Harlem has been classified as a historically African American neighbourhood, associated with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and years of racially divided districts.

However, there is a very strong Latin American, Hispanic, and Dominican population thriving in Harlem also, leading to a clear division between West and East Harlem. It is no secret that New York City has become increasingly expensive, flooded by a young and moneyed white population over recent years; the result of this is gentrification, with Harlem being the latest neighbourhood to feel its effects.

It is difficult to define exactly when the culture and community of Harlem began. Many journalistic and scholarly articles go as far back as the Dutch creating New Amsterdam; however, it is arguable that it began with the Harlem railroad, connecting Harlem to the rest of Manhattan from the late 1800s (and, ultimately, creating the large influx of migrants into the neighbourhood). During the Great Migration of the 1910s and 1920s, Harlem became a majority African American area due to many people escaping the segregationist laws and discrimination of the South. This led to what is now known as the Harlem Renaissance, an era of African American literary, artistic, and intellectual development.

New York City has become increasingly expensive, flooded by a young and moneyed white population over recent years; the result of this is gentrification

The Harlem Renaissance is often mistaken as part of the jazz movement, despite the fact that it had very little to do with either music or dance; in fact, it was this time of cultural and intellectual development that laid the foundation for the jazz movement and music culture. It heralded the opening of the infamous Apollo Theatre in 1934, a venue that had previously been exclusively white and featured Burlesque performances. The Apollo’s inauguration welcomed notable African American artists such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Gladys Knight and others. Harlem was also the home of the Cotton Club, which launched the careers of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway; the venue was moved from the uptown area after the 1935 Harlem Riots, but never regained its initial success.

Harlem became the centre of protest and processions in the 1920s, with Marcus Garvey leading the parades of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) through its streets. It was also home to various other African American activists; the eulogy for Malcolm X was delivered in February 1965 at the Childs Memorial Temple Church, Harlem (reported by The New York Times as marked for demolition in 2016). The Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture on Malcolm X Boulevard, part of the New York Public Library division, remains a centre for the study of African American history. If any New Yorkers are reading this, I would highly recommend visiting – not just for the quiet of the reading room, but also for the wonderful exhibitions upstairs.

Redlining is… a system of racial discrimination in tenancy, that has allegedly contributed to the fortune of our current POTUS

By the 1940s, East Harlem had transformed into Spanish Harlem (otherwise known as ‘El Barrio’). Initially home to a predominantly Puerto Rican population, the area now accommodates a populace from numerous different Latin American nations. Whilst one can feel a clear distinction between West Harlem and El Barrio as you walk from one side to the other, it must not be forgotten that both sides have faced similar concerns of racial discrimination. The growth of redlining is widely seen as the clearest early indicator of creeping gentrification, and was pivotal in defining the future of Harlem: a system of racial discrimination in tenancy, that has allegedly contributed to the fortune of our current POTUS. Redlining meant that landlords, banks, and mortgage companies had the right to deny tenancy, loans, or mortgages based on race and socially-constructed race barriers (effectively leading to the creation of impoverished neighbourhoods). Whilst El Barrio is now a common destination for New York “foodies”, it has yet to gain the same accessibility as the West Side (having been listed on the site ‘NFT/Not for Tourists’); nonetheless, the growing popularity of property in Spanish Harlem has led to its being colloquially dubbed ‘SpaHa’.

Visiting Harlem, it is clear to see that whilst much of the community remains the same, there is also an increasing number of white yummy mummies and daddies with jogging strollers, indicating a change in the neighbourhood demographic. New building projects, Whole Foods stores and Starbucks logos line Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard; as the journalist Michael Henry Adams pointed out in an article for the Sunday Review, not all of this commercial development bodes well for those living in the neighbourhood. Such developments are not designed to improve the district for current residents as such, instead pandering to a new generation of wealthy white New Yorkers. As Horace Carter told Adams, “I tell you, they have a plan. Harlem is too well-placed. The white man is ready to take it back”.

Visiting Harlem, it is clear to see that whilst much of the community remains the same, there is also an increasing number of white yummy mummies and daddies with jogging strollers

This photo series by Camilo José Vergara, in which he photographed the same street corner in Harlem from 1989 to the present day, is a clear indicator of a changing economy. The building on the corner progresses from housing various small businesses (one of which being a store selling alligator shoes), to becoming a giant glass feature with a Burlington, Whole Foods, and Raymour and Flannigan. This addresses the heart of the argument against the dangers of gentrification; whilst Whole Foods might have “better” food, it is not accessible or sustainable to the current population of Harlem. As Adams draws upon in his article, the median income in Harlem is less than $37,000 a year, making the arrival of these more expensive and inaccessible chain stores a large part of the problem. Further contributing to the problem of gentrification is the rising number of new building projects. A 23-storey building at 1399 Park Avenue, East Harlem opened last autumn, with starting prices from $650,000 per apartment. As Adams succinctly points out within his article using a quote from a local teenage boy, “You see, I told you they didn’t plant those trees for us”.

The playwright James Tyler has addressed these divisions in his play Dolphins and Sharks, which is to be produced by Lydia Parker at the Finborough Theatre in September 2017 (tickets are on sale here). Set in a copy-shop in Harlem with African American and Dominican employees, the divisions of class, race, and gender soon become apparent and set a fractious course of destruction. Tyler’s work begs the question: how is the most predominantly minority neighbourhood within New York City dealing with gentrification creeping from Manhattan and Brooklyn? Do the things that supposedly unite us, create further divisions and hierarchies? Popular film director Spike Lee put it best when asked about ‘the good’ of gentrification, stating “then comes the Christopher Columbus Syndrome – you can’t discover this! We’ve been here!”.


Images: Sabrina Parker

One thought on “A Brief History of Harlem: Renaissance, Racial Divisions, and Gentrification

  1. As a resident of Harlem for over 50 years one thing is certain. No matter the changes African Americans will continue to be in Harlem and fight to maintain our culture and our community. No amount of Gap stores, Banana Republics, Olive Gardens, or Whole Foods will diminish our existence in our community. What people don’t understand about Harlem is we are a village. We say good morning to our neighbors and friends, we stop, we chat, and we check in, and we don’t use digital media, social media laptop computers or cell phones to do so. We’ve known each other for decades and believe in roots. Something the “new pioneers” can’t grasp…

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