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“In the history of New York,” begins James Weldon Johnson’s authoritative 1930s history Black Manhattan, “the significance of the name Harlem has changed from Dutch to Irish to Jewish to Negro” (p. 3). Though Johnson’s historical vantage was the dawn of the twentieth century, his observation is an ideal start for locating a fluid, rather than fixed, meaning for Harlem. His words pinpoint for his contemporaries, as well as later generations, three aspects of Harlem—its meaning, its transitions, and its multiethnicity—suggesting that it be infinitely defined in a shifting matrix of politics, economy, and culture.
Nieuw Harlem, as it was named by early Dutch settlers, was a farming community in the mid-1600s. Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Harlem belonged to the descendants of Dutch, French, and English settlers who oversaw its transition from an isolated, poor, and rural village to an upper- and uppermiddle-class residential suburb. By the 1840s and 1850s, as the land’s productivity declined, many estate owners sold off or abandoned their properties. Irish immigrants arrived in Harlem as squatters, establishing shantytowns as well as a territorial claim to street and neighborhood boundaries.
With the elevated train pushing farther north between 1878 and 1881, fashionable brownstones and exclusive apartments were built to house a genteel class. By the 1890s Harlem’s brownstone aristocracy lived alongside Irish and Italian immigrants who populated low-lying spaces, marshland, and peripheral areas filled with tenement housing. German immigrants, including German Jews, joined the wealthy native American and European immigrant population. Economic success in the late 1890s also pulled upwardly mobile Eastern European Jews out of the Lower East Side as they, too, became Harlemites. Harlem was even home to a “little Russia.”
In spite of its well-known reputation as the cultural capital of black America, Harlem had few black residents until a wave of white flight produced a remarkable transition at the beginning of the twentieth century. The “great subway proposition” to extend a streetcar line to Manhattan’s upper reaches spurred wild real-estate speculation in Harlem. A bust came in 1905, however, as speculators faced an uncertain completion date for the subway. To save themselves from financial ruin, landlords were willing to rent properties to blacks. As middlemen, black real estate agents such as Philip A. Payton Jr., founder of the Afro American Realty Company, John E. Nail, and Henry C. Parker steered clients to Harlem. Whites at first resisted, though in the end, established (white) tenants and white realtors were unsuccessful against what they called a “negro invasion.” As Jervis Anderson, a cultural historian of the Harlem Renaissance era, noted: “As the community became predominantly black, the very word ‘Harlem’ seemed to lose its old meaning” (1981, p. 60).
From about 1905, then, the formation of black Harlem was located at the spatial intersection of race relations and the demographic transformation of urbanizing America. The community, which covers 3,829 acres, is surrounded on all sides by the East, Harlem, and Hudson Rivers; its official boundaries run south to north from 96th Street to 178th Street in upper Manhattan. From the start of the twentieth century, however, Harlem has existed beyond geography.
From a period that roughly spans 1919 to 1929, the cultural movement defining the neighborhood’s heyday took place: the Harlem Renaissance. Black artists and intellectuals participated jointly in the creation of a new urban collective identity. As a center of urban black America, it was home to churches, hospitals, and other important social institutions that served a segregated community in Jim Crow America. The black “city within a city” exerted a magnetic pull as Harlem loomed large as a “symbol of liberty” and a “promised land.” As “queen of the blackbelts,” Harlem was a mecca for black activists, intellectuals, painters, and musicians. Its prominent writers included Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston. Harlem was a stage, too, for important political spokespersons such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, who used Harlem as a platform from which to challenge racist America.
Those were the years, wrote Langston Hughes, when “Harlem was in vogue” (Hughes 1986, p. 227). For white downtowners a variety of Harlem’s clubs offered a glimpse and a thrill beyond the color line. Establishments such as Connie’s Inn, the Nest, Small’s Paradise, the Capitol, the Cotton Club, the Green Cat, the Sugar Cane Club, Happy Rhones, the Hoofers Club, and the Little Savoy staged music and dance numbers and, skirting the ban of prohibition, offered booze to white “slummers” and curiosity seekers. Ironically, some of the clubs had a Jim Crow policy that allowed black performers but excluded blacks as customers.
No consensus holds about the precise end of the Harlem Renaissance. The 1929 American stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression, coupled with the end of Prohibition in 1933, loosely mark a transition to post-Renaissance Harlem. By the time of the 1935 Harlem Riot the luster was off. In a 1948 essay titled “Harlem Is Nowhere,” Ralph Ellison equated Harlem with madness, and argued that for “over four hundred thousand Americans … overcrowded and exploited politically and economically, Harlem is the scene and symbol of the Negro’s perpetual alienation in the land of his birth” (p. 296). From the 1930s to the 1960s, Harlem’s declining social conditions gave the neighborhood a sensationalist and decidedly negative reputation.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s urban renewal turned up on Harlem’s doorstep promising a turnaround. Within the community these slum clearance policies were derisively tagged “Negro removal.” This time Harlem’s transition became a struggle over whether redevelopment and reinvestment could coexist alongside preservation of its black cultural heritage. When 1980s noises of gentrification sounded through postindustrial urban America, they could be heard knocking at Harlem’s door. With the establishment of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone in the mid-1990s, an era of public and private investment was initiated in Harlem to offset years of decline and disinvestment. By 2000 Starbucks had arrived in Harlem, touching off complicated questions about who belongs in Harlem and to whom Harlem belongs. As far back as 1930, James Weldon Johnson had presciently asked: “Will the Negroes of Harlem be able to hold it?” (p. 158). At the dawn of the twenty-first century, gentrification offers a window into the past, present, and unknown future definition(s) of Harlem.
- Anderson, Jervis. 1981. This Was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait, 1900–1950. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- Ellison, Ralph.  1995. Harlem Is Nowhere. In Shadow and Act. New York: Vintage.
- Hughes, Langston.  1986. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press.
- Johnson, James Weldon. 1930. Black Manhattan. New York: Da Capo Press.
- Osofsky, Gilbert. 1971. Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto. 2nd ed. New York: Harper Torchbooks.
- Taylor, Monique. 2002. Harlem: Between Heaven and Hell. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
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