New York: Harlem Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The area of central Harlem, a residential neighborhood of Manhattan, is approximately two and a half square miles. Its historic landmarks include St. Nicholas Historic District (“Striver’s Row”), West 138th and 139th Streets between 7th and 8th Avenues; Hamilton Heights Historic District, Convent Avenue between West 141st and 145th; Alexander Hamilton’s country home (Hamilton Grange), at 287 Convent Avenue; and Jumel Terrace Historic District, between West 160th and 162d Streets, which includes the Morris-Jumel Mansion, a colonial era estate once home to Aaron Burr. A large number of its existing structures were built in the period between 1880 and 1910. Much of Harlem is now in disrepair.

Site Office

Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce

1 West 125th Street, Suite 206

New York, NY 10027

ph.: (212) 427-7200

Harlem has been many things to many people. For a time it was an open gate to opportunity and achievement; for most who have been drawn there, it is the last stop on a hard road. In approximately 350 years of existence it has evolved from a rural village to a prosperous suburb, from an upper- and middle-income neighborhood of the city to a primary cultural center of the world. For much of the twentieth century it has been a ghetto.

The landscape of Harlem is different now, physically, from the rest of Manhattan; the buildings are generally lower than the high-rise office and apartment buildings downtown, the north-south boulevards are wider than the avenues running through midtown. It is hillier than the southern portions of the island. The neighborhood is less integrated than any other in Manhattan, the west side being populated almost entirely by African Americans, the east by Latinos. Very few whites are seen there.

Once called the “Capital of Negro America,” Harlem no longer makes that claim. The title was contested even at the time it was conferred (from the 1920’s to the 1940’s), and now almost half of what was black Harlem is Spanish Harlem. With shifting population patterns, integration, and other changes in the United States, no community could now call itself the Capital of Black America with any real validity. Yet Harlem is, without doubt, the most storied and famous black community of America, and perhaps the world. It was, and to some extent still is, the focal point of African American culture, and as such, has been home and hothouse to much of that which is great in American culture.

Early History

Though the Dutch had purchased Manhattan from the natives when the first European settlers arrived in Harlem in 1636, they battled the Indians for nearly a decade before establishing a colony there. In 1658 this area was incorporated as the village of New Harlem and received military protection from Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of New Amsterdam, the small city on the south end of the island.

By 1664, New Amsterdam was a British city, and in the 1670’s black slaves built a wagon road connecting Harlem to what was now called New York. For the next two centuries, however, Harlem remained a mostly isolated, quiet, country village. Part of the area was good farmland; other parts were worthless marsh. Through the colonial period to about 1850, some of New York’s wealthiest families kept estates there. Alexander Hamilton lived in Harlem, and his family continued to own land there a hundred years later.

By the 1830’s much of the land was worn out from overuse. Farms were abandoned, and shanties sprung up on parcels of former estates. Squatters (mostly Irish immigrants) set up shacks, and land that could be sold was sold on the cheap. For lack of buyers, New York City purchased property there and sold off what it could. By 1838, the area was thought to be worthless, too remote to draw any substantial investment or interest. Though the coming of the railroad in 1837 promised easier access to the city, the New York and Harlem Railroad gained a reputation for unreliability. It did not entice many people north for years to come.

By the 1860’s, wealthy New Yorkers were again in Harlem, not to work but to get away from work. Harlem was New York’s first suburb. The wooded precincts were rustic and secluded, far from the noises of city life. The views of the river from its isolated promontories, the brooks and streams running thick with fish, and its very underdevelopment drew the downtown swells. Until the 1880’s Harlem was a rural retreat for well-to-do gentlemen weary from their labors.

In 1880 more than a million people were living on Manhattan Island. Harlem was annexed to New York in 1873 (due to its size the village never needed any formal town government). New York’s population was rising fast and prospects for its northern regions made real estate speculators feverish. By 1886, two more elevated railroads carried commuters north to Harlem. A building boom ensued, and by 1890 Harlem was one of the most desirable neighborhoods in New York. August Belmont and Oscar Hammerstein I bought property there.

Multiethnic Communities

Black people had lived in Harlem continously, almost from its founding. The first blacks to live in Harlem were slaves working its farms and estates in the seventeeth century. After slavery was abolished in New York, July 4, 1827, some blacks continued to live in the area as farmers, servants, and squatters. In the Civil War Draft Riots of 1863, whites in New York attacked blacks; in Harlem, black families were burned out of their homes. Most of the black population then lived in pockets of the city farther south, and when Harlem became home to the city’s upper crust in the 1870’s and 1880’s, the number of blacks there increased as well. Mostly servants, they had churches, clubs, even a political organization. Still, only small parts of Harlem were black.

The other side of Harlem, the east side, was an Italian ghetto in the 1890’s. The buildings there were built as tenements, and those that remain are still tenements. Neither Italians nor blacks, scattered though they were, were much welcomed by their more affluent neighbors. Local newspapers inveighed against them, and housing discrimination was common practice.

Jews seeking a way out of their ghetto on the Lower East Side bought land in central and east Harlem, and for a short period of time much of Harlem was Jewish. The Jews, too, were not welcomed, and they frequently bought land through fronts, a practice later used by blacks.

Mostly, however, the well-to-do did not care about the poor. New construction was everywhere and land speculation occupied residents and nonresidents alike. Fortunes were made as land values tripled. Built for the gentry, the new homes and apartment houses were grand, with large, airy rooms. By 1904 many of these were empty; they had been built for a gentry that never arrived. The population of New York soared, but not its number of wealthy. Harlem was overbuilt, at too great an expense for rents to be affordable to most people. Buildings sat vacant; mortgages were foreclosed. The gusher was shut and money was lost by the bucketful, until a black realtor, Philip A. Payton, saw the vacancies as an opportunity. Nearly thirty years later, James Weldon Johnson wrote of Payton,

When Negro New Yorkers evaluate their own benefactors in their own race, they must find that not many have done more than Phil Payton; for much of what has made Harlem the intellectual and artistic capital of the Negro world is in good part due to this fundamental advantage: Harlem has provided New York Negroes with better, cleaner, more modern, more airy, more sunny houses than they ever lived in before.

Harlem’s African American Population

A large part of the black population of Manhattan lived in the Tenderloin, but this area was in the process of being razed to make way for Penn Station. Blacks had to go somewhere. Some white landlords, facing financial disaster, were more than willing to make dollars off blacks. Payton rented apartment houses from the owners, then rerented the apartments to blacks for a 10 percent profit. He was so successful that by the time the building boom had gone completely bust, in 1904, he founded the Afro-American Realty Company and set to buy Harlem for black people.

In one of the company’s first transactions, Payton rapidly bought and then sold three houses on West 135th Street to a white-owned company. When the white-owned company evicted the black tenants, Payton bought two other houses on the street and evicted the white tenants from them. Not long after that, the white-owned company sold the first three houses back to Payton. This action made all the newspapers, and made the Afro-American Realty Company famous. As the blacks moved in, the whites, Jews, Italians, the remains of the Irish, and the gentry fled. The blacks were in Harlem to stay.

The Afro-American Realty Company was not. Payton enjoyed a brief heyday, but the resources of his company became overextended in badly timed speculative land deals. A nationwide recession in 1907 and 1908 depleted its capital, and by 1908 it had dissolved. Its properties changed hands once again.

What Payton had begun, others continued. They did so in the face of overt hostility and organized opposition, but those blacks who had tasted the better life offered in Harlem told their friends, their relatives, and their relatives’ friends. They came from other parts of New York City, from all of the islands of the West Indies, and (particularly with the coming of World War I) from the American South. The North needed hands in its industries to replace those who had marched to war; it did not matter what color those hands were. Labor agents were sent south to entice the workers north. Offered better money, better living conditions, and paid transportation, they came. For many of the rural black people in the South, the move seemed like a new chance at freedom, and, for a time, it was.

Harlem During the 1920’s

With the end of World War I, America boomed, and the black people of Harlem began enjoying a prosperity they had never before known. Enough money trickled uptown from the gusher on Wall Street to fill a respectable stream through Harlem. Blacks continued to buy real estate throughout the 1920’s, and by 1930 a local realtor estimated the value of black holdings as between fifty million and sixty million dollars.

Though Harlem had become black against the will of many whites, the change had taken place without violence. This was not the case in other cities around the country. Unlike other black ghettos, Harlem was centrally located, with highways and railroads running through it. The employment of blacks in New York was more diversified than in other cities. Gang labor, with its attendant segregation, was the rule in other American cities; in New York it did not exist.

So, for some, Harlem in the 1920’s became paradise. Here was a safe haven in the midst of a dominant, frequently hostile white world, an opportunity at freedom. Through the 1920’s Harlem made its mark on the world. In what became known as the Harlem Renaissance, black artists and thinkers formed a community preeminent on the world stage. A short list of their names reads like a Who’s Who of American arts and letters. W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, and James Weldon Johnson shared the neighborhood with W. C. Handy, Duke Ellington, and Paul Robeson, to name only a few. Harlem style was envied and copied by blacks and whites. The 1920’s were called the Jazz Age, and the sound of the era was mostly made in Harlem.

The creativity flowing through the little community (then only two square miles) created pride and a sense of anticipation. The “Tree of Hope,” a gathering place at 7th Avenue and 131st Street, became a symbol to a generation of disenfranchised black people, and they were drawn to that hope from all over the Americas. Some black people grew wealthy and bought grand homes on what came to be known as Striver’s Row, two blocks of 138th and 139th Streets between 7th and 8th Avenues. These are still thought to be some of the nicest row houses in New York. Harlem nightspots were renowned everywhere–the Cotton Club and Small’s Paradise were spoken of in the same breath as the Folies Bergère, and the Apollo Theatre was as famous as any theater in New York.

For many of the new arrivals, Harlem was nowhere near the promised land. The Cotton Club was open to black performers, closed to black audiences. Blacks looking for employment still faced frequently overwhelming odds, and generally the jobs they could get were the worst paid in town. Streaming into Harlem, they were stuffed into buildings that were already overcrowded, overpriced, and underkept. Like many of the established residents, most of the newcomers were poor, but the place was bustling.

Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association

Harlemites were the first to hear the call to a new paradise, to be built in the midst of the old. The call to Africa was sounded by Marcus Garvey, whose rise and fall were equally meteoric. Born in Jamaica in 1887, Garvey made his first appearance on a Harlem stage in 1917. By 1919 he headed a large organization (the Universal Negro Improvement Association), published a newspaper (Negro World), and had built a theater for rallies (Liberty Hall) that held between five and six thousand people. At a rally in August of that year he announced a plan to form a republic in Africa. Poor blacks scraped donations together to buy ships for the Black Star Line, a fleet of ships that would take them home to Africa. By the end of 1921, the Black Star Line, awash in bills but not much more, sank. Not long after that, the Back to Africa movement crumbled also.

Garvey was jailed for fraud and eventually deported back to Jamaica. People had donated to the Black Star Line, but they did not book passage on it. Most blacks thought there was still a chance for opportunity in America and would not give up the struggle in the United States for a dream land that might well never exist. Yet, Garvey’s ideas inspired many. A park in Harlem is named for him.

The Depression Years

When the Great Depression hit in 1930, it hit Harlem hard. Blacks were “last hired, first fired.” The black businessmen of Harlem owned small businesses such as barbershops and grocery stores, which were swept away in the destruction of the economy. By 1930 the population of central, black Harlem, was 300,000, an estimated 334 people on each acre. The “fine, airy” houses had been made over into rooming houses. The tenements of east Harlem had been built as tenements, but now in the better houses, bathrooms were sometimes being used for bedrooms. The neighborhood, part slum to begin with, began to slide.

From the beginning of the Depression to the end of World War II, Harlem declined dramatically. The magnet that once inspired hope now inspired dread. Blacks rented it, whites owned it once again. The Harlem Renaissance was long gone, its lights moved on, and Harlem itself was given over to a greater poverty than before. There were riots in 1935 and 1943, and though the area still drew whites “slumming” after dark, the tensions and crime caused Harlem to be declared off-limits to white servicemen during the war.

Harlem was not all slum, by any means, just as it is not now. Though some of its great nightclubs had moved downtown, the churches remained, as did the working people. Celebrities still called Harlem home: Cab Calloway, James Baldwin, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and long-time resident Duke Ellington. Langston Hughes remained, joined by James Baldwin, Harlem born and bred. W. E. B. Du Bois continued to live there, as did Thurgood Marshall, then a lawyer, later the first black on the United States Supreme Court. The first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, lived on Sugar Hill at the same time as Joe Louis. A local spiritual leader, Father Divine, was known all over the world, and the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who had succeeded his father as pastor of the Abyssinian Church, had been elected to Congress, the first black from New York to enter that body. He remained there for over twenty years.

Despite the general suffering, a spirit of community continued. Held throughout Harlem, rent parties were open to anyone and helped pay the bills. The corner of 125th Street and 7th Avenue became famous for soapbox sermons; anyone with a box and a mouth could gather a crowd. Harlem slang was imitated everywhere. Its fashions were characterized by the oversized, billowing zoot suit, available in all the primary colors.

There were drugs in Harlem, too. Cocaine was sold by the spoon, and marijuana was easy to find. Drugs did not take over the neighborhood until the appearance of heroin, sometime in the late 1940’s. By the early 1950’s heroin ruled its streets. Heroin addiction soon became epidemic in Harlem, destroying already fragile family ties and increasing crime in every category. The white powder blanketed the community and no one in Harlem was unaffected by it. As in other poor areas partially dependent on an underground economy and already conditioned to illicit trading in drugs and other contraband, heroin made an easy entry into Harlem life. However, heroin was different. In his novel Manchild in the Promised Land (1965), Claude Brown wrote,

Fathers were picking up guns and saying, “Now look, if you (expletive) wit that rent money, I’m gon kill you,” and they meant it. Cats were taking butcher knives and going at their fathers because they had to have money to get drugs. Anybody who was standing in the way of a drug addict when his habit was down on him–from mother or father on down–was risking his life.

Harlem in the Late Twentieth Century

By 1960, the population of Harlem was approximately 200,000, down one-third from the halcyon days of 1930. Those who could get out, did. Yet Harlem still drew people of talent and ambition. Malcolm X moved there in the mid-1950’s and, based in Harlem, established himself as a leader in the Nation of Islam (the Black Muslims). He grew to national prominence as a spokesman for black frustration and pride.

The Nation of Islam had been established by Elijah Muhammad in Chicago. Malcolm X, a career criminal, was first converted to the movement in prison. Besides offering an explanation of the genesis of the races, the Black Muslims preached self-discipline, separatism, unity, and pride. Members did not drink, swear, or use drugs. After some very highly publicized confrontations with the New York City police, the Black Muslims were held in some awe by people in Harlem. As the leader and spokesman of the Harlem mosque, Malcolm X soon received more attention than Elijah Muhammad. His meteoric career saw him change his views on separatism before he was gunned down in a Harlem theater in 1964.

While most of Harlem was still black then, as it is now, Puerto Ricans had been moving into East Harlem since the 1920’s. They had become predominant there and were extending west. By the late 1950’s, the stream of immigrants from Puerto Rico had become torrential, and Spanish Harlem, also called El Barrio, became almost a city unto itself, coexisting uneasily with black Harlem.

Government had always been represented in Harlem by policemen and social workers, but after the nationwide riots of the 1960’s and the advent of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, government became ubiquitous. Some of these programs, such as Head Start, won praise. Infant mortality rates were lowered as well. However, the welfare system was much criticized by both whites and blacks for creating a permanent class of poor people, unfit to compete in society. By 1990, more than 44 percent of the population of Harlem received public assistance.

As the buildings aged, some of the worst-kept of them grew to be less than profitable. Torching these buildings for the insurance money became commonplace among the frequently absentee and mostly white landlords. Once burned, these buildings were not rebuilt. Abandoned buildings became homes to drug addicts and other squatters. As the number of consumers dwindled, so did the number of legal businesses. Much of Harlem became an urban moonscape, pocked with vacant lots and empty, forbidding, burned-out buildings. Much of it remains so. As dangerous as the neighborhood might have seemed to a visitor, it was more so to the residents.

Signs of Rejuvenation

Due to escalating Manhattan land values in the 1980’s, some forecast a new building boom in Harlem, for the same reasons that had caused the boom in the 1880’s: too many people, not enough space. However, the stock market crash of 1987 stalled speculation. By the 1980’s central Harlem did not even have a public high school, and New York City owned 65 percent of the land. In 1990 the population of Harlem was estimated at under 100,000, and what had once been a mecca for African Americans held only 5 percent of New York’s black population. In 1930 that figure had been 72 percent. The median household income was lower than it had been in 1960.

There were some signs of life in the rubble. The Apollo Theater was renovated, and, spotlighting local acts, it broadcast a weekly show on national television. Harlem performers continued to influence popular music–rap and hip-hop were nurtured there–and black writers such as Toni Morrison were still enraptured by the neighborhood. Wealthy blacks owned homes worth half a million dollars on Striver’s Row, a block away from slum-bred squalor. Performers from the streets of Spanish Harlem became famous, making salsa music internationally known. Drug use among the young was down, and gentrification in the form of apartment rehabs was slowly taking place. Buildings along 125th Street had been cleaned. A ragged hotel on 116th and 8th, prominent in the heroin trade, was torn down. Some residents began to worry about whites moving into the neighborhood.

Harlem in the 1990’s stands both in history and outside of it, with a checkered past sometimes glorious, and an uncertain future. It may never again be more than what it is now, no longer the Capital of Negro America, but a center of African American culture, and as such, central to all American culture.

For Further Information
  • Brown, Claude. Manchild in the Promised Land. 1965. Reprint. London: Touchstone, 2000. The autobiography of the author, who grew up in the Harlem of the 1940’s. This is one of the great American autobiographies, absorbing and frequently amazing.
  • Johnson, James Weldon. Black Manhattan. 1930. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1991. An overview of black people’s achievements and struggles in New York, particularly of the Harlem Renaissance, written by one who was there for many of its events. It is a sober account, dense with fact; it is well-researched history, on-the-scene reportage, and, occasionally, soul-stirring tract, all in one.
  • McKay, Claude. Harlem: Negro Metropolis. 1940. Reprint. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968. A prose poem by a Harlem Renaissance writer, biased and highly readable.
  • Marks, Carole, and Diana Edkins. The Power of Pride: Stylemakers and Rulebreakers of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Crown, 1999. An examination of African American intellectual and artistic life during the Harlem Renaissance.
  • Osofsky, Gilbert. Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto: Negro New York 1890-1930. 2d ed. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996. An exhaustive historical and sociological study. Much of its information is drawn directly from primary sources, and these are abundantly quoted, occasionally reproduced.
Categories: History