Updated: Jul 24
"Reagan is the prez but I voted for Shirley Chisolm" - Biz Markie
I was 9 years old when my family moved to Englewood, New Jersey, a racially, culturally, ethnically and economically diverse New York City suburb less than five miles from Harlem. Englewood had at one time or another been home or hometown to many artists, writers, actors, and musicians, including: Eddie Murphy, John Travolta, Dizzy Gillespie, Redhead Kingpin, Wilson Pickett, Eric Williams from Black Street, Kwame, Sarah Jessica Parker, Anne Morrow, The Isley Brothers The Mizell Brothers, Tony Bennett, Upton Sinclair, Big Bub, Vince Lombardi, Gloria Swanson, Regina Belle, Jodeci, Mary J. Blige, KRS-One, Al Sharpton, the Sugarhill Gang, and the pioneering rap music label, Sugarhill Records.
There were also lesser known residents with equally big personalities who helped shape the city’s and my own character: Squeaky, the lanky stick up kid and member of the five percent nation; Popeye, the quiet but quick to fight kid with light brown eyes that popped out from his tiny head; Peaches, the half-Asian half-Jamaican round the way girl from Queens; Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas in nearby Teaneck; local brilliant graffiti artists Knowledge Born and Kaos, and Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. Yes, Michael and Diana went to my middle school. One day in the fall of 1983 while I was doodling hearts to my crush Alba in Ms. Strickholm's 7th grade homeroom, Michael and Diana got into a fight in the hallway. Soon after, the principal came on the loudspeaker angrily demanding that "Michael Jackson and Diana Ross report to the office immediately.”
A microcosm of 20th century race, class and ethnicity, Englewood was broken up into four wards. The aptly named First Ward was the wealthiest ward. Set on the exclusive east hill, it was filled with 19th century mansions and mostly old white people (until the owners of Sugar Hill Records, Joe and Sylvia Robinson purchased an estate there in the early 1980s and then Eddie Murphy bought a two million dollar home there in the mid-1980s that he christened “Bubble Hill”).
Situated next to the highways leading to the George Washington Bridge, the Second Ward, also wealthy and filled with estates, was slightly more diverse than the First Ward. Home to the city’s large orthodox Jewish community as well as the Libyan ambassador to the United Nations, the Second Ward also had one housing project, a small middle-class integrated neighborhood, and an enormous condominium development populated mostly by commuters.
Lastly, but most definitely not least, was the majority Black Fourth Ward. A working and middle class neighborhood, the Fourth Ward was a mix of civil servants, factory and service workers, teachers, principals, musicians, lawyers, small business owners, managers, ministers, administrators, funeral home owners, and real estate agents. Over the years, the city had also built several housing projects in the Fourth Ward, but if you were black and from the Bronx or Harlem, getting to the green leafy streets of the Fourth Ward meant that you had “made it.”
My family lived in the Third Ward. A middle-class community of African Americans and Jews from Harlem and the Bronx, and a few old Irish and Italian families, by the dawn of the 1980s the area had also become home to an influx of “new immigrants.” By 1979, the Third Ward was a sort of multi-cultural Mayberry. During the 1970s, Colombians, Cubans, Jamaicans, Guyanese, Dominicans, Peruvians, and Interracial families had joined the Blacks and the Jews in this post civil rights romper room of racial harmony. Our next door neighbors included: a white Jamaican World War Two veteran married to a Cuban woman; a holocaust survivor and his three children; an old school Italian Mafioso; a Puerto Rican family related to Roberto Clemente; an extended Jamaican family that had purchased three houses right next to each other; a retired center for the Indiana Pacers who was now selling vacuum cleaners; the owner of a Guyanese airline company; and a Black grandmother with a stunning garden in her front yard that was tended to by her children and grandchildren, a couple of whom were white.
Even with all its diversity, it was still African Americans who dominated the cultural, educational and political life in the Third and Fourth Wards. Also, very few of the children from the mostly white First and Second Wards attended the public schools, so by the time I graduated high school in 1988 the school system was over ninety percent black. African Americans were the vanguard. And during the 1980s in Englewood that "van" was hip hop. As home to Sugarhill Records, Englewood was the commercial center of rap music; so like most of the kids in my neighborhood, I spent most of my youth breakdancing, rapping, spray painting street signs with graffiti, or driving my parents crazy by beatboxing at dinnertime.