I was watching Bill Clinton give a speech the other day and remembered how, when he was President, he played the saxophone on television and also declared that he considered himself the “first black President of the United States”. Later, when he left office, he located his office in the neighborhood of Harlem in New York City. This raised my curiosity about Harlem. I wondered if it had always been a predominantly black neighborhood. I discovered a very rich history filled people of many different ethnic backgrounds.
When Europeans first began colonizing North America, today’s Harlem was a Dutch outpost. It later became a farming community that was torn apart as a battlefield during the revolutionary war. It later became a favorite vacation spot, then a suburb for those commuting into the big city for work, then, finally, what we know it as today, a ghetto that has transformed itself into an African-American cultural center.
The geographical location of Harlem was originally home to the Manhattans. This native tribe was semi-nomadic and, in season, farmed the flatland area of what is now called Harlem. In 1637 Dutch immigrants arrived and built a homestead upon the Harlem River. Hostilities arose between the Dutch and indigenous people and the Manhattans eventually relocated.
As the homestead grew into a settlement, it was named New Haarlem after its Dutch city namesake. African slaves were eventually imported as the labor source that built the route that became known as the Boston Post Road.
In the 1660s the English attempted to take over and rename what had become a village. By 1673 the Dutch had regained control but their success lasted only one year. Although the English were finally successful in Anglicizing the village, the name Haarlem remained but became “Harlem”.
By the mid-1700s the village had grown and improved until it was well known as a river resort town. It became a favorite vacation destination for wealthy New Yorkers. As it became apparent that hostilities with England would result in war, George Washington fortified Harlem in response to a British base being established in lower Manhattan. The strategic location of the resort town on the Harlem River gave Washington control of critical land and water routes.
The Battle of Harlem Heights commenced in September of 1776 with Washington’s troops being outnumbered almost three to one. However, Washington was an expert strategist and led his men to victory. But, his victory did not last long. Months later the British returned with a vengeance and reduced Harlem to ashes.
By 1800 Harlem had been successfully rebuilt and remained a farming community. And these were not your typical poor farmers. They were elegant gentlemen farmers commanding large farming estates. One such estate was owned by a gentleman farmer who would sire a future United States President, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In 1831 Harlem became linked to New York City via railway. This led to a period of urbanization for this agricultural village. It transformed into an industrial suburb where some of the wealthiest and most politically influential New Yorkers lived. Eventually the Civil War would change the landscape of the suburb once again.
During the late 1800s riots occurred in response to the military draft and property values plummeted. Harlem became a haven for poor immigrant groups. Urbanization continued with the construction of row houses and elevated railways and subways. The polo field gave way to a baseball field and the suburb was home to an opera house. Harlem was touted as a cultural mecca. However, real estate prices continued to fall and poor immigrant populations continued to grow.
By the early 1900s Harlem had a Jewish community of about 200,000 and almost as many Italians. By the mid-1900s, however, their traces within Harlem would be negligible. Harlem was becoming home to Puerto Ricans and black Americans.
Although the black American presence in Harlem can be traced back to the early 1600s when African slaves were imported for labor, by 1900 tens of thousands of free black Americans lived in the community. Many black Americans migrated north escaping the oppression of the south’s Jim Crow laws. The industrial cities of the north, particularly New York City, offered job opportunities. Harlem’s black population swelled. By 1930 the population of Harlem was seventy percent black and soon became known as the spiritual home of American’s black protest movement. This is the beginning of the Harlem most Americans today are familiar with.
Although the community had decades of rich history within the black community, it eventually experienced what is known as “gentrification”. Real estate projects revitalized the suburb in the 1990s which raised property values almost three hundred percent. By 1998 white and Hispanic residents were the new Harlem majority. And, until the next interesting political and social upheaval, this is probably how Harlem demographics will remain. However, the winds of change blow unexpectedly. Harlem is definitely an interesting community well worth watching.