Today’s Harlem has a celebrity chef whipping up gourmet cornbread for President Barack Obama, a new Starwood Hotel featuring loft-style rooms geared toward an urban tech-savvy clientele, a newly opened 174,000-square-foot Target big-box store that carries everything from Spanish-language greeting cards to multicultural dolls to locally-produced Southern food. There’s even an intimate speakeasy tucked away on Frederick Douglass Boulevard offering up live jazz from up and coming local musicians and staffed with aspiring models serving up couture cocktails.
Harlem continues to be one of the most recognizable neighborhoods in the world. During the much romanticized Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, the explosion of nightlife was so legendary we’re still talking about it 90 years later.
Harlem extends from the East River West to the Hudson River between 155th and 96th streets and is comprised of seven neighborhoods: Hamilton Heights, Mount Morris Park, Manhanttanville, Strivers Row, Astor Row, Morris Jumel Landmark District and East Harlem.
Like any other New York City neighborhood, the community has undergone radical changes but Harlem today is in flux, and thanks to an infusion of shops, restaurants, bars, jazz venues, and a former president’s post-White House office, is once again, in full Renaissance mode.
Dutch settlers founded Harlem in 1658 and Governor Peter Stuyvesant named the town Nieuw Haarlem after a city in Holland. Due to its fertile soil the area was comprised mostly of farmland and the economy centered on agriculture for nearly 200 years.
The New York and Harlem Railroad (currently Metro-North Railroad Harlem Line) was opened in stages between 1832 and 1852 between Lower Manhattan to and beyond Harlem into Westchester County. Initially using horses, the railroad line was eventually converted to steam engines and finally electricity. Upon completion of the railroad, hundreds of tenement buildings, row houses and multiple family apartment buildings were erected at break neck speed anticipating the masses from Lower Manhattan to occupy them.
The Panic of 1893, spurned on by railroad overbuilding and dubious railroad financing that set off a series of bank failures, stopped the rapid housing development in its tracks and thwarted real estate sales. When the economy recovered two years later building resumed in the form of apartment buildings and brownstones.
Ten years after the 1893 panic, a glut in Harlem housing led to another crash in real estate values. Landlords were finding it increasingly difficult to find renters for their properties, so real-estate entrepreneur Philip Payton Jr. (nicknamed the father of Harlem) saw an opportunity and stepped in and began buying properties. Payton’s Afro-American Realty Company has been credited with the movement of African-Americans from Greenwich Village, Hell’s Kitchen and San Juan Hill (Lincoln Center area) to Harlem.
The following year, Hudson Realty, a white-owned real estate company purchased a parcel of land on 135th Street and Lenox Avenue (the heart of Harlem) for residential development and also bought three nearby tenement buildings from Afro-American Realty. Hudson immediately evicted their African-American tenants and replaced them with white tenants, furthermore, Hudson’s builders only agreed to rent their properties to whites.
An angry Payton immediately purchased two adjacent apartment houses, evicted the white tenants and moved in the blacks that were evicted by Hudson. Evicted white residents were outraged, and took to burning signs advertising for African American tenants for their former buildings.
The New York Times called the actions of Hudson and Payton a “Real Estate Race War.”
Hudson eventually sold the three buildings back Payton at a large loss. The incident solidified Paytons’ reputation as a savvy real estate businessman and drew prominent African-American investors to his company.
The Great Migration
Around 1910, many African Americans from the South hoping to escape tenant farming and sharecropping began to arrive en masse in Harlem in search of higher wages in industrial jobs and better living conditions.
By the 1920s, over 200,000 African-Americans had settled in Harlem, the neighborhood had been virtually all-white only fifteen years earlier.
African American artists, painters, poets and musicians such as James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Nora Zeale Huston, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith and Billie Holliday, to name a few, descended on the area and Harlem became the epicenter of African-American cultural life. The Harlem Renaissance was christened.
A Neighborhood in Decline
During the Great Depression in the early 1930s, a quarter of Harlem residents were out of work and the effects were evident on the area’s poorly-maintained buildings and shuttered businesses.
The infamous Riot of 1935 was sparked by an unfounded rumor of a teenage boy being beaten to death after shoplifting a ten cent penknife from a Five-and-Dime store on 125th Street. By the time the young boy’s photograph was taken with a police officer and distributed throughout the area to prove the 16-year-old was alive, the damage had been done: Three deaths, numerous injuries and $2 million in property damages throughout the area. The riots also scared away those who had long supported Harlem’s entertainment industry, and area businesses suffered further.
Properties began to deteriorate at rapid speed and most landlords converted their buildings to ‘Single Room Occupancies.” The majority of these SROs were single room dwellings where tenants would share bathroom and kitchen facilities. But in most cases the income from SROs was not enough for landlords to pay city fines, taxes or basic maintenance upkeep so many of the buildings were abandoned.
With the 1980s came crack and heroin epidemics that enveloped Harlem to devastating effect. Open-air drug markets flourished and drug lords ruled the streets [i.e., see the 2007 crime film American Gangster] while addicts congregated in abandoned buildings. Harlem had become a hotbed of crime, drugs, abject poverty and blighted buildings.
By 1987, 65 percent of the buildings in Harlem were owned by the city of New York.
Mr. Clinton Goes to Harlem
Amidst much media attention in July 2001, Bill Clinton officially opened his post presidential office in Harlem at 55 West 125th Street two blocks from the legendary Apollo Theater. In his speech that day, Mr. Clinton told a cheering crowd, “Harlem always struck me as a place that was human and alive, where there was a rhythm to life and a song in the heart, where no matter how bad it was, people held up their heads and went on, and where, when things got good, people were grateful and cared about their neighbors.”
After years of false starts, Bill Clinton put a presidential stamp of approval on Harlem and the area began to see rapid gentrification.
Starbucks, a multiplex cinema, a Disney store and higher rents followed Mr. Clinton, along with young African-American professionals who could afford the inflated prices.
A New Harlem
Harlem continues to be an attractive place to live. Townhouses in Harlem sell for millions of dollars and Columbia University continues to expand into the area.
Young professionals live alongside, blue-collar workers and a diverse mixture of commuter families, who are lured to the area by a combination of location and affordability.
New restaurants like Red Rooster Harlem with celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson manning the grill and Moca & Chocolat have opened along with Harlem Lanes, a bowling alley and nightclub experience rolled into one. And when Target opened its doors last year it drew the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Russell Simmons, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Trachtenberg to its opening night gala.
Christy Smith-Sloman is an editorial assistant at The Cooperator.