Toni Cade Bambara prominently features social workers in several stories in Gorilla, My Love. However, some readers may be unfamiliar with the exact role that social workers and related initiatives played in neighborhoods like Harlem. This section will clarify how non-profit organizations and city governments tried to mitigate poverty and related social problems in afflicted areas like Harlem and the Bronx. It will examine the successes and failures of these attempts, and the community’s reaction to them.
Bambara depicts several large-scale problems that affect the lives of her characters in Harlem. These include poverty, crime, substandard housing, limited access to medical care, and institutional racism. Many of these problems had their roots in the Great Migration of the early 20th century, when more than a million African-Americans moved from the American South to Northern urban centers like New York. Most urban areas were unprepared for this influx of poor and lower-middle class residents, and it resulted in crowding, public health problems, and resentment among some residents who had lived there longer. Many of New York’s black residents were concentrated in neighborhoods such as Harlem. This was due in part to poverty and in part to written and unwritten rules that prevented African-Americans from buying real estate in other neighborhoods (Harlem World).
Historically, social issues like the ones that plagued Harlem were mainly addressed by churches and private charities. However, this changed in the 20th century, which saw federal and local governments taking an expanded role in confronting domestic problems. Around the time that Bambara was writing Gorilla, My Love, many government initiatives centered around the concept of urban renewal. These involved city governments dispersing ‘blighted’ neighborhoods by purchasing land there and demolishing existing housing and businesses. This land would then be used for projects like freeways and the Civic Auditorium in Pittsburgh (one of the first cities to experiment with urban renewal). Property owners were legally required to sell their land to the government because cities invoked eminent domain, which gives governments the power to forcibly purchase private land for public projects (Hirsch).
Urban renewal was extremely controversial. Many residents resented being required to leave their homes, and some argued that neighborhoods like Harlem had a historical and cultural importance that justified their preservation. Many poor residents were forced out of cities entirely because so much low-income housing was destroyed. Because this process disproportionately affected African-Americans, critics like James Baldwin called it “Negro Removal” (Clark).
Over time, this policy gave way to less aggressive initiatives that focused on improving existing housing and businesses instead of demolishing them. By 1972, this transition was already underway, and it was this line of thinking that led city governments to send liaisons like Miss Ruby (in “Playin with Punjab”) into Harlem. Many social workers had specialties, such as public health, family issues, education, or career counseling. They also served as liaisons between local residents and the city and federal governments, and helped citizens organize and advocate for themselves politically. Of course, not all urban political activism at this time involved social workers from outside the community. In the early 1960s, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) pressed the city government to investigate police abuse (an issue that Bambara explores in “The Hammer Man”). Many of these organizations were either directly affiliated with or inspired by civil-rights activism in the South.
In the 1970s, the federal government also involved itself with Harlem’s social problems. The Model Cities program pumped $100 million into Harlem that went to programs for job training, public health, and more. The community center in “The Hammer Man” and social workers like Betty Butler and Miss Ruby might well have been funded by this initiative. However, Harlem actually declined economically as middle-class residents moved elsewhere and the local economy imploded (Harlem World, Jackson).
Although Harlem still suffers from economic inequality and poor schools, the past two decades have seen gradual improvement through private investment, the introduction of charter schools, and the revitalization of once crime-ridden 125th Street. Some of these changes have been controversial. For example, skyrocketing real estate prices in Manhattan have led to an influx of upper-middle class white residents into Harlem. Harlem’s African-American population is currently lower than it has been at any time since the 1920s. Some critics argue that this ‘gentrification’ is eroding the neighborhood’s unique character and making it more like the rest of Manhattan (Roberts, Payne).
Despite the major changes that have occurred since Gorilla, My Love was published, many of the issues that Bambara spotlights are still very serious. Public schools in Harlem continue to perform poorly on standardized tests, and experts point out that poverty is still a major problem in the neighborhood despite its growing middle-class population (Otterman). In 2002, residents of Central Harlem were twice as likely as other Americans not to have a doctor (Healthy Harlem). Bambara's sense of social justice remains immediate and important even as conditions seem to have changed so drastically, and thus does Gorilla, My Love remain relevant not only as a literary text, but also as a social one.