West 117th Street -- between Fifth and Madison -- is a typical block in Harlem...?
West 117th Street -- between Fifth and Madison -- is a typical block in Harlem... noisy, dirty, clogged with drunks, gamblers, junkies, people who have lost respect for themselves and their neighbours.
The houses on this block were built in the years between 1880 and 1929... and left to rot by unscrupulous, anonymous landlords.
It is impossible to describe how it smells. But the stench is everywhere, in the rotting walls, the neglected street, in the cubby-hole apartments where a surprisingly large number of people strive to live dignified, decent lives despite overwhelming odds.
Down the block is the headquarters of the Harlem rent strike... a desperate campaign to destroy slum-landlords by forcing the city to take over their properties. It is led by Jesse Gray. Whose angry opinions were shaped by the conditions he is fighting. And the people listen to him.
Jesse Gray believes that housing is the crux of all the problems of Harlem: that people cannot be fully human until they escape sub-human conditions. This view is shared by another product of the Harlem streets, now a distinguished member of the scientific community: Doctor Kenneth Clark.