For a long time, the historic significance of New York City’s quarter Harlem had been moved to the background in the face of crime rates and horror scenarios developed for it, which coined public perception. Meanwhile, a revitalization has taken place, there are now tourists on the streets and slowly, Harlem regains the image it deserves.
Harlem does not have fixed borders, but in general the area in the north of Manhattan, beginning at the northern end of Central Park, approximately from 110th Street up to 159th Street is considered Harlem. So-called Spanish Harlem begins a little more south, somewhere around 96th Street. To the West and East, Harlem is bordered by Hudson River and East River.
Looking at the densely populated streets of Harlem today it is not easy to believe that this area used to be farm land with a few farms here and there whose only connection to Manhattan was a tour by boat down the East River which took more than an hour. This situation changed rapidly in the 1880s upon the planned construction of a railway, overnight numerous apartment buildings and family homes were built and urban planners developed grand visions for the settlement which was considered elegant and affluent. But just as quick as property prices had skyrocketed they also plummeted again when the railway construction was delayed more and more. Quickly, many of the immigrants arriving in New York harbor in that time favorited the infrastructure that was already available and within a few years, thousands of them settled here. At first, mainly Eastern European Jews came here, until 1917, there were already around 150,000 there. However, many property owners struck against this population influx and rather rented out to other interested parties. This way, Italian Harlem developed, in the spot where today Spanish Harlem is. When property values decreased even further in the next years and conditions for the Black population worsened in other parts of the city, real estate agent Phillip Payton Jr and his Afro-American Realty Company saw their opportunity and coaxed Blacks from many other places to Harlem, beginning in 1904. Payton was the decisive factor for Harlem to develop into the center point of Black life at the East Coast. When many Blacks from the southern states moved to the North later, because many industrial jobs were available there, great numbers of them settled in Harlem too. Between 1920 and 1930, almost 119,000 Whites left the quarter, while 87,000 Blacks moved in.
Strong waves of poor immigrants from Central and South America and the loss of old-established business lines made the situation for the Black population more difficult, many suffered from unemployment and poverty. At the same time rents increased more and more because Blacks hardly had a chance to be accepted as tenants in other parts of the city. However, hardly any money was invested in the buildings. Combined with the continued migration of Blacks to New York City, an explosive atmosphere developed, consisting of bad life and housing conditions, few perspectives and an almost unbelievable population density of 215,000 people per square mile, derived from the fact that more and more people were forced to share increasingly small apartments. In the 60s and 70s, this trend reversed because many people left Harlem with its decaying buildings. Left behind were countless vacant buildings offering space for criminal activities of all kinds. Harlem’s crime rates reached astronomic heights . for example for murder and armed robbery, they were at a multiple of the rates for the rest of the city, which were rather high themselves -, thousands became drug-addicted and committed crimes to finance their addiction. Only by strengthening the police force and primarily with the strict anti-crime measures introduced by former mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the 90s, the situation improved considerably.
Despite all the problems, Harlem has always had significance for the arts and for politics. This is especially true for the time of the so-called Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s when the Black arts scene found its center here, although Blacks were not allowed access to many places, for example to the famous Cotton Club. In general, reality in the Harlem of the 1920s was considerably less glamorous than it is often depicted. Nevertheless, this decade can be regarded as the last real heyday time of the city quarter. The Savoy Ballroom at Lenox Avenue became the center of Swing - open to visitors of all races - and the focal point of an entertainment district in which there were more than 100 stages, bars, lounges and dance halls. In 1934, the famous Apollo Theater opened at 125th Street and it came to symbolize Black music entertainment and to be the starting point for many great music careers. After being reopened in the 80s, the Apollo today has returned to old glory and is protected as a National Historic Landmark.
Only shortly thereafter, a time of change began in Harlem that began with the construction of giant, publicly financed housing structures and continued via demographic change. In 1950, Harlem’s population was 98% Black, but then the Black middle class moved elsewhere and was replaced by immigrants, mostly from Central and South America. The political development of the American society is reflected in the quarter in a similar way. Especially the fight to end segregation played a vital role. By means of boycotts and protests, the people of Harlem had achieved first, local goals as early as in the 30s, but in the decades after that the struggle for equality was often accompanied by violence, driven by the movement Nation of Islam - led by Malcolm X in the 50s - but also by other radical groups, for example the Black Panthers. Nonviolent resistance as it was proposed by Martin Luther King Jr. found relatively little support in Harlem, although King himself was widely idolized. In the course of time, there were several riots and clashes between the Black population of Harlem and the police, often triggered by police violence considered to be excessive.
The 1970s brought the time of the worst decay to Harlem and the demise of its economy, society and culture. Scaringly high rates for infant mortality and severe diseases, enormously high rates for unemployment, poverty and crime and a state of emergency in terms of education and health services made the headlines worldwide. Revitalization measures, beginning in the 90s, finally brought Harlem back from the shadows. Public projects for the people living here, education programs, urban development measures and a concerted line of action against violence and crime turned the former ghetto into a good example for the reconstruction of a neighborhood. Meanwhile, many Whites have settled here as well, for example has former President Bill Clinton moved his office to a Harlem address. Since Harlem, contrary to the rest of Manhattans, has not experienced rapid modernization and extensions, it is today an attraction for visitors and has many historic, restored buildings, a unique neighborhood flair and a number of points vital to the history of Black America.