Tucked away in the northernmost area of Manhattan, Harlem is known for its rich culture and abundant history. While Harlem experienced a lack of underdevelopment (compared to the rest of Manhattan) until 1866, this did not mean the area was poor. In fact, the area was largely inhabited by generally well-off families owning small farms until around 1811 when the grid system was brought to the neighborhood. The neighborhood was known to be a safe sanctuary which led to two city mayors living there: Cornelius Van Wyck Lawrence and Daniel Tiemann.
However, this peace seized to exist once the American Civil War began to impact New Yorkers. Harlem’s development was influenced by the refuge of poor New Yorkers, mainly Italians and Jews, seeking cheap accomodations during the draft riots. This boom introduced the above ground railway, iconic row houses, Churches, Synagogues, and restaurants. By 1893, the demand for residential space grew so much that large apartment buildings were put up.
demand for residential space grew so much that large apartment buildings were put up.
Though, possibly one of the most crucial aspects of Harlem’s history is amongst is black population. In general, African Americans did not seek Harlem, but were forced to live there. Due to deep-rooted employment and rent discrimination, many blacks in New York City were forced to migrate North. While the Lexington Ave. subway line simplified the commute for those working downtown, many blacks chose to establish a neighborhood that fit their needs. Soon Churches and small businesses that fit the needs of the black population arose all throughout Harlem. By 1930, 70.3% of Central Harlem’s population was black.
However, the entire Harlem community was faced with hardship throughout the entire 20th century. From a lack of public parks and swimming pools under Robert Moses’ plan during the 1930s to five Harlem riots, the neighborhood was becoming increasingly poor, ignored and angry. Additionally, Harlem was giving substandard public housing and educational institutions, which eventually led to race riots. While there were some improvements made, the population rapidly decreased (today by nearly 57% from its peak in the 50s) and many people found the neighborhood to be unsafe and undesirable.