Harlem has been defined by a series of boom-and-bust
cycles, with significant ethnic shifts accompanying each cycle. Black
residents began to arrive en masse in 1904, with numbers fed by the Great Migration. In the 1920s and 1930s, the neighborhood was the focus of the "Harlem Renaissance",
an outpouring of artistic and professional works 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.
New York's revival in the late 20th century has led to renewal in
Harlem as well. By 1995, Harlem was experiencing social and economic gentrification. Though the percentage of residents who are black peaked in 1950, the area remains predominantly black.
Harlem stretches from the East River west to
the Hudson River between 155th Street; where it meets Washington
Heights—to a ragged border along the south. Central Harlem begins at
110th Street, at the northern boundary of Central Park; Spanish Harlem is in Eastern Harlem and extends south to 96th Street, while in the west the neighborhood begins north of Upper West Side, which gives an irregular border west of Morningside Avenue. Harlem's boundaries have changed over the years; as Ralph Ellison said, "Wherever Negroes live uptown is considered Harlem."
The neighborhood contains a number of smaller, cohesive districts. The following are some examples:
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.
The earliest activism by blacks to change the situation in Harlem itself grew out of the Great Depression, with the "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" movement. This was the ultimately successful campaign to force retail shops on 125th Street to hire black employees. Boycotts
were originally organized by the Citizens' League for Fair Play in June
1934 against Blumstein's Department Store on 125th Street. The store
soon agreed to more fully integrate its staff. This success emboldened
Harlem residents, and protests continued under other leadership,
including that of preacher and later congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.,
seeking to change hiring practices at other stores, to effect the
hiring of more black workers, or the hiring of members of particular
Communism gained a following in Harlem in the 1930s, and continued to play a role through the 1940s. 1935 saw the first of Harlem's five riots.
The incident started with a (false) rumor that a boy caught stealing
from a store on 125th Street had been killed by the police. By the time
it was over, 600 stores had been looted and three men were dead. The
same year saw internationalism in Harlem politics, as Harlemites
responded to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia by holding giant rallies, signing petitions and sending an appeal to the League of Nations. Such internationalism continued intermittently, including broad demonstrations in favor of Egyptian president Nasser after the Suez invasion of 1956.
Black Harlemites took positions in the elected political infrastructure of New York starting in 1941 with the election of Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
to the City Council. He was easily elected to Congress when a
congressional district was placed in Harlem in 1944, leaving his City
Council seat to be won by another black Harlemite, Benjamin J. Davis.
Ironically, Harlem's political strength soon deteriorated, as Clayton
Powell, Jr. spent his time in Washington or his vacation home in Puerto Rico, and Davis was jailed in 1951 for violations of the Smith Act.
The year 1943 saw the second Harlem riot. A black soldier knocked
down a policeman who then shot him. An onlooker shouted that the soldier
had been killed, and this news spread throughout the black community
and provoked rioting. A force of 6,600, made up of city police, military
police and civil patrolmen, in addition to 8,000 State Guardsmen and
1,500 civilian volunteers was required to end the violence. Hundreds of
businesses were destroyed and looted, the property damage approaching
$225,000. Overall, six people died and 185 were injured. Five hundred
people were arrested in connection with the riot.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Harlem was the scene of a series of rent strikes by neighborhood tenants, led by local activist Jesse Gray, together with the Congress of Racial Equality, Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited
(HARYOU), and other groups. These groups wanted the city to force
landlords to improve the quality of housing by bringing them up to code,
to take action against rats and roaches, to provide heat during the
winter, and to keep prices in line with existing rent control
regulations. According to the Metropolitan Council on Housing, in the mid-1960s, about 25% of the city's landlords charged more for rent than allowed by law.
Many groups mobilized in Harlem in the 1960s, fighting for better
schools, jobs, and housing. Some were peaceful and others advocated
violence. By the early 1960s, the Congress of Racial Equality
(CORE) had offices on 125th street, and acted as negotiator for the
community with the city, especially in times of racial unrest. They
pressed for civilian review boards to hear complaints of police abuse,
a demand that was ultimately met. As chairman of the House Committee of
Education and Labor at the start of the 1960s, Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
used this position to direct federal funds to various development
projects in Harlem.
The influence of the southern nonviolent protest movement was muted in Harlem. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the black leader most respected in Harlem, but at least two dozen groups of black nationalists also operated in New York. The most important of these was the Nation of Islam, whose Temple Number Seven was run by Malcolm X from 1952–1963. Malcolm X was assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights in 1965. The neighborhood remains an important center for the Nation of Islam.
The largest public works projects in Harlem in these years were
public housing, with the largest concentration built in East Harlem.
Typically, existing structures were torn down and replaced with
city-designed and managed properties that would, in theory, present a
safer and more pleasant environment than those available from private
landlords. Ultimately, community objections halted the construction of
From the mid-20th century, the terrible quality of local schools has
been a source of distress. In the 1960s, about 75% of Harlem students
tested under grade levels in reading skills, and 80% tested under grade
level in math.
In 1964, residents of Harlem staged two school boycotts to call
attention to the problem. In central Harlem, 92% of students stayed
In 1963, Inspector Lloyd Sealy became the first African-American officer of the NYPD to command a police station, the 28th precinct in Harlem.
Community relations between Harlem residents and the NYPD were strained
as civil rights activists requested that the NYPD hire more black
police officers, specifically in Harlem. In 1964, across Harlem's three
precincts, the ratio was one black police officer for every six white
officers. A riot
broke in the summer of 1964 following the fatal shooting of an unarmed
15-year-old black teenager by an off-duty white police lieutenant. One
person was killed, more than 100 were injured, and hundreds more were
arrested. Property damage and looting were extensive. The riot would
later spread out of Manhattan and into the borough of Brooklyn and
neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the heart of Brooklyn's African-American community. In the aftermath of the riots, the federal government funded a pilot program called Project Uplift,
in which thousands of young people in Harlem were given jobs during the
summer of 1965. The project was inspired by a report generated by HARYOU called Youth in the Ghetto. HARYOU was given a major role in organizing the project, along with the National Urban League and nearly 100 smaller community organizations.
In 1968, Harlemites rioted after the assassination of Martin Luther
King, Jr., as did black residents in other U.S. cities. Two people
died—one stabbed to death in a crowd and another trapped in a burning
building. Mayor John Lindsay helped to quell the rioting by marching up Lenox Avenue in a "hail of bricks" to confront the angry crowds.
reached its lowest in this period. Plans for rectifying the situation
often started with the restoration of 125th Street, long the economic
heart of black Harlem. By the late 1970s, only marginalized and poor retail remained.
Plans were drafted for a "Harlem International Trade Center," which
would have filled the entire block between 125th Street and 126th, from
Lenox to Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, with a center for trade with
the third world.
A related retail complex was planned to the west, between Frederick
Douglass Boulevard and St. Nicholas. However, this plan depended on $30
million in financing from the federal government, and with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency of the United States, it had no hope of being completed.
The city did provide one large construction project, though not so
favored by residents. Starting in the 1960s and continuing through the
1970s, Harlemites fought the introduction of an immense sewage treatment
plant, the North River Water Pollution Control Plant, on the Hudson River in West Harlem.
A compromise was ultimately reached in which the plant was built with a
state park, including extensive recreational facilities, on top. The
park, called Riverbank State Park, was opened in 1993 (the sewage plant having been completed some years earlier).
of Harlem restarted around 1990, thanks in part to the institution of
the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone. Plans were laid for shopping
malls, movie theaters, and museums. However, these plans were nearly
derailed in 1995 by the "Freddy's Fashion Mart" riot, which culminated
in political arson and eight deaths. These riots did not resemble their
predecessors, and were organized by black activists against Jewish shop
owners on 125th street.
Five years later, the revitalization of 125th Street resumed, with the construction of a Starbucks outlet backed in part by Magic Johnson (1999), the first supermarket in Harlem in 30 years, the Harlem USA retail complex, which included the first first-run movie theater in many years (2000), and a new home for the Studio Museum in Harlem (2001). In the same year, former president Bill Clinton
took office space in Harlem. In 2002, a large retail and office complex
called Harlem Center was completed at the corner of Lenox and 125th. There has been extensive new construction and rehabilitation of older buildings in the years since.
The neighborhood's changes have provoked some discontent. James David Manning,
pastor of the ATLAH World Missionary church on Lenox Avenue, has
received press for declaring a boycott on all Harlem shops, restaurants,
other businesses, and churches other than his own. He believes that
this will cause an economic crash that will drive out white residents
and drop property values to a level his supporters can afford. There have been rallies against gentrification.
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