Harlem

UNITED STATES

In the last three decades of the nineteenth century Harlem was a community of great expectations. During the previous half-century it had been an isolated, poor, rural village in habited largely by squatters* who lived in cottages pieced together with any material that could be found — bits of wood, twigs, barrel staves, old pipes, tin-cans hammered flat. The community was now, however, being transformed into an upper- and upper-middle-class suburb -— New York’s First suburb.

One great barrier to Harlem’s development in the early nineteenth century had been its distance from Lower Manhattan. Between 1878 and 1881, however, three lines of the elevated railroad reached 129th Street; by 1886 they had come even further north. From this point on Harlem’s growth was amazing. Rows of brownstones* and exclusive apartment houses appeared overnight. Practically all the houses that stand in Harlem today were built in a spurt of energy that lasted from the 1870s through the first decade of the twentieth century.

The homes of municipal and federal judges, mayors, local politicos, and prominent businessmen were scattered throughout Harlem. Their children could attend a Grammar School, referred to as the “Silk Stocking School’’ of the City because the pupils were practically all from American families,* and more or less prosperous people. Young girls could go to Mme De Valencia’s Protestant French and English Institute for Young Ladies. Local citizens, after attending a performance at the Harlem Opera House (built in 1889), might dine at the luxurious Pabst Harlem.”

A few factors combined to alter Harlem life radically in the first decade of the twentieth century. Underlying them all was a wave of speculation in Harlem land and property that was set off by the construction of new subway routes into the neighborhood in the late 1890s. Land that had been left unimproved or undeveloped at that time — marshes, garbage dumps, empty lots — were bought up by speculators who intended to make astronomic profits when the subway was completed. In the urge to get rich quick* on Harlem property few persons realised how artificial market values had become.

The inevitable “bust’’ came in 1904-05. Speculators sadly realised afterward that too many houses had been constructed at one time. Rather than face destruction, some landlords and corporations were willing to rent their houses to Negroes and collect the traditionally high rents that colored people paid. Others, instead of accepting their losses, used the threat of bringing in Negro tenants to frighten their neighbors into buying them out at a higher than market price.

Negroes, offered decent living accommodations for the first time in the city’s history, flocked to Harlem and filled houses as fast as they were opened to them.

But not all property owners in the neighborhood were ready to open their houses to Negroes. It seemed unbelievable to some that theirs, one of the most exclusive sections in the entire city, should become the center of New York’s most depressed and traditionally worst-housed people. Some owners banded together in associations to repulse what they referred to as the Negro “invasion’’ or the Negro “influx’’.

The creation of Negro Harlem was only one example of the general development of large, segregated Negro communities in many American cities in the years preceeding and following the First World War. “Niggertowns’’, “Buzzard’s Alleys’’, “Nigger Rows’’, “Black Bottoms’’, “Smoke Towns’’, “Bronzevilles’’, and “Chinch-Rows’’ had ‘emerged elsewhere by 1913.

The old stately brownstones were now overcrowded. The neighborhood was full of unskilled, lower-income families willing to accept any kind of employment.

Negro Harlem expanded and became the largest colony of coloured people in similar limits, in the world. And so it remains to this day.