Monday, September 8, 2008

Chit-Chat Over Coffee Swirls (24)

Topic: Harlem: Historic Heart of Black New York

"The area got its name from a suburb of Amsterdam , the Dutch city from which many of its earliest settlers came. In the eleventh year of Peter Stuyvesant's directorship of the affairs of New Amsterdam that testy worthy gave permission for the founding of a village in the upper part of the Island of Manhattan which he decreed should be called New Harlem .

For so long a while did Harlem remain a secluded hamlet tucked away at the northern end of the island that as late as 1830 the only passenger conveyance between the village and New York was by a stage, which left the corner of Third Avenue and One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street at seven in the morning and reached Park Row shortly before ten o'clock, starting on the return trip at three in the afternoon. A few years later the stages began making hourly trips, but a visitor describes the village in the fifties as still " clustered close to the river, well shaded with trees, most charmingly rural, and apparently impervious to change." Though the New York and Harlem Railway Company was incorporated in 1831, it was not until 1840 that the first steam-train was put in operation between Thirty-second and One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Streets. Twenty-five years later the horse-cars had come into being, but it took them nearly an hour and a half to convey passengers from One Hundred and Twenty-ninth Street to City Hall ; and it was not until the completion of the elevated roads in 1880 that Harlem entered fairly upon the career that in a little more than twenty years has made it the abiding-place of a million people. Now solid blocks of apartment-houses, stretching mile upon mile, cover The Flats of the old days, and Harlem has lost all semblance of its earlier self. (17)

"Beginning in the 1870s Harlem was the site of a massive wave of speculative development which resulted in the construction of numerous new single-family row houses, tenements, and luxury apartment houses, Commercial concerns and religious, educational, and cultural institutions, such as the distinguished Harlem Opera House on the West 125th Street, were established in Harlem to serve the expanding population. The western half of Harlem, though developed slightly later, became a fashionable and prosperous neighborhood. Luxury elevator apartment buildings with the most modern amenities were constructed, such as the Graham Court Apartments built in 1898-1901 on Seventh Avenue , as well as more modest types of multi-family housing. Those who relocated from downtown included recent immigrants from Great Britain and Germany."(18)

Harlem, was once a district of quiet farms, where lived a few Hollanders, French Huguenots, Danes, Swedes, and Germans. For three decades the Germans were the dominant element, with the Irish ranking second. The immigration waves of the 1880s and 1890s brought in Jews and Italians. Then the African- American began to come in from downtown, from the South, and from the West Indies.

Between 1915-1920, hundreds of thousands of African-Americans began to migrate at a fast pace from the "economically depressed rural South to the industrial cities of the North to take advantage of urban economic opportunities in steel mills, auto factories and packing houses. Thousands would also fan out to the black ghettos of New York City, seeking work in the bars and cabarets. Numerous white-collared positions at good salaries were available in federal and local civil service to which many applied... Federal employment of African Americans nearly doubled during the twenties."

Businesses began mushrooming all over the Harlem neighborhoods, offering their services to the black community through beauty shops, food stores, insurance companies and more.

During the decade, many positive changes were beginning to occur within Harlem's African-American community. Black intellectuals began to show a new intense enthusiasm for their African heritage. A rising popular interest in African-American literature sparked the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance which was one of this nation's greatest outpouring of music, literature, art and racial pride.

Rents in Harlem rose drastically after World War I. The deterioration of Harlem housing which began in the 1920s can be attributed in large part to the high cost of living in the community and the increased demands on the neighborhood brought by the rising population. By the 1930s half a million people crowded into the largest slum area in New York. By the end of World War II, Harlem had become the terminus for hundreds of thousands of blacks that had begun their northern migration back in 1915.
Over the years the African-American community have made an enormous and outstanding contribution of their talents, knowledge and creative abilities to the American Culture which are far too many to name. America's theater and music halls have been deeply enriched by black entertainers, many of which have found their way through the ghettos climbing the entertainment ladder to wealth and fame. For more information on Harlem history and accomplishments of it's Black Community, please visit the Harlem Section at
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