Harlem History


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Harlem is a large neighborhood within the northern section of the New York City borough of Manhattan. Since the 1920s, Harlem has been known as a major African-American residential, cultural and business center. Originally a Dutch village, formally organized in 1658, it is named after the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands. Harlem’s history has been defined by a series of economic boom-and-bust cycles, with significant population shifts accompanying each cycle.

Black residents began to arrive en masse in 1905, with numbers fed by the Great Migration. In the 1920s and 1930s, Central and West Harlem were the focus of the “Harlem Renaissance”, an outpouring of artistic work without precedent in the American black community. However, with job losses in the time of the Great Depression and the deindustrialization of New York City after World War II, rates of crime and poverty increased significantly.

Since New York City’s revival in the late 20th century, Harlem has been experiencing social and economic gentrification. However, Harlem still suffers from many social problems. Large portions of the population receive a form of income support from the government—with West, Central, and East Harlem respectively at 34.9%, 43.3%, and 46.5% of the population.

Harlem’s black population peaked in the 1950s, but the neighborhood is still predominantly black.

Map of Harlem; this map has excluded Morningside Heights as a part of Harlem

Harlem is located in Upper Manhattan—often referred to as Uptown by locals—and stretches from the East River west to the Hudson River between 155 Street, where it meets Washington Heights, to a ragged border along the south.

Central Harlem—Manhattan Community Board No. 10—is bounded by Fifth Avenue on the east, Central Park on the south, Morningside Park, Saint Nicholas and Edgecombe Avenues on the west and the Harlem River on the north. A chain of three large linear parks; Morningside, St. Nicholas and Jackie Robinson are situated on steeply rising banks and form most of the district’s western boundary. On the east, Fifth Avenue and Marcus Garvey Park, also known as Mount Morris Park, separate this area from East Harlem.

The West Harlem neighborhoods of Morningside Heights, Manhattanville and Hamilton Heights comprise Manhattan Community Board No. 9. The area is bounded by Cathedral Parkway (110th Street) on the South; 155th Street on the North; Manhattan/Morningside Ave/St. Nicholas/Bradhurst/Edgecome Avenues on the East; and the Hudson River on the west. Morningside Heights is located in the southern most section of West Harlem. Manhattanville begins at roughly 123rd Street and extends northward to 135th Street. The northern most section of West Harlem is Hamilton Heights.

East Harlem, within Manhattan Community Board 11, is bounded by East 96th Street on the south, East 142nd Street on the north, Fifth Avenue on the west and the Harlem River on the east.

The New York City Police Department 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 and 32nd Precincts, and the areas of East Harlem are served by the 23rd and 25th Precincts.

Harlem is represented by New York’s 13th 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.

Founded in the 17th century as a Dutch military outpost named Nieuw Haarlem, Harlem became successively a farming village, a revolutionary battlefield, an industrial suburb, a commuter town, an American ghetto, and a world renowned center of African-American culture.

Black Harlem has always been religious. The area is home to over 400 churches. Major Christian denominations include Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists (generally African Methodist Episcopalian, or “AME”), Episcopalians, and Roman Catholic. The Abyssinian Baptist Church has been a particularly potent organization, long influential because of its large congregation, and recently wealthy because its extensive real estate holdings. The Allah School in Mecca also lies in Harlem, which is the headquarter of the The Nation of Gods and Earths, better known as the Five Percenters. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints established a chapel at 128th Street in 2005.

Many of the area’s churches are “storefront churches”, which operate in an empty store, or a basement, or a converted brownstone townhouse. These congregations may have fewer than 30–50 members each, but there are hundreds of them. Others are old, large, and designated landmarks. Especially in the years before World War II, Harlem produced popular Christian charismatic “cult” leaders, including George Wilson Becton and Father Divine. Mosques in Harlem include the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque No. 7 (formerly Mosque No. 7 Nation of Islam, and the location of the 1972 Harlem Mosque incident), the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood and Masjid Aqsa. Judaism, too, maintains a presence in Harlem through the Old Broadway Synagogue. A non-mainstream synagogue of black Jews known as Commandment Keepers, was based in a synagogue at 1 West 123rd Street until 2008.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Central and West Harlem was the focus of the “Harlem Renaissance”, an outpouring of artistic work without precedent in the American black community.

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.

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.Some jazz venues, including most famously the Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington played, and Connie’s Inn, were restricted to whites only. Others were integrated, including the Renaissance Ballroom and the Savoy Ballroom.

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. Harlem lacked any permanent performance space until the creation of the Gatehouse Theater in an old Croton aqueduct building on 135th Street in 2006.

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 1989.

Harlem is also home to the largest African American Day Parade which celebrates the culture of African diaspora in America. The parade was started up in the spring of 1969 with Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. as the Grand Marshal of the first celebration.

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 contributions to hip-hop stems largely from artists with Harlem roots such as Kurtis Blow, Big L, Cam’ron, Immortal Technique, A$AP Rocky, Mase, and P. Diddy. Harlem is also the birthplace of popular hip-hop dances such as the Harlem shake, toe wop, and Chicken Noodle Soup.

Harlem is currently experiencing a gourmet renaissance with new dining hotspots popping up uptown around Frederick Douglass Boulevard.

Harlem 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. During the Great Depression, unemployment in Harlem went past twenty percent and people were being evicted from their homes.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.  Land owners took advantage of the neighborhood and offered apartments to the lower class families for cheaper rent but in lower class conditions.As of 1999, 179,000 housing units were available for the citizens of Harlem.[29] Housing activists in Harlem state that, even after residents were given vouchers for the Section 8 housing that was being placed, many were not able to live there and had to find homes elsewhere or become homeless. Infant mortality was 124 per thousand in 1928 . By 1940, infant mortality in Harlem was 5% (one infant in 20 would die), 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 citizens than among the rest of New York’s population.

A 1990 study reported that 15-year-old women in Harlem had a 65% chance of surviving to age 65, about the same as women in India. 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 consumption of the deep-fried foods traditional to the South, which may contribute to heart disease.

In the early 20th century, Harlem was a stronghold of the Italian Mafia. As the ethnic composition of the neighborhood changed, black criminals began to organize themselves similarly. However, rather than compete with the established mobs, gangs concentrated on the “policy racket,” also called the Numbers game, or bolita in Spanish Harlem. This was a 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. 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. The practice continues on a smaller scale among those who prefer the numbers tradition or who prefer to trust their local numbers bank to the state.

Statistics from 1940 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, much of the black middle class had departed. 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.

With the end of the “crack wars” in the mid-1990s and with the initiation of aggressive policing under mayor Rudolph Giuliani, crime in Harlem plummeted. 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. By 2000, only 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%.