, when African Americans left the south to seek work in northern industrial cities. In 1920 around 30 percent of the population in central Harlem was black, in 1930 the numbers of African Americans in the area had risen to 70 percent.

Harlem became a hub for African American art, culture and activism. It was a popular night time destination during the prohibition. Although it took until the 60s for most business in the area to be owned by African Americans. Around the 1920s the area also started turning into a slum. In the 30s riots broke out, with more riots following in the 40s. There weren't many jobs around and many of the old houses in Harlem were left to fall apart.

Although there are still some problems in Harlem, the area is changing. Today the high street is packed with expensive shops selling sportswear and large coffee chains. Bill Clinton even had an office in the area in the early 2000s.

Our illustration

Lotta and Gerry spent some time hanging around the Apollo, people watching and trying to find the best angle to photograph the building. As Gerry was crouching down on the pavement the characters you can see in the print walked past – adding a bit of Harlem style to the print.

The Apollo theatre was the first print Gerry started working on in the New York series. There are plenty of choices that go into making one of our prints. Which details should be picked out of a photograph, which colours should be used, what should be turned into a half-tone and what should stay as a block colour?

For the Apollo print Gerry decided to pick out a couple of silver details, like the jewellery the two main characters are wearing. The colour will add a bit of bling to the final print.