The Harlem of today was originally settled by Dutch farmers who dubbed the area Nieuw Haarlem in 1658 after the Dutch city of Harlem. Since it was so far removed from the more settled areas of New York during the Dutch, British and colonial periods, the area mostly remained an autonomous village. The flat, rich, eastern portion was utilized as fertile farmland, while some of New York’s most illustrious early families, like the Delanceys, Bleekers, Rikers, Beekmans, and Hamiltons kept large estates in the high western section of the land.
While much of the land was left untouched in the early 1800s, many of the farms suffered from decades of cultivation and depletion and were abandoned, leaving great estates to be sold at public auctions. It is then that the area became a refuge for those seeking cheap property and living space, especially immigrants, who gathered in the scattered shantytowns. Transport was by horsecar lines and a steamboat that ran summers from 125th Street to Peck Slip.
With the advent of newer and far better modes of transportation, in addition to the waves of increasing population following the Civil War, Harlem began to enjoy a transformation, becoming a middle- and upper-middle class neighborhood in the 1880s. Though the New York and Harlem Railroad had been in operation from lower Manhattan to Harlem since 1837, service had been unreliable, making the trip uncomfortably long. The true catalyst for new residential development came with the arrival of three elevated rail lines which, by 1881, traveled as far north as 129th Street, and went even further north by 1886.
First, tenements were built in East Harlem and apartments extended north from the Upper West Side. The population became increasingly German, with much of the housing consisting of brownstones. Between 1898 and 1904, several attractive “new law” tenements and spacious elevatored apartment buildings sprang into existence, driven by the addition of extended subway lines along Lenox Avenue. During this time, the area between 110th and 125th Streets attracted many eastern European Jews seeking to escape from the tenements of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. At this time, the black population was increasingly drawn to areas around 135th Street, which had far less racism and violence than other parts of the city. Though such organizations as the West Side Improvement Association tried to exclude blacks, they had little impact, as real estate agents welcomed all tenants willing to pay full rent for vacant apartments.
The Harlem Opera House was established in 1889 to service the growing Harlem population, and the Afro-American Realty Company of Philip Payton was particularly active in encouraging more black tenants to move to the neighborhood between 1904 and 1908. Several black churches began to form, including the St. James Presbyterian Church, which moved to Harlem from West 51st Street in 1914. And because it had the second largest Jewish population in the United States next to the Lower East Side, Harlem also gained a number of significant synagogues, including the Institutional Synagogue, founded in 1917 by Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein. By World War I, Harlem was experiencing another decline, due to severe overcrowding. Jews relocated to newer neighborhoods on the West Side and in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. Many of the large synagogue buildings were sold to churches during the 1920s and 30s. During this time, the number of blacks in Harlem increased to more than 200,000, mainly coming from the American South and the Caribbean. Soon the area attracted blacks from throughout the nation as economic opportunities continued to increase, coupled with a burgeoning cultural life.
The literary movement known as The Harlem Renaissance was launched by such prominent Harlem writers as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Zora Neale Hurston, making Harlem the urban cultural center of black America. Unique, distinctive painting styles were founded, while new forms of theater, dance, and comedy performance gained popularity at the Apollo Theater. Jazz music was born in the late 1920s from the efforts of early piano greats James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, and Willie Smith. For the next 25 years, such musicians as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Chick Webb performed big band jazz at Harlem nightclubs.
By the 1940s, the local branch of the YMCA had become a meeting place for black intellectuals, artists, and writers. The musical jazz style “bebop” was developed by local musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, and in its hey day, Harlem enjoyed its place as a symbolic neighborhood for black success and independence. Harlem was also the center for many outstanding black owned businesses and political activity.
|By the 1960s, the center for black cultural life had changed to Greenwich Village. Civil rights protests, demonstrations, and riots plagued Harlem through the 1970s, along with a decline in high school graduates. But in 1989, Harlem once again gained in stature with the election of Mayor David N. Dinkins, the first black mayor of New York City.
Today, Harlem continues to enjoy a resurgence of popularity. Even former President of the United States William Jefferson Clinton has chosen to establish his private office in Harlem. Students and professionals of all kinds flock to the area for good property values and increasing opportunity.
Morningside Heights Just north and west of Central Park is Morningside Heights, where a cultural outpost grew at the end of the 19th century, thanks to the emergence of the relocated Columbia University, St. Luke’s Hospital and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The cluster of academic and religious institutions that developed here somehow kept these blocks stable during years when the surrounding neighborhoods were collapsing. More recently, West Side gentrification has reclaimed the section to the south, while areas north and east have not changed much. This is an uptown student neighborhood mainly; while less trendy than the Village, it remains fun, friendly and intellectual.
Boys Choir of Harlem, 2005 Madison Avenue between 127th & 128th Streets, is a complete educational center that utilizes music as the motivator and catalyst for engaging students in the learning process. Music is the vehicle through which the students transfer their higher skills to academics, imagination and creativity. The center teaches students positive behaviors, social abilities, verbal and communications skills. Performances by the students of the Boys Choir of Harlem are world-renowned.