Harlem Billy recalls the `good old days'

Uncle Billy. That's what people call him at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, one of the most famous and largest black congregations in America. Harlem Billy. That's what people on the street call him.

William Johnson is a big, bald, retired policeman who enjoys being with people. He carries a hefty 250 pounds on his six-foot frame.

``Yes, I love Harlem,'' he says. ``I wouldn't live anywhere else. ... Harlem had the Big Apple night spot before New York was ever called the Big Apple.''

Harlem is uptown Manhattan, extending from 96th Street north to 178th Street (George Washington Bridge) between the East River and the Hudson River on the west. The US Census Bureau and the New York State Department of Labor put Harlem's population at 392,882, including 52 percent blacks and 28 percent Hispanic. Median income is $9,294 compared with $13,905 for Manhattan.

Unemployment in Harlem is 10.2 percent, but 15.1 percent for blacks, 12.5 percent for Hispanics, and 8.9 percent for whites. Some 19.2 percent of Harlem's people receive public assistance compared with 10.3 percent of Manhattan.

Uncle Billy regrets that the glamour of the good old days has faded. He misses Small's Paradise, the Renaissance Ballroom, the Savoy, the old Theresa Hotel, the Alhambra Theatre, and the old Sugar Hill. ``Harlem was fun in those days,'' he says with a slight smile. ``Sure black people lived here because they couldn't live anywhere else in New York. But they had Sugar Hill when it was a sweet place to live....''

Originally, Harlem was an affluent suburb, beginning in the early 19th century. Blacks first moved here early in the 20th century, pushed into the 135th Street area by real estate speculators who would be called blockbusters today.

Harlem earned fame around the world for those early blacks of the original Harlem Renaissance between 1930 and '50. Out of this era blossomed people that Uncle Billy remembers: Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, and Josephine Baker, ``stars who oozed glamour.'' He recalls preachers like Adam qi Clayton Powell Sr. and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of Abyssinian Baptist, Father Devine, Bishop (Sweet Daddy) Grace, and other ministers who thundered their messages to happy, shouting, singing congregations. They created the aura of Harlem, Uncle Billy says, as the place for blacks to live the joyous life.

Blacks cheered Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Roy Campanella, and others into major league baseball. Harlem Billy loved the New York Rens, who were pro basketball champions just after World War II.

Harlem embraced the civil rights movement in the 1960s, gulping the messages of Malcolm X, James Farmer, Stokely Carmichael, LeRoi Jones, Whitney M. Young Jr., Roy Wilkins, and black-power militants.

``We laughed; we cried; we boasted; we fought in those days,'' Uncle Billy says. ``We were poor, too, but we didn't know we were. Things changed in the '70s, and lots of our people quit Harlem for the suburbs: Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. But I stayed.''

Today city fathers call Harlem the last frontier in Manhattan. They promise a new Harlem, a Harlem that some say will cater to whites and more affluent blacks. But will that turn many black residents into displaced persons.

To this Uncle Billy responds: ``I'm not moving!''

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