Harlem On WSJ’s Mind

Sharp review in the Weekend Wall Street Journal about three new books on Harlem:

Everyone from Aaron Burr to Malcolm X has lived there, along with Louis Armstrong, James Baldwin, Frank Costello, Father Devine, W.E.B. DuBois, Duke Ellington, Ralph Ellison, Marcus Garvey, George Gershwin, Alexander Hamilton, Billie Holiday, Harry Houdini, Langston Hughes, Joe Louis, Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, Arthur Miller, Charlie Parker, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Paul Robeson, Bayard Rustin and Fats Waller.

They missed one.

Actually, two:

The Collyer Brothers.

The original Pack Rats, Homer and Langley Collyer, (eat your heart out, A&E’s Hoarders) lived and hoarded on Fifth Avenue near 128th Street.

Via the New York Press:

Though gloomy, the house had not been messy in 1938. By 1942, Langley had singlehandedly accumulated vast quantities of newspaper, cartons, tin cans and other refuse, transforming the mansion into a fortress. He apparently applied his engineer’s training to arrange packing boxes and cartons in interlocking tiers with concealed tunnels passing from one room or one floor to another. Langley alone was familiar with the maze. Anyone else would have to remove the entire barricade to pass. He also booby-trapped massive piles of newspapers and old luggage with trip wires.

One of those booby-traps trapped Langley as he tried to bring food to Homer. Trapped him eight feet away. Both died of starvation.

There was nothing left but the cleanup.

They found telephone directories, three revolvers, two rifles, a shotgun, ammunition, a bayonet and a saber, a half-dozen toy trains, toy tops, a toy airplane, 14 upright and grand pianos, cornets, bugles, an accordion, a trombone, a banjo; tin cans, chandeliers, tapestries, a portrait camera, enlarger, lenses and tripods, a bowling ball in a canvas bag, bicycles and bicycle lamps, a rolled-up 100-foot rug runner, a 9-foot-tall mahogany clock with a music box inside and pastel painted figures on the broad face; 13 ornate mantel clocks, including one contained in a metal bust of a girl whose ears and bodice dripped coins, 13 Oriental rugs, heavily ornate Victorian oil lamps and vases, white plaster portrait busts and picture frames. They found a static machine, an electrical device manufactured during the 1890s for the treatment of arthritis, rheumatism and other ailments. They found five violins, at least two dating from the 18th century, two organs and scores of 7-inch gramophone records dating from 1898, including “Round Her Neck She Wears a Yeller Ribbon for her Lover Who is Fur, Fur Away,” “Atta Baby” and “Nobody In Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine.” They found sheets in braille from Homer’s failed attempts to learn the system. And they found a certificate of merit for punctuality and good conduct awarded to Langley at Public School 69, 125 W. 54th St., for the week ending April 19, 1895.

These things merely salted the vast sea of junk and paper.

By April 3, according to the Herald Tribune, the searchers had removed 51 tons of waste. They had only reached two rooms on the first floor. By April 8, 19 days after the search began, The Sun reported 103 tons of debris removed. Then they found Langley’s body.

WSJ, take note.

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