With a powerful cultural and historical legacy whose reverberations can be felt today, Harlem is both a place and a state of mind. With an ever-shifting and growing population, the lines of Harlem are divided roughly by ethnic group. Central Harlem, West Harlem, and Spanish Harlem stretch from the Upper West Side’s 96 Street north to 155 Street, and from the East River to the Hudson River. Now in the midst of a second revival after the famed Harlem Renaissance, Harlem is a neighborhood of rich history, original architecture, and revitalized growth.
Originally settled by the Dutch in 1637 and called Niuew Haarlem after a city in the Netherlands, Harlem has been the center of ethnic migrations ever since. Shifting English, Jewish, Italian and African-American populations echo the ebb and flow of ever-changing New York City history. African-Americans in particular, escaping the violence of southern Reconstruction, have left a stamp on Harlem that remains to this day. The 1920s flowering of African-American arts known as the Harlem Renaissance produced works that captured an era of unrest, change, and hope: the poetry of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, the jazz stylings of Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, and the screeds of Alaine Locke and W.E.B. DuBois created an international ripple of optimism, defined the ethnic identity of a people whose cultural contributions had been largely disparaged, and sowed the seeds for the Civil Rights movement.
The strength of Harlem’s history can be seen in dozens of original buildings and clubs that still exist today. The Apollo Theater is the most lasting physical legacy of the Harlem Renaissance where upcoming talent still perform, and some of the finest townhouses from the late nineteenth century housing boom have been renovated and preserved, including works from great architects such as James Renwick, Charles Buek, and Francis Kimball. Striver’s Row is an architectural gem and a designated landmark dubbed “the most aristocratic street in Harlem.” Now undergoing rapid gentrification in the form of new businesses along 125th Street, new condominiums and apartments, and a growing population of middle- to upper-class residents, Harlem is due for a second flowering.