Then: 125th Street

By Josh Gross


Northern Manhattan stands in opposition to its humble origins. The area around 125th Street in the first half of the 19th century was mostly country estates and farmland, owned by the wealthy and well-to-do of New York. If one had walked then around what is today the 125th Street subway station, he/she would have seen a rather pastoral setting, a stark contrast to the urban façade found today. Yet, as modernity and urbanization occurred, the community became part of the greater New York City area.

125th Street is located within the cultural heart of Harlem, a historically and sociologically significant New York City neighborhood on the island of Manhattan. Harlem was incorporated into the City of New York after a panic brought the town to near bankruptcy. The traditional boundaries of Harlem are generally considered to be between 155th and 110th street, with the Harlem River and Hudson River bordering the area on the east and west, respectively. Within this larger area are three smaller neighborhoods: East (or Spanish) Harlem, Central Harlem, and West Harlem. East Harlem, home to a large Latino community, is roughly defined as the area of Harlem east of Fifth Avenue and north of 96th Street. Central Harlem, regarded as the epicenter of the neighborhood, is between St. Nicholas Street on the west and Fifth Avenue on the east. West Harlem runs north of 123rd Street and west of St. Nicholas Street. 1

Traditional boundaries of Harlem (Stern, David. 2006)

By the turn of the 20th century, Harlem began to receive an influx of immigrants, many of them Italians and Eastern European Jews. Yet, the demographics of the neighborhood were about to change drastically. Immediately preceding and following World War 1, the “Great Migration” of African Americans from the U.S. South occurred. The migrants sought better wages and greater equality in the north. In 1910, 9% of the population of Central Harlem was African American. By 1920, the percentage had risen to 32%, and it reached 70% in 1930. 2

So why did African Americans settle in Harlem, as opposed to spreading throughout many areas of New York? In any great movement of a single people to a new location, there will always be a tendency for that group to seek their own kind for obvious cultural and social reasons. However, for African Americans, larger economic and political forces played a much more important role. Many white families feared the influx of blacks into their communities as an economic scourge and believed black neighbors would instantly depress real estate values.

A 1924 parade by the Universal Negro Improvement Association on Lenox Avenue, Harlem (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library. 1924)

These agreements prevented any single property owner from selling to African Americans. Thus, the emigrating blacks were forced to move to the working-class lower income neighborhood of Harlem, where they settled in an economically depressed community with few financial resources at its disposal.

There were dreams long ago to make 125st a sprawling, developed commercial hub of Harlem. While the street did develop into the commercial heart of Harlem, hopes for prosperity ended in the 1930s. The practice of “redlining”–denying mortgages to neighborhoods that contained certain races, religions, and ethnic groups–eventually extended into all financial and economic services. 3


Dilapidated East Harlem apartment building (Grossman, Sid. 1962)

As African Americans moved into Harlem, real-estate values plummeted, and so did capitol investment in the community. Banks had always discriminated against blacks but as their movement into urban areas intensified, financial discrimination became more concerted. The term redlining comes from banks’ use of maps marked with red zones to distinguish between areas where loans and financial services would be available and where they would not. Part of the New Deal programming, the National Housing Act of 1935 meant to hinder the sudden growth of mortgage defaults and make housing more affordable, had the reverse effect on minority communities. The Federal Home Loan Bank Board, which came out of the legislation, helped create “residential security maps.” These maps of significant cities in the U.S. were used to indicate the level of risk for real estate investments. Black majority neighbors such as Harlem were declared ineligible for mortgage loans. 4

Stagnant real-estate values and the lack of financial resources led to stunted commercial growth, and little economic development in Harlem. As a result of the economic impediments of the neighborhood a process of “ghettoization” and urban squalor resulted. Overcrowding and segregation led to dilapidated and crowded tenements becoming the norm in Harlem. Economically, the community was dominated by small businesses. Since banks largely refused to provide loans to Harlem businesses, entrepreneurs had to focus their ventures on a smaller scale.

Surprisingly, most Harlem businesses were not owned by African Americans, who were a majority of area residents. “A survey in 1929 found that whites owned and operated 81.51% of the neighborhood’s 10,319 businesses.” That number only decreased to 60% by 1960. Cosmetic businesses such as barber shops made up the majority of Harlem enterprises. Business owners were largely of Jewish and Italian descent, and many African Americans in the community came to resent both groups as a result. 5

Strike protesting high rent in Harlem, September 1919 (International Film Service. 1919)

The Great Depression brought a series of economic challenges and surprises to Harlem.  The country as a whole was shocked by the economic woes of the Great Depression, which provided a sharp contrast to the prosperity of the 1920s. Harlem suffered more than most places. Ironically, because mortgage lending was a rarity in Harlem prior to the depression, the neighborhood faced less than average exposure to the economic downfall. Yet Harlem saw a dramatic increase in unemployment. Generally the case in time of economic hardship, it is those who are seen as less desirable or easily replaceable who are first to be laid off. In the 1930s, when racism shaped so much about America, white employers readily replaced African Americans.

In the decades that followed, economic decline and a rise in crime and drug use afflicted the area. Yet 125th Street still remained central to the identity of African American New Yorkers, representing their accomplishments and challenges.

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  1. Powell, Perry. “In New York City, Harlem ‘begins’ above 96th Street.” Science 174. 1972: p. 494. Print
  2. Beveridge, Andrew. “Harlem’s Shifting Population.” Gotham Gazette 27 Aug. 2008. Print
  3. Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 286.1985. Print
  4. Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press. 195. 1985. Print
  5. Greenberg, Cheryl. Or Does It Explode? Black Harlem in the Great Depression. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, 27