The Harlem neighborhood is an emblematic part of Manhattan, but few know its beginning as Dutch farmland and later as a key point for George Washington during the American Revolution. Now, it’s a hot neighborhood for its restaurants, cultural heritage, and central location. Knowing Harlem’s history, and its many phases of change, is essential to understanding why it is now one of the newly hot places to live in New York City.
Harlem is a large area of Uptown, from the East River to the Hudson River, and from the bottom of Washington Heights at 155th Street down to around 96th Street. It is commonly divided into Central Harlem, West Harlem, and East Harlem (often called Spanish Harlem).
Harlem was formally incorporated in 1660 as New Haarlem, named after the Dutch city of Haarlem. The Dutch settlers recognized the flat lands would be good for farming, in part because they saw Manhattans and other Native American tribes farming there. Later, the Dutch tried to change the name to Lancaster, luckily without success!
During the American Revolution, George Washington established a base in Harlem to fight off the British troops. He successfully pushed them back, marking his first American victory. To retaliate, the British burnt Harlem down, starting the first in a series of rebuilding and rebirths for the area.
By the 1820s, Harlem had only a few families and was difficult to reach from other areas of the city. Prominent American figures held large areas of land, including Alexander Hamilton and the Roosevelt family (several generations before President Roosevelt would be born). Harlem was considered the countryside, and the land was mostly used for farms.
It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that real development began. In 1832, the arrival of the New York and Harlem Railroad (now Metro North) changed everything. It was the first street railway in the world and one of the first railroads in the United States. At first, it used horses, then steam engines, and finally electricity. With reliable transportation in place, Harlem was finally a viable place for development. Many cultural centers were established over the years, including the City College of New York in 1907. The easy access to transportation is one of the reasons Harlem is popular right now.
Harlem has seen a diverse flow of residents, most notably black, Jewish, Italian, Puerto Rican and Latin American populations who were pushed out of other areas of the city. In the early 20th century a large population of black residents fleeing the Jim Crow laws of the South established homes in Harlem. Prohibition, The Harlem Renaissance, housing policies elsewhere in the city and the Harlem Riot all had an impact on the area, but it has come back each time.
Because so many of the multi-ethnic influences are preserved, Harlem is now experiencing an economic renaissance as people move into the area to experience the arts and culture. Historic buildings and sites to visit include the home of author Langston Hughes (20 East 127th Street), the home of Alexander Hamilton Grange (West 141st Street and St Nicholas Avenue), and the many historic churches and theaters such as the Apollo Theater (253 West 125th Street). There are also many popular restaurants and bars which draw crowds.
For people looking for their next home, the architecture is a major draw for Harlem, especially in areas such as Mount Morris Historic District where historic townhouses sit along tree-lined streets. Also popular are beautiful brownstone apartment buildings, many of which are in the process of being modernized on the inside. New residents of Harlem have the benefit of experiencing the history of New York City, with all its diversity, while also participating in the growth and yet another rejuvenation of the area.