Harlem is a neighborhood of Manhattan, long known as a major African American cultural and business center. Although the name is sometimes reckoned as comprising the whole of upper Manhattan, traditionally Harlem is bounded on the south by East 96th Street (where the railroad tracks emerge from the tunnel under Park Avenue) and west of Fifth Avenue by Central Park, on the west by Morningside Heights, then along Broadway near Riverside Church to the Hudson River, on the north by 155th (or 160th) Street and Coogan's Bluff, and on the east by the East River and Harlem River.
The first settlement in what is now Harlem was by Dutch settlers and was formalized in 1658 as Nieuw Haarlem (or New Haarlem), after the Dutch city of Haarlem. The Indian trail to Harlem's lush bottomland meadows was rebuilt by the Dutch West India Company's black slaves and eventually developed into the Boston Post Road. In 1664, the English took control of the New Netherland colony and renamed the town Harlem. On September 16, 1776, the Battle of Harlem Heights (also called the Battle of Harlem or Battle of Harlem Plain) was fought in western Harlem around the Hollow Way (now West 125th St.), with conflicts on Morningside Heights to the south and Harlem Heights to the north.
In the 19th century, Harlem was a place of farms, such as James Roosevelt's, east of Fifth Avenue between 110th and 125th Streets, now the heart of Spanish (actually Latin-American) Harlem. Country estates were largely on the heights overlooking the Hudson to the west of Harlem. Service connecting the suburb of Harlem with New York was by steamboat on the East River, an hour and a half's passage, sometimes interrupted when the river froze in winter, or else by stagecoach along the Boston Post Road, which descended from McGown's Pass (now in Central Park) and skirted the saltmarshes around 110th Street, to pass through Harlem. The New York and Harlem Railroad was incorporated in 1831, to better link the city with the suburb, starting at a depot at East 23rd Street. It was extended 127 miles north to a railroad junction in Columbia County at Chatham, New York by 1851. Harlem was developing into an extensive, somewhat ramshackle suburb.
Elevated railroads were extended to Harlem in 1880. With the construction of the els, urbanized development occurred very rapidly, with townhouses, apartments, and tenements springing up practically overnight. Early entrepreneurs had grandiose schemes for Harlem: Polo was actually played at the original Polo Grounds (later to become home of the New York Giants baseball team) and Oscar Hammerstein I opened the Harlem Opera House on East 125th Street in 1889. Fine townhouses by first-rank architects survive in the Sugar Hill section, west of 8th Avenue between 137th and 160th Streets. But by the early 1900s, Harlem's population was German, German Jewish, and Eastern European Jewish. In common with many other Jewish neighborhoods, Jewish Harlem was an ephemeral entity. By 1930, only 5,000 Jews remained, down from a 1917 peak population of 150,000. The area of Harlem by the East River, now known as Spanish Harlem, became occupied by Italians. Italian Harlem is gone as well, though it lasted longer than Jewish Harlem (traces of Italian Harlem lasted into the 1970s, in the area around Pleasant Avenue).
The first blacks to come to Harlem came in the early 1900s, the first ones affiliated with St. Philip's Episcopal church. Before living in Harlem, most of Manhattan's blacks had lived in the neighborhoods called the Tenderloin, San Juan Hill in the Upper West Side, and Hell's Kitchen (today more commonly called Clinton) in the west 40s and 50s. By 1919 the black population of Harlem had quadrupled.
In the 1920s, Harlem was the center of a flowering of Black culture that became known as the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was a time of amazing artistic production, but ironically, many blacks were excluded from what they were creating. Many jazz venues, like Small's and the Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington played, were restricted to whites only.
The Apollo Theater opened on 125th Street on January 26, 1934, in a former burlesque house. The Savoy Ballroom, on Lenox Avenue, was a renowned venue for swing dancing, and was immortalized in a popular song of the era, Stompin' At The Savoy.
In the post-World War II era, Harlem ceased to be home to a majority of NYC's blacks, but it remained the cultural and political capital of black New York, and possibly black America. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Harlem was the scene of a massive rent strike by neighbourhood tenants, led by local activist Jesse Gray, who became discredited after he was identified as a member of the Communist Party by witnesses testifying under oath before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Gray himself was given an opportunity to testify before the same committee, but he pleaded the Fifth Amendment every time he was asked a question regarding the Communist Party or his alleged connection to it. The rent strike collapsed soon after.
Harlem was spared most of the rioting that plagued other black neighborhoods in the 1960s, although it did play host to a relatively minor disturbance in 1964. It maintained its housing stock and was the setting for several movies (most notably Across 110th Street in 1972). It began to see gentrification in the 1990s, much of it by black professionals. Former President Bill Clinton rented office space in Harlem after completing his second term in the White House in 2001.
WPA Guide to New York City 1939