From Helsinki to Harlem
I first saw America’s shores in May 1964 from the deck of the M/S Finntrader. I was a twenty-year-old aspiring journalist from Finland wanting so badly to spend that summer in the United States -- the summer of Lyndon B. Johnson’s re-election campaign, civil rights strife and of the New York World’s Fair – that I worked my ways across on a freighter. I came from a country so homogeneous that eye and hair color marked the chief differences among its four and a half million people. No blacks lived in Finland in those days, and only fifteen hundred Jews.
New York’s polyglot metropolis stunned and seduced me. While reporting one day in Harlem, I found myself naked and sweating in an old Finnish steam bath operated by an immigrant from Jamaica. It had been a popular gathering spot among residents of the Finnish community, which thrived in Harlem from the 1910s until the 1950s. Few traces of that population of several thousands survived. Rival socialist halls, including one with an indoor swimming pool and a bowling alley, were long gone, as were Finnish churches.
One vestige still remaining was a hat shop on 125th Street belonging to an elderly Finnish woman, who had stayed after other whites ran. Another relic was the steam bath, with its black owner, a professional masseur, at Madison Avenue and 122nd Street.
Harlem exemplifies succession, which is the sociologists’ term for ethnic, racial and economic neighborhood transition. In the space of four decades between the 1870s and 1910s, that section of New York City went from a white upper-class community of American-born residents to one populated by recent Irish, Jewish, German, Italian and Scandinavian immigrants. Soon thereafter, as a result of white abandonment, Harlem became African American and Puerto Rican, as Gilbert Osofsky chronicled in his 1971 classic, Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto. Racial succession is not over, either. Starting in the late 1990s, Manhattan’s overheated real estate market made Harlem’s values so irresistible that whites began returning to live on some streets north of Central Park.
The phenomenon of changing neighborhoods fascinated me.
In 1969, after receiving my M.A. degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, I found an urban observatory in Baltimore, a declining but still-great city trying to recover from the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The city and many of its residents were in a defeatist funk. Racial tensions flared, white flight to the suburbs continued; smokestack industries kept shutting down. Yet even among the gloom and doom there was a sense of excitement among those who saw the potential. One of my first reporting assignments for The Sun involved covering a kite festival in Druid Hill Park, where I met M. J. and Georgene Brodie and Stuart and Paula Rome. Those couples made things happen; Jay was soon to become the city’s housing commissioner, an important economic development official and eventually a neighbor.
I eye-witnessed civil rights protests, reported on two Ku Klux Klan cross burnings, covered school desegregation, anti-war actions, religion, community organizing, City Hall and Baltimore County, a separate jurisdiction that was overtaking the city. I even joined a rag-tag army of mercenaries that the Congress of Racial Equality was recruiting for a civil war in Angola. I never quite figured out what CORE’s motive was in this effort that quickly flopped. My fellow recruits, though, had a clear game plan. Once in Africa, they confided, they would frag the officers and loot diamond mines.
Making this journalistic enterprise possible was The Sun, Baltimore’s venerable newspaper of record, founded in 1837. Owned by establishment families, the company also published The Evening Sun, the paper of H. L. Mencken, and a Sunday edition. The Sun was a mighty peculiar institution. A mural in its lobby depicted a plantation scene at the flagship paper’s founding, complete with manacled and shackled slaves. (It has since been covered with a false wall). Standing guard near two lobby elevators was a diminutive African American named Bernard E. Barney. He had operated The Sun’s front elevators since 1925. Although automatic elevators were installed in 1950, Barney was still on duty when I arrived in 1969, making sure that the publisher got to his office without stops. Mostly, though, he just stood in the lobby, greeting visitors and employees as an institutional mascot of sorts. The newspapers’ paternalistic owners made bets in his name at racetracks and elsewhere, and he died a wealthy man. Another fixture was a janitor named Johnson who came by the city room every afternoon, asking gentlemen reporters whether they needed a shoeshine.
The Sun in those days was even greyer typographically than The New York Times. There were occasional attempts at levity, though. Every New Year’s Day, a box on the front page touted a hangover cure that consisted of various nasty-sounding ingredients. During heat waves, an eccentric former Marine, David Maulsby, was sent downtown to see whether he could fry eggs on asphalt sidewalks. He never could, but it made entertaining copy.
When I joined the paper, my distinction was not that came from Finland but that I was the only reporter in the city room who had not gone to a private college. The less prestigious Evening Sun had hired reporters without college degrees for some years – and even a few African Americans -- but in order to join the morning paper, one had to be a college graduate and white. When The Sun hired its first black reporter soon after my arrival, his byline read Abdulkadir N. Said. He was a native of Somalia, who came by the way of Ethiopia. Another reporter, white, answered to the unforgettable name of Garrett Bang. She wrote Japanese haiku and had attempted to climb the Mount Everest. One day she reported to work wearing jeans and was sent home to change because informal attire was tolerated only on Saturdays. She was a twenty-something descendant of the Garretts, a famed Baltimore railroad dynasty. Since the two families knew one another socially, she confronted the publisher, William F. Schmick Jr. Invited to his inner sanctuary, she told him how to run newspapers. “There she was in my office and all I could think was, ‘Thank God she is not my daughter’,” Schmick later recalled.
In 1980 the paper chose me to establish a bureau for The Sun in Johannesburg, South Africa. I timed my arrival for Dingaan’s Day on December 16, a public holiday marking the defeat of Zulus by the Boers in the 1838 Battle of Blood River. My first report, printed on the front page, described how the ruling white supremacists felt that they had their covenant with God renewed for another year, when a ray of light from a slit in the ceiling fell at noon on a sacred monument declaring Ons vir Jou, Suid Afrika (“We are for thee, South Africa”).
In apartheid South Africa, which existed before Nelson Mandela came to power in 1994, only the white minority had full political and economic rights. Demolitions of “black spots” continued as non-whites were systematically evicted from their homes so that white areas could be expanded. I was a frequent visitor to Soweto, the sprawling black township near Johannesburg. Like all whites, I needed a permit each time. One day I again approached a Mr. Phillips, a dedicated public servant in the West Rand Administration Board who made a career out of issuing such permits. I explained that Joe Lelyveld of The New York Times and I intended to do some pub crawling in Soweto’s illegal shabeens and needed overnight permits. The moment was delicious: Here was Mr. Phillips issuing legal permits so that we could do illegal things. I must admit that there was some bribery involved. Mr. Phillips was a dirty old man. On my frequent travels outside South Africa I bought him copies of Playboy, a magazine that was banned in South Africa, as were countless other publications. Arriving from Mauritius one day, I was stopped at customs. “Anything to declare? Playboy?” the official asked. He was wearing the tribal summer uniform of white Afrikaner officials from bureaucrats to the security police – a short-sleeved polyester shirt and Bermuda shorts, with a comb stuck into one knee-high white sock. “Of course not,” I answered. When he opened my suitcase, the first thing he saw was a copy of Playboy. He issued me a green-colored certificate that could be redeemed on my departure from South Africa. “Detained,” it declared, “one (1) copy of Playboy.”
Since South Africa was a pariah nation in much of black Africa, I used two Finnish passports. One contained South African immigration and customs stamps, the other did not. This puzzled one official at the Johannesburg airport. He went through my passport, stared at me, leafed through the passport again, and shook his head. “Mynheer,” he remarked, “You are a most interesting man. You always leave but you never arrive.”
I may use that one on my gravestone yet.
South Africa was full of bizarre stories. The most profound I discovered in Kliptown, near Soweto, which was the official dumping ground for people whom the authorities found impossible to classify racially. None would have qualified as white, but the government was petrified that it might mistakenly give a black the limited property and legal rights that “coloreds” and Asians enjoyed but blacks did not. Better avoid mistakes. As a result, hundreds of Kliptown residents had no race at all. Without a race classification, they could not go to school, work or marry. They were known as “Twilight people.”
In the surreal world of Kliptown, one denizen was a black woman who had married a colored man, an act that violated the immorality laws that banned intercourse among the country’s four racial groups. When they divorced, a domestic court judge gave her the real estate, except that in South Africa blacks could not own real estate. Another resident was a white woman who had married a black policeman. What was she thinking? The government prosecuted her. She was ready. Having been reared among Africans on a white farm, she came to court wearing a Zulu tribal outfit and carrying a baby in a bundle on her back, as was the custom among rural Africans. She spoke only Zulu and claimed to understand no Afrikaans or English. For the case to proceed, the government would have had to prove that she was white. Embarrassed, the government dropped the charges, took away her constitutional rights and banished her to Kliptown.
The Soviet Union
From South Africa I was transferred to the Soviet Union. I fell in love with Mikhail Gorbachev’s daughter, Oksana, an effervescent redhead whom I could only covet from a safe distance at Red Square parades. I also got to know black Russians. Small black communities had existed since the tsarist times, chiefly in Moscow and in the Black Sea region. Citizens of the Soviet Union, theirs was a difficult life because their skin color identified them as permanent aliens in a country that abhorred foreign influences. They, too, were twilight people. Among them was James Patterson, who at the age of three starred in the 1936 film classic, Tsirk (Circus). He was a poet, who celebrated Russia’s glories in the best Stalinist traditions. He eventually relocated to Washington, D.C., a difficult proposition for an old man who knew little about the outside world and did not speak much English.
I saw evidence of ethnic succession in such old Moscow neighborhoods as Chinatown and the German Quarter, even though their original settlers had long since been eliminated. The Baltic republics of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia provided more evidence. Overrun by Stalin in the 1940s, they had been overwhelmed by non-native nationalities. Tensions were high. With Bill Eaton of The Los Angeles Times I saw how an ethnic Estonian doorman refused to admit a well-dressed Russian couple to a restaurant in Tallinn’s Old Town. It was their wedding anniversary, the woman sobbed, holding a bouquet of roses. The doorman was unmoved. “There was no reservation; there are no empty tables,” he advised. We were next in line and expressed disappointment that we could not dine there, either. “You must be joking,” the doorman chuckled, welcoming us to the mostly empty restaurant.
I eventually returned from overseas. After more than a decade as a member of the The Sun’s editorial board, I became frustrated. That’s when my wife, Barbara, said: “Write a book.” Not in My Neighborhood is that book.