Harlem and Upper Manhattan
Stretching roughly from 110th to 168th Streets, between the Harlem and Hudson Rivers, Harlem is one of New York City’s most historic and least understood neighborhoods. Once written off as a crime-infested no-man’s-land, it’s actually always been quite a diverse place, with many streets that are well-worn rather than raw, and a landscape studded with an impressive number of elegant brownstones and churches.
The area is divided into West/Central Harlem—composed mostly of African Americans—and East Harlem, home to many Latinos and some Italians. To the north of 155th Street is Washington Heights, home to the Cloisters and inspiration for 2007 Tony-Award Winning Best Musical, In the Heights.
Harlem is currently in the midst of what some are calling the Second Harlem Renaissance. Much of Harlem can safely be explored on foot. The areas around 116th Street, 125th Street, and the Schomburg Center, especially, are always crowded with people. It’s still best to stick to the main streets, however, and avoid the parks.
In Harlem, many numbered avenues take on proper names. Sixth Avenue is Lenox Avenue or Malcolm X Boulevard; 7th Avenue is Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard (ACP Blvd.); and 8th Avenue is Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
Established as Nieuw Haarlem in 1658, Harlem remained a quiet farming community until 1837. Then the Harlem Railroad arrived, bringing with it hundreds of new settlers. In 1873, the village was annexed to New York City, and by the early 1900s, it was an affluent white suburb.
In 1901, the IRT subway was extended along Lenox Avenue and wealthy speculators, seeing the chance to make millions, built row after row of attractive townhouses. But they overextended themselves, and sales were slow. When a black realtor offered to fill the empty buildings with black tenants, the developers jumped at the chance. Fearing racial changes, the neighborhood’s white residents fled.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Harlem was the country’s African American cultural center. The Harlem Renaissance bloomed, attracting writers and intellectuals such as Langston Hughes and W. E. B. DuBois, while the streets were jammed with jazz clubs, theaters, dance halls, and speakeasies. Duke Ellington played at the Cotton Club, Chick Webb at the Savoy.
Harlem lost much of this vibrancy during and after the Depression, when poverty began taking a stronger hold. In the 1960s, civil rights leaders Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and others turned the neighborhood into a mecca for black consciousness.
© Avalon Travel and Sascha Zuger from Moon New York State, 5th Edition