In a 2010 article, Dr. Haynes recalls finding the portrait of a long-dead ancestor in his parents’ attic. He was a respected Black leader, and the portrait was part of a series for the White House, somehow lost from the others and consigned to storage. Why was the portrait forgotten, he wondered, and why did his parents leave it in the attic for so long? Throughout the book, the author studies the same issue regarding his parents; why did this respectable family fall into reclusiveness, and why did they stay in Harlem?
Haynes (born 1960) comes from an unusual social class, the Black Harlem gentry. He, his parents, and his two older brothers lived in a stately Harlem townhouse that alternated from being subdivided into apartments and returning to its one-family state. Though his parents considered themselves the cream-of-the-crop, they let their home fall into ruin. He describes the house, with beautiful woodwork and period décor, as being a dump that rivals the Collier Brothers. Garbage piled up, they never threw anything away, the roof leaked, and eventually his parents physically separate while living under the same roof. From childhood to age 18, he doesn’t seem to have enjoyed being home. Neither did his two brothers.
In some ways it’s a story about people who straddle two worlds. Haynes mother was a social worker with an office in the World Trade Center, fashionably dressed, held court at downtown restaurants, but she didn’t have these friends over to her home. It’s not clear if it’s because their house was in a state, or if they let the house become a hovel because they couldn’t have visitors. Harlem, by the time Haynes was ten years old, had become unsafe, and he says that when he was growing up no white kid could walk in those streets. His older brothers, born 1950 and 1953, also suffered from street crime. I doubt that any White person visited their Black friends in Harlem by the late 1960’s.
Haynes’ pretty much loses his brother over the years. One of them gets killed at work, and the police make little effort to find the killer. His oldest brother joins the Nation of Islam, suffers when the break up after Elijah Muhammed’s death, and gets into drugs and several mental breakdowns. The saddest thing is that he learns about his brother’s murder while sleeping over at a friend’s house, and says he’d rather stay there than head home. He clearly felt more comfortable with the White kids at the private schools he attended than in his own home and neighborhood.
This book paints a really weird portrait of the Harlem that the author knew as a boy. There is a funny part to this story, in the way that gay men were accepted there. He recounts a transvestite who ran a newsstand, and the hair salons were run by men with effeminate mannerisms. He theorizes that with so few decent men in the community, nobody cared if a guy was a sissy, so long as he pulled his weight. In the 1980’s these men started dying off thanks to a little-understood disease.
I wonder if Down the Up Staircase is a study on downward mobility? This was a family with well-educated parents, refined and elegant, whose world always seems to crumble around them. The author says that his father, a parole officer, could have done a lot more with his career, and hints that the man was a bit of an underachiever. His oldest brother slides further and further down into an abyss of drugs and the wrong crowd, further and further away from his parents’ values, never climbing back up. Then his next oldest brother graduates high school, marries his teacher (?!?) and goes to work in a bicycle store, where he gets killed. By the mid 1990’s, the elegant townhouse is in a terrible state of repair, and it’s a wonder it didn’t get condemned. Thankfully, he took his teachers’ advice, to find a rural college that would give him a full scholarship, and leave the city.
The house was sold in the 1990’s, and at this time it’s probably occupied by a White family and would sell for a million dollars. The old Harlem elite is gone, and Dr. Haynes admits that today there is no way he could afford to live in Harlem today.