“..the greatest village in the world…” – BBC News
vThe original settlers of Harlem were the Wecksquaesgek Indians. Harlem is a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Manhattan, long known as a major African-American residential, cultural, and business center. A village independent of New York City until 1873, Harlem has been defined by a series of boom-and-bust cycles, with significant ethnic shifts accompanying each bust as waves of migrants moved through the city. Originally a farming village best known as the site of Revolutionary War battles, the development market in Harlem plummeted around 1850 and land was occupied by recent Irish immigrant squatters.
After the village was incorporated into New York City, more residents moved there. With the introduction of efficient public transit to lower Manhattan, development moved rapidly, in fact, too rapidly. As too many houses were built at once, the market cracked twice — first in the mid 1890s, and again in 1904. Late 19th-century immigrants and their descendants: Jews, Italians, and other ethnic groups, moved into the neighborhood in large numbers after the first crash.
After 1904, black residents arrived en masse, with numbers fed by the Great Migration. It was this last group who would define the artistic riches of Harlem in public consciousness. In the 1920s and 1930s, the neighborhood was the locus of the “Harlem Renaissance”, an outpouring of artistic and professional works without precedent in the American black community. Music, art, theater and literature were all made in Harlem, and major artists were established in every genre.
Starting with the job losses of the Great Depression and especially after World War II with deindustrialization in New York, rates of crime and poverty increased significantly. Despite a persistent middle class, the neighborhood was strongly associated with these and other urban social ills for decades.
New York’s revival in the late 20th century has led to renewal in Harlem as well. By 1995, Harlem was experiencing social and economic gentrification. Though the percentage of residents who are black peaked in 1950, the area remains predominantly black.
Locations and Boundaries
Harlem stretches from the East River to west to the Hudson River between 159th Street;where it meets Washington Heights—to a ragged border along the south. Central Harlem begins at 110th Street, at the northern boundary of Central Park; Spanish Harlem extends east Harlem’s boundaries south to 96th Street, while in the west it begins north of Upper West Side, which gives an irregular border west of Morningside Avenue. Harlem’s boundaries have changed over the years; as Ralph Ellison observed: “Wherever Negroes live uptown is considered Harlem.”
The neighborhood contains a number of smaller, cohesive districts. The following are some examples:
- West Harlem (west of St. Nicholas Avenueand north of 123rd Street)
- Harlem Community
- Hamilton Heights, around the Hamilton Grange
- Sugar Hill
- Manhattanville, north of Morningside Heights
- Central Harlem
- Mount Morris, extending west from Marcus Garvey Park
- Strivers’ Row, centered on 139th Street
- Astor Row, centered on 130th Street
- Spanish Harlem, also known as East Harlem or El Barrio (east of Fifth Avenue)
The NYPD patrols five precincts located within Harlem. The areas of West Harlem are served by the 30th Precinct, the areas of Central Harlem are served by the 28th Precinct and 32nd Precinct, and the areas of East Harlem are served by the 23rd Precinct and 25th Precinct
Harlem is represented by New York’s 15th congressional district, the New York State Senate’s 30th district, the New York State Assembly’s 68th and 70th districts, and the New York City Council’s 7th, 8th, and 9th districts.
17h through 19th Century
The first European settlement in what is now Harlem was by Hendrick de Forest and Dutch settlers in 1637. The area was repeatedly ambushed by Native Americans, most likely Lenape, who were previously the only inhabitants of the land, leading many Dutch to abandon it. The settlement was formalized in 1658 as Nieuw Haarlem (New Haarlem), after the Dutch city of Haarlem, under leadership of Peter Stuyvesant. The Indian trail to Harlem’s lush bottomland meadows was rebuilt by eleven black laborers on behalf of the Dutch West India Company, and eventually developed into the Boston Post Road. In 1664, the English took control of the New Netherland colony and anglicized the name of the town to Harlem. On September 16, 1776, the Battle of Harlem Heights, sometimes referred to as the Battle of Harlem or Battle of Harlem Plain, was fought in western Harlem around the Hollow Way (now West 125th St.), with conflicts on Morningside Heights to the south and Harlem Heights to the north.
Harlem was “a synonym for elegant living through a good part of the nineteenth century.” In the early years of that century, Harlem remained a place of farms, such as James Roosevelt’s, east of Fifth Avenue between 110th and 125th Streets. As late as 1820, the community had only 91 families, one church, one school, and one library. Wealthy farmers, called “patroons,” maintained country estates largely on the heights overlooking the Hudson River. Service connecting the suburb of Harlem with New York was by steamboat on the East River, an hour and a half’s passage, sometimes interrupted when the river froze in winter, or else by stagecoach along the Boston Post Road, which descended from McGown’s Pass (now in Central Park) and skirted the salt marshes around 110th Street, to pass through Harlem. An 1811 New York City planning commission opined that Harlem would not be developed for over a hundred years. The New York and Harlem Railroad (now Metro North) was incorporated in 1831, to better link the city with the suburb, starting at a depot at East 23rd Street. It was extended 127 miles north to a railroad junction in Columbia County at Chatham, New York by 1851. In the years between about 1850 and 1870, the village of Harlem declined. Many large estates, including the Hamilton Grange of Alexander Hamilton, were auctioned off as the soil was depleted and crop yields fell. The land became occupied by Irish squatters, whose presence further depressed property values. The impoverished village was taken over by the city of New York in 1873.
Recovery came when elevated railroads were extended to Harlem in 1880. With the construction of the “els”, urbanized development occurred very rapidly, with townhouses, apartments, and tenements springing up practically overnight. Developers anticipated that the planned Lexington Avenue subway would ease transportation to lower Manhattan. Fearing that new housing regulations would be enacted in 1901, they rushed to complete as many new buildings as possible before these came into force. Early entrepreneurs had grandiose schemes for Harlem: Polo was played at the original Polo Grounds, later to become home of the New York Giants baseball team. Oscar Hammerstein I opened the Harlem Opera House on East 125th Street in 1889. In 1893, Harlem Monthly Magazine wrote that “it is evident to the most superficial observer that the centre of fashion, wealth, culture, and intelligence, must, in the near future, be found in the ancient and honorable village of Harlem.”
However, the construction glut and a delay in the building of the subway led to a fall in real estate prices which attracted Eastern European Jews to Harlem in large numbers, reaching a peak of 150,000 in 1917. They were both moving up from the Lower East Side and were descendants of the first generations. Presaging their resistance to arrival of blacks, existing landowners tried to stop Jews from moving into the neighborhood. At least one rental sign declared “Keine Juden und Keine Hunde” (No Jews and no dogs). Jewish Harlem, however, was ephemeral, as people kept moving north. By 1930, only 5,000 Jews remained. The area now known as Spanish Harlem was then occupied by Italians. Italian Harlem is now gone as well, as many Italian descendants moved north. Traces of the community lasted into the 1970s, in the area around Pleasant Avenue. In the early 20th century, Harlem was also home to a significant Irish population, and a large group of Finns.
Around of black people
Small groups of black people lived in Harlem as early as 1880, especially in the area around 125th Street and “Negro tenements” on West 130th Street. The mass migration of blacks into the area began in 1904, due to another real estate crash, the worsening of conditions for blacks elsewhere in the city, and the leadership of a black real estate entrepreneur named Phillip Payton, Jr. After the collapse of the 1890s, new speculation and construction started up again in 1903 and the resulting glut of housing led to a crash in values in 1904 and 1905 that eclipsed the late-19th century slowdown. Landlords could not find white renters for their properties, so Philip Payton stepped in to bring blacks. His company, the Afro-American Realty Company, was almost single-handedly responsible for migration of blacks from their previous neighborhoods, the Tenderloin, San Juan Hill (now the site of Lincoln Center), and Hell’s Kitchen in the west 40s and 50s. The move to northern Manhattan was driven in part by fears that anti-black riots such as those that had occurred in the Tenderloin in 1900 and in San Juan Hill in 1905 might recur. In addition, a number of tenements that had been occupied by blacks in the west 30s were destroyed at this time to make way for the construction of the original Penn Station.
In 1907, black churches began to move uptown. St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, for one, purchased a block of buildings on West 135th Street to rent to members of its congregation.
The early 20th-century Great Migration of blacks to northern industrial cities was fueled by their desire to leave behind the Jim Crow South, seek better jobs and education for their children, and escape a culture of lynching violence. During World War I, expanding industries recruited black laborers to fill new jobs, thinly staffed after the draft began to take young men. So many blacks came that it “threaten[ed] the very existence of some of the leading industries of Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Alabama.” Many settled in Harlem. By 1920, central Harlem was 32.43% black. The 1930 census revealed that 70.18% of Central Harlem’s residents were black and lived as far south as Central Park, at 110th Street. The expansion was fueled primarily by an influx of blacks from the southern U.S. states, especially Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia, who took trains up the East Coast. There were also numerous immigrants from the West Indies. As blacks moved in, white residents left; between 1920 and 1930, 118,792 white people left the neighborhood and 87,417 blacks arrived.
Between 1907 and 1915, some white residents of Harlem resisted the neighborhood’s change, especially once the swelling black population pressed west of Lenox Avenue, which served as an informal color line until the early 1920s. Some made pacts not to sell to or rent to blacks. Others tried to buy property and evict black tenants, but the Afro-American Realty Company retaliated by buying other property and evicting whites. They also attempted to convince banks to deny mortgages to black buyers, but soon gave up.
Little investment in private homes or businesses took place in the neighborhood between 1911 and the 1990s. However, the unwillingness of landlords elsewhere in the city to rent to black tenants, together with a significant increase in the black population of New York, meant that rents in Harlem were for many years higher than rents elsewhere in the city, even as the housing stock decayed. In 1920, one-room apartments in central Harlem rented for $40 to whites or $100-$125 to blacks. In the late 1920s, a typical white working-class family in New York paid $6.67 per month per room, while blacks in Harlem paid $9.50 for the same space. The worse the accommodations and more desperate the renter, the higher the rents would be. This pattern persisted through the 1960s; in 1965, CERGE reported that a one-room apartment in Harlem rented for $50-$74, while comparable apartments rented for $30-$49 in white slums. The high rents encouraged some property speculators to engage in block busting, a practice whereby they would acquire a single property on a block and sell or rent it to blacks with great publicity. Other landowners would panic, and the speculators would then buy additional houses relatively cheaply. These houses could then be rented profitably to blacks.
The high cost of space forced people to live in close quarters, and the population density of Harlem in these years was stunning—over 215,000 per square mile in the 1920s. By comparison, in 2000, Manhattan as a whole had a population density under 70,000 per square mile. The same forces that allowed landlords to charge more for Harlem space also enabled them to maintain it less, and many of the residential buildings in Harlem fell into disrepair.
The 1960 census showed only 51% of housing in Harlem to be “sound,” as opposed to 85% elsewhere in New York City. In 1968, the New York City Buildings Department received 500 complaints daily of rats in Harlem buildings, falling plaster, lack of heat, and unsanitary plumbing. Tenants were sometimes to blame; some would strip wiring and fixtures from their buildings to sell, throw garbage in hallways and airshafts, or otherwise damage the properties which they lived in or visited.
Inadequate housing contributed to racial unrest and health problems. However, the lack of development also preserved buildings from the 1870–1910 building boom, and Harlem as a result has many of the finest original townhouses in New York. This includes work by many significant architects of the day, including McKim, Mead, and White; James Renwick; William Tuthill; Charles Buek; and Francis Kimball.
As the building stock decayed, landlords converted many buildings into “single room occupancies,” or SROs, essentially private homeless shelters. In many cases, the income from these buildings could not support the fines and city taxes charged to their owners, or the houses suffered damage that would have been expensive to fix, and the buildings were abandoned. In the 1970s, this process accelerated to the point that Harlem, for the first time since before WWI, had a lower population density than the rest of Manhattan. Between 1970 and 1980, for example, Frederick Douglass Boulevard between 110th Street and 125th Street in central Harlem lost 42% of its population and 23% of its remaining housing stock.By 1987, 65% of the buildings in Harlem were owned by the City of New York,and many had become empty shells, convenient centers for drug dealing and other antisocial activity. The lack of habitable buildings and falling population reduced tax rolls and made the neighborhood even less attractive to residential and retail investment.
After four decades of decline, Harlem’s population bottomed out in the 1990 census, at 101,026. It had decreased by 57% from its peak of 237,468 in 1950. Between 1990 and 2006 the neighborhood’s population grew by 16.9% due to an influx of whites and minorities of Hispanic and Asian descent.
After years of false starts, Harlem began to see rapid gentrification in the late 1990s. This was driven by changing federal and city policies, including fierce crime-fighting and a concerted effort to develop the retail corridor on 125th Street. Starting in 1994, the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone funneled money into new developments. The number of housing units in Harlem increased 14% between 1990 and 2000. The rate of increase has been much more rapid in recent years. Property values in Central Harlem increased nearly 300% during the 1990s, while the rest of the City saw only a 12% increase. Even empty shells of buildings in the neighborhood were, as of 2007, routinely selling for nearly $1,000,000 each. Since completing his second term in the White House in 2001, former U.S. President Bill Clinton has rented office space at 55 West 125th Street as a base of activities.
In the 1920s, Harlem was the center of a flowering of black culture that became known as the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was a time of amazing artistic production, but blacks were sometimes excluded from viewing what their peers were creating. Some jazz venues, including most famously the Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington played, and Connie’s Inn, were restricted to whites only. Others, including the Renaissance Ballroom and the Savoy Ballroom, were integrated.
This period of Harlem’s history has been highly romanticized since the 1920s. It was also the time when the neighborhood began to deteriorate to a slum, and some of the storied traditions of the Harlem Renaissance were driven by poverty, crime, or other social ills. For example, in this period, Harlem became known for “rent parties”, informal gatherings in which bootleg alcohol was served and music played. Neighbors paid to attend, and thus enabled the host to make his or her monthly rent. Though picturesque, these parties were thrown out of necessity. Further, over a quarter of black households in Harlem made their monthly rent by taking in lodgers, who sometimes brought bad habits or even crime that disrupted the lives of respectable families. Urban reformers campaigned to eliminate the “lodger evil” but the problem got worse before it got better; in 1940, still affected by the Depression, 40% of black families in Harlem were taking in lodgers.
The high rents and poor maintenance of housing stock, which Harlem residents suffered through much of the 20th century, was not merely the product of racism by white landlords; though precise statistics are not available, wealthier blacks purchased land in Harlem, and even by 1920, a significant portion of the neighborhood was owned by blacks. By the late 1960s, 60% of the businesses in Harlem responded to surveys reporting to be owned by blacks, and an overwhelming fraction of new businesses were black-owned after that time.
In 1928, the first effort at housing reform was attempted in Harlem with the construction of the Paul Laurence Dunbar Houses, backed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. These were intended to give people of modest means the opportunity to live in and, over time, purchase houses of their own. The Great Depression hit shortly after the buildings opened, and the experiment failed. They were followed in 1936 by the Harlem River Houses, a more modest experiment in housing projects. And by 1964, nine giant public housing projects had been constructed in the neighborhood, housing over 41,000 people.
The Apollo Theater opened on 125th Street on January 26, 1934, in a former burlesque house. The Savoy Ballroom, on Lenox Avenue, was a renowned venue for swing dancing, and was immortalized in a popular song of the era, Stompin’ At The Savoy. In the 1920s and 1930s, between Lenox and Seventh avenues in central Harlem, over 125 entertainment places operated, including speakeasies, cellars, lounges, cafes, taverns, supper clubs, rib joints, theaters, dance halls, and bars and grills.
Though Harlem musicians and writers are particularly well remembered, the community has also hosted numerous actors and theater companies, including the New Heritage Repertory Theater, National Black Theater, Lafayette Players, Harlem Suitcase Theater, The Negro Playwrights, American Negro Theater, and the Rose McClendon Players. In 1936, Orson Welles produced his famous black Macbeth at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem. Grand theaters from the late 19th and early 20th centuries were torn down or converted to churches, and Harlem lacked any permanent performance space until the creation of the Gatehouse Theater in an old pumping station on 135th Street in 2006.
In the post-World War II era, Harlem ceased to be home to a majority of NYC’s blacks,[ but it remained the cultural and political capital of black New York, and possibly black America. The character of the community changed in the years after the war, as middle class blacks left for the outer boroughs (primarily the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn) and suburbs. The percentage of Harlem that was black peaked in 1950, at 98.2%. Thereafter, Hispanics and, more recently, white residents have increased their share.
Black Harlem has always been religious, and the area is home to over 400 churches. Major sects represented include Baptists, Methodists (generally operating under the name African Methodist Episcopalian, or “AME”), Episcopalians, and Roman Catholic. The Nation of Islam and splinter Black Muslim groups maintain mosques in Harlem, and the Mormon church established a chapel at 128th Street in 2005. Many of the area’s churches are “storefront churches”, which operate out of an empty store, or a building’s basement, or a converted brownstone townhouse. These smaller organizations may have congregations of 15 or 20 people, but there are hundreds of them. Judaism, too, maintains a presence in Harlem, including The Old Broadway Synagogue, Temple Healing from Heaven, and Temple of Joy. A non-mainstream synagogue of black Jews known as Commandment Keepers, was based in a synagogue at 1 West 123rd Street until 2008. The Abyssinian Baptist Church has been a particularly potent organization, long influential because of its large congregation, and recently wealthy as a result of its extensive real estate holdings.
Especially in the years before World War II, Harlem produced popular Christian “cult” leaders, including George Wilson Becton and Father Divine.
Since 1965, the community has been home to the Harlem Boys Choir, a famous touring choir and education program for young boys, most of whom are black. The Girls Choir of Harlem was founded in 1988.
Arthur Mitchell, a former dancer with the New York City Ballet, established Dance Theatre of Harlem as a school and company of classical ballet and theater training in the late 1960s. The company has toured nationally and internationally. Generations of theater artists have gotten a start at the school.
Manhattan’s contribution to hip-hop stems largely from the artists who have Harlem roots, including Kurtis Blow and P. Diddy. Harlem is also the birthplace of popular hip-hop dances such as the Harlem shake, toe wap, and Chicken Noodle Soup.
The neighborhood suffers from unemployment rates higher than the New York average (generally more than twice as high), and high mortality rates as well. In both cases, the numbers for men have been consistently worse than the numbers for women. Unemployment and poverty in the neighborhood resisted private and governmental initiatives to ameliorate them. In the 1960s, uneducated blacks could find jobs more easily than educated ones could, confounding efforts to improve the lives of people who lived in the neighborhood through education.Infant mortality was 124 per thousand in 1928 (twice the rate for whites). By 1940, infant mortality in Harlem was 5% (one black infant in twenty would die), still much higher than white, and the death rate from disease generally was twice that of the rest of New York. Tuberculosis was the main killer, and four times as prevalent among Harlem blacks than among New York’s white population.
A 1990 study reported that 15-year-old black women in Harlem had a 65% chance of surviving to age 65, about the same as women in India. Black men in Harlem, on the other hand, had a 37% chance of surviving to age 65, about the same as men in Angola. Infectious diseases and diseases of the circulatory system were to blame, with a variety of contributing factors including the deep-fried foods traditional to the neighborhood, which may contribute to heart disease.
Harlem has one of the highest asthma rates in the United States. Increased risk of asthma may be brought about by high particulate matter from the diesel emissions of buses and trucks, which levels are higher in Harlem than elsewhere in New York City.
The neighborhood remains a predominantly African-American area, with census data revealing about 72% of the population in 2005 to have been black. The number of white residents has increased from only 672 people in 1980, about 0.5% of the population, to some 5000 people, or 4.3% of the population, in 2005. As of September 2008, their number was estimated to have tripled from 2005 levels.
As a neighborhood with a long history of marginalization and economic deprivation, Harlem has long been associated with crime.
In the 1920s, the Jewish and Italian mafia played a major role in running the whites-only nightclubs in the neighborhood and the speakeasies that catered to a white audience. Mobster Dutch Schultz controlled all liquor production and distribution in Harlem in the 1920s.
Rather than compete with the established mobs, black gangsters concentrated on the “policy racket,” also called the Numbers game, or “bolita” in Spanish Harlem. This was gambling scheme similar to a lottery that could be played, illegally, from countless locations around Harlem. According to Francis Ianni, “By 1925 there were thirty black policy banks in Harlem, several of them large enough to collect bets in an area of twenty city blocks and across three or four avenues.”
By the early 1950s, the total money at play amounted to billions of dollars, and the police force had been thoroughly corrupted by bribes from numbers bosses. These bosses became financial powerhouses, providing capital for loans for those who could not qualify for them from traditional financial institutions, and investing in legitimate businesses and real estate. Remarkably, one of the powerful early numbers bosses was a woman, Madame Stephanie St. Clair.
The popularity of playing the numbers waned with the introduction of the state lottery, which has higher payouts and is legal, but the practice continues on a smaller scale among those who prefer the numbers tradition or who prefer to trust their local numbers bank over the state.
1940 statistics show about 100 murders per year in Harlem, “but rape is very rare.” By 1950, essentially all of the whites had left Harlem and by 1960, the black middle class had gone. At the same time, control of organized crime shifted from Jewish and Italian syndicates to local black, Puerto Rican, and Cuban groups that were somewhat less formally organized. At the time of the 1964 riots, the drug addiction rate in Harlem was ten times higher than the New York City average, and twelve times higher than the United States as a whole. Of the 30,000 drug addicts then estimated to live in New York City, 15,000 to 20,000 lived in Harlem. Property crime was pervasive, and the murder rate was six times higher than New York’s average. Half of the children in Harlem grew up with one parent, or none, and lack of supervision contributed to juvenile delinquency; between 1953 and 1962, the crime rate among young people increased throughout New York City, but was consistently 50% higher in Harlem than in New York City as a whole.
Injecting heroin grew in popularity in Harlem through the 1950s and 1960s, though the use of this drug then leveled off. In the 1980s, use of crack cocaine became widespread, which produced collateral crime as addicts stole to finance their purchasing of additional drugs, and as dealers fought for the right to sell in particular regions, or over deals gone bad.
In 1981, 6,500 robberies were reported in Harlem. The number dropped to 4,800 in 1990, perhaps due to an increase in the number of police assigned to the neighborhood. With the end of the “crack wars” in the mid 90s and with the initiation of aggressive policing under mayor Rudolph Giuliani, crime in Harlem plummeted. In 2000, 1,700 robberies were reported. There have been similar changes in all categories of crimes tracked by the New York City Police Department. In the 32nd Precinct, which services Central Harlem above 127th Street, for example, between 1990 and 2008, the murder rate dropped 80%, the rape rate dropped 58%, the robbery rate dropped 73%, burglary dropped 86%, and the total number of crime complaints dropped 73%.
Politics and activism in Harlem
1910–1945, as Harlem became the capital of black America
Soon after blacks began to move into Harlem, the community became known as “the spiritual home of the Negro protest movement.” The NAACP became active in Harlem in 1910 and Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1916. The NAACP chapter there soon grew to be the largest in the country. Activist A. Philip Randolph lived in Harlem and published the radical magazine The Messenger starting in 1917. It was from Harlem that he organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. W.E.B. DuBois lived and published in Harlem in the 1920s, as did James Weldon Johnson and Marcus Garvey.
The earliest activism by blacks to change the situation in Harlem itself grew out of the Great Depression, with the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” movement. This was the ultimately successful campaign to force retail shops on 125th Street to hire black employees. Boycotts were originally organized by the Citizens’ League for Fair Play in June 1934 against Blumstein’s Department Store on 125th Street. The store soon agreed to more fully integrate its staff. This success emboldened Harlem residents, and protests continued under other leadership, including that of preacher and later congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., seeking to change hiring practices at other stores, to effect the hiring of more black workers, or the hiring of members of particular protesting groups.
Communism gained a following in Harlem in the 1930s, and continued to play a role through the 1940s. 1935 saw the first of Harlem’s five riots. The incident started with a (false) rumor that a boy caught stealing from a store on 125th Street had been killed by the police. By the time it was over, 600 stores had been looted and three men were dead. The same year saw internationalism in Harlem politics, as Harlemites responded to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia by holding giant rallies, signing petitions and sending an appeal to the League of Nations. Such internationalism continued intermittently, including broad demonstrations in favor of Egyptian president Nasser after the Suez invasion of 1956.
The neighborhood enjoyed few benefits from the massive public works projects in New York under Robert Moses in the 1930s, and as a result had fewer parks and public recreational sites than other New York neighborhoods. Of the 255 playgrounds Moses built in New York City, he placed only one in Harlem.
In 1937, the Harlem River Houses, America’s first federally subsidized housing project, were opened. Other massive housing projects would follow, with tens of thousands of units constructed over the next twenty years.
Black Harlemites took positions in the elected political infrastructure of New York starting in 1941 with the election of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. to the City Council. He was easily elected to Congress when a congressional district was placed in Harlem in 1944, leaving his City Council seat to be won by another black Harlemite, Benjamin J. Davis. Ironically, Harlem’s political strength soon deteriorated, as Clayton Powell, Jr. spent his time in Washington or his vacation home in Puerto Rico, and Davis was jailed in 1951 for violations of the Smith Act.
The year 1943 saw the second Harlem riot. A black soldier knocked down a policeman who then shot him. An onlooker shouted that the soldier had been killed, and this news spread throughout the black community and provoked rioting. A force of 6,600, made up of city police, military police and civil patrolmen, in addition to 8,000 State Guardsmen and 1,500 civilian volunteers was required to end the violence. Hundreds of businesses were destroyed and looted, the property damage approaching $225,000. Overall, six people died and 185 were injured. Five hundred people were arrested in connection with the riot.
1946–1969, the civil rights movement
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Harlem was the scene of a series of rent strikes by neighborhood tenants, led by local activist Jesse Gray, together with the Congress of Racial Equality, Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited (HARYOU), and other groups. These groups wanted the city to force landlords to improve the quality of housing by bringing them up to code, to take action against rats and roaches, to provide heat during the winter, and to keep prices in line with already-existing rent control regulations. According to the Metropolitan Council on Housing, in the mid-1960s, about 25% of the city’s landlords charged more for rent than allowed by law.
Many groups mobilized in Harlem in the 1960s, fighting for better schools, jobs, and housing. Some were peaceful and others advocated violence. By the early 1960s, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had offices on 125th street, and acted as negotiator for the community with the city, especially in times of racial unrest. They pressed for civilian review boards to hear complaints of police abuse, a demand that was ultimately met. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. had become chairman of the House Committee of Education and Labor at the start of the 1960s, and was able to use this position to direct federal funds to various development projects back home.
The influence of the southern nonviolent protest movement was muted in Harlem. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the black leader most respected in Harlem, but at least two dozen groups of black nationalists also operated in New York. The most important of these by far was the Nation of Islam, whose Temple Number Seven was run by Malcolm X from 1952 – 1963. Malcolm was assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights in 1965, and the neighborhood remains an important center for the Nation of Islam.
The largest public works projects in Harlem in these years was the construction of public housing, with the largest concentration in East Harlem. Typically, existing structures were torn down and replaced with city-designed and managed properties that would, in theory, present a safer and more pleasant environment than those available from private landlords. Ultimately, community objections halted the construction of new projects.
From the mid-20th century, the terrible quality of local schools has been a source of distress. In the 1960s, about 75% of Harlem students tested under the grade levels in reading skills, and 80% tested under grade level in math. In 1964, residents of Harlem staged two school boycotts to call attention to the problem. In central Harlem, 92% of students stayed home. In 1977, Isiah Robinson, president of the New York City Board of Education, was quoted as saying that “the quality of education in Harlem has degenerated to the level of a custodial service.” As of May 2006, Harlem is the heart of the charter schools movement in Manhattan; of the 25 charter schools operating in Manhattan, 18 are in Harlem.
In 1963, Inspector Lloyd Sealy made history becoming the first African American officer of the NYPD to command a police station, the 28th precinct located in Harlem. At this time however, community relations between Harlem residents and the NYPD were strained as civil rights activists requested that the NYPD hire more black police officers, specifically in Harlem. In 1964, across Harlem’s three precincts, the ratio was 1 black police officer for every 6 white officers. Police brutality and corruption was often alleged by Harlem residents to have occurred and with the low percentage of black officers on the NYPD, relations between the black community and the police department remained strained. A riot broke in the summer of 1964 following the fatal shooting of an unarmed 15-year-old black teenager by an off-duty white police lieutenant. One person was killed, more than 100 were injured, and hundreds more were arrested. Property damage and looting were extensive and the riot would later spread out of Manhattan and into the borough of Brooklyn into the community of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the heart of Brooklyn’s African American community. In the aftermath of the riots, the federal government funded a pilot program called Project Uplift, in which thousands of young people in Harlem were given jobs during the summer of 1965. The project was inspired by a report generated by HARYOU called Youth in the Ghetto, and HARYOU was given a major role in organizing the project, along with the National Urban League and nearly 100 smaller community organizations.
In 1966, the Black Panthers organized a group in Harlem, agitating for violence in pursuit of change. Speaking at a rally of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, Max Stanford, a Black Panther speaker, declared that the United States “could be brought down to its knees with a rag and some gasoline and a bottle.”
In 1968, Harlemites rioted after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Two died — one stabbed to death in a crowd and another trapped in a burning building. Mayor John Lindsay helped to quell the rioting by marching up Lenox Avenue in a “hail of bricks” to confront the angry crowds.
By some measures, the 1970s were the worst period in Harlem’s history. Many of those Harlemites who were able to escape from poverty left the neighborhood in search of safer streets, better schools and homes. Those who remained were the poorest and least skilled, with the fewest opportunities for success. Though the federal government’s Model Cities Program spent $100 million on job training, health care, education, public safety, sanitation, housing, and other projects over a ten-year period, Harlem showed no improvement.
The deterioration shows up starkly in the statistics of the period. In 1968, Harlem’s infant mortality rate had been 37 for each 1000 live births, as compared to 23.1 in the city as a whole. Over the next eight years, infant mortality for the city as whole improved to 19, while the rate in Harlem increased to 42.8, more than double. Statistics describing illness, drug addiction, housing quality, and education are similarly grim and typically show rapid deterioration in the 1970s. The wholesale abandonment of housing, described in the “Ghettoization” section above, was so pronounced that between 1976 and 1978 alone, central Harlem lost almost a third of its total population, and east Harlem lost about 27%. The neighborhood no longer had a functioning economy; stores were shuttered and by estimates published in 1971, 60% of the area’s economic life depended on the cash flow from the illegal “Numbers game” alone.
The worst part of Harlem was the “Bradhurst section” between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Edgecombe, from 139th Street through 155th. In 1991, this region was described in the New York Times as follows: “Since 1970, an exodus of residents has left behind the poor, the uneducated, the unemployed. Nearly two-thirds of the households have incomes below $10,000 a year. In a community with one of the highest crime rates in the city, garbage-strewn vacant lots and tumbledown tenements, many of them abandoned and sealed, contribute to the sense of danger and desolation that pervades much of the area.”
Plans for rectifying the situation often started with the restoration of 125th Street, long the economic heart of black Harlem. By the late 1970s, only marginalized and poor retail remained. Plans were drafted for a “Harlem International Trade Center,” which would have filled the entire block between 125th Street and 126th, from Lenox to Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, with an center for trade with the third world. A related retail complex was planned to the west, between Frederick Douglass Boulevard and St. Nicholas. However, this plan depended on $30 million in financing from the federal government, and with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency of the United States, it had no hope of being completed.
The city did provide one large construction project, though not so favored by residents. Starting in the 1960s and continuing through the 1970s, Harlemites fought the introduction of an immense sewage treatment plant, the North River Water Pollution Control Plant, on the Hudson River in West Harlem. A compromise was ultimately reached in which the plant was built with a state park, including extensive recreational facilities, on top. The park, called Riverbank State Park, was opened in 1993 (the sewage plant having been completed some years earlier).
By 1980, the City of New York owned 60% of all residential property in Harlem, and began auctioning these properties to the public in 1985. Only a small fraction would be sold at this time, and later scandals would temporarily halt the sales altogether.
The city’s sale of confiscated houses was intended to improve the community by placing property in the hands of people who would live in them and maintain them. In many cases, the city would even pay to completely renovate a property before selling it (by lottery) below market value. The program was soon beset by scandal — buyers were acquiring houses from the city, then making deals with churches or other charities in which they would inflate the appraised values of the properties and the church or charity would take out federally guaranteed 203(k) mortgage and buy it. The original buyer would realize a profit and the church or charity would default on the mortgage (presumably getting some kind of kickback from the developer). Abandoned shells were left to further deteriorate, and about a third of the properties sold by the city were tenements which still had tenants, who were left in particularly miserable conditions. These properties, and new restrictions on Harlem mortgages, bedeviled the area’s residential real estate market for years.
From 1987 through 1990, the city removed long-unused trolly tracks from 125th Street, laid new water mains and sewers, installed new sidewalks, curbs, traffic lights, street lights, and planted trees. Two years later, national chains opened branches on 125th Street for the first time — The Body Shop opened a store at 125th street and 5th Avenue (still extant as of 2007), and a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream franchise employing formerly homeless people opened across the street. The development of the region would leap forward a few years later with the introduction of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, which brought $300 million in development funds and $250 million in tax breaks.
Plans were laid for shopping malls, movie theaters, and museums. However, these plans were nearly derailed in 1995 by the “Freddy’s Fashion Mart” riot, which culminated in political arson and eight deaths. These riots did not resemble their predecessors, and were organized by black activists against Jewish shop owners on 125th street.
Five years later, the revitalization of 125th street resumed, with the construction of a Starbucks outlet backed in part by Magic Johnson (1999), the first supermarket in Harlem in 30 years, the Harlem USA retail complex, which included the first first-run movie theater in many years (2000), and a new home for the Studio Museum in Harlem (2001). In the same year, former president Bill Clinton took office space in Harlem. In 2002, a large retail and office complex called Harlem Center was completed at the corner of Lenox and 125th. There has been extensive new construction and rehabilitation of older buildings in the years since.
The Harlem World Magazine
cover Wedding issue 2009 .
In 2003 Harlem World Magazine, Harlem’s first lifestyle magazine was created by Daniel Tisdale, today’s HW’s Harlem leading local media company that distributes Harlem content.
The neighborhood’s changes have provoked some discontent. James David Manning, pastor of the ATLAH World Missionary church on Lenox Avenue, has received press for declaring a boycott on all Harlem shops, restaurants, other businesses, and churches other than his own. He believes that this will cause an economic crash that will drive out white residents and drop property values to a level his supporters can afford. There have been rallies against gentrification.
- 125th Street
- Abyssinian Baptist Church
- Apollo Theater
- Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
- Astor Row
- City College of New York
- Dunbar Apartments
- First Corinthian Baptist Church 
- Graham Court
- Hamilton Grange
- Hamilton Heights 
- Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts
- Harlem Hospital Center
- The Harlem School of the Arts
- Harlem Stage
- Harlem World Magazine
- Harlem YMCA
- Hotel Theresa
- James Bailey House
- Langston Hughes House 
- La Marqueta
- Lenox Lounge
- Minton’s Playhouse
- Morningside Park
- Mount Morris Park Historic District
- Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Mount Sinai Hospital, New York
- El Museo Del Barrio
- Museum of the City of New York
- National Black Theater
- Rucker Park
- St. Martin’s Episcopal Church  (formerly Trinity Church) designed by William Appleton Potter
- Savoy Ballroom (no longer open)
- St. Nicholas Houses
- Strivers’ Row
- Studio Museum in Harlem
- Sylvia’s Soul Food
The New York Public Library operates the Harlem Branch Library at 9 West 124th Street, the 115th Street Branch Library at 203 West 115th Street, and the 125th Street Branch Library at 224 East 125th Street, near Third Avenue.
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