Find a Union Writer – Christopher Bell

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East Harlem Historian
MA History City College
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Writing example from my book East Harlem Remembered
This is an oral history of East Harlem, where I had the pleasure of being
raised, by my godmother, Henrietta Jennings, and my mother Ann. Each
one helped me love and appreciate my neighborhood. And despite some trying
times in East Harlem, it’s still my home. My mother, like many before, came
here to East Harlem to seek a better life for her and her family. During my formative
years my godmother and mother both regaled me with stories of their East
Harlem experiences. My godmother, born at the turn of the twentieth century,
and my mother, a baby boomer, had plenty of stories to share. My godmother,
who by this time was well into her seventies, often mentioned the Great Depression,
World War II and iconic figures like Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Martin
Luther King, Jr., and Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S Truman. In
fact, she recalled seeing Truman enter the Waldorf Astoria Hotel when she
worked there. In East Harlem, my godmother appreciated the diversity of the
neighborhood. She learned a few Spanish words by conversing with her Puerto
Rican co-workers and at home she spoke broken Spanish to her neighbors.
In adulthood I have worked in several government positions that provided
city services to the East Harlem community. One day an elderly Italian
gentleman accompanied by his daughter arrived seeking assistance at the city
councilman’s office where I worked as a community associate. He sat down
and took off his fedora. The old man asked where I was raised, and I told him
I grew up in East Harlem. He responded that he, too, grew up in East Harlem
and remarked that many years ago the neighborhood was heavily Italian and
was called “Little Italy.”
Before my position in city government I worked at a private law firm.
The old Italian’s story instantly reminded me of when a Jewish lawyer once
told me that Jews also lived in East Harlem. I found it curious that East
Harlem, then a predominantly Puerto Rican and black neighborhood, once
was heavily populated with East European immigrants. There were still were
more lessons to learn, and I eagerly soaked up the knowledge.
Their stories have never left me and spurred me to conduct and record
an oral history of East Harlem.
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