Little Senegal – Harlem


Central Harlem once had a thriving Black community, with a large contingent from West Africa, and, more specifically, Senegal. In 1950, Central Harlem was 98% Black, but by 2008, the number dropped to 62%.1 While the Black community has been declining, the white population has steadily been growing. In 1990, there were only 672 white residents; however, by 2008, there were 13,800.2 Gentrification, which has been common throughout the five boroughs in recent years, is taking hold in Central Harlem.3

Comparison of Black share of the population and of White share by neighborhood type.13
Economic stress factors in Central Harlem.14

Unfortunately, the long-standing residents of Central Harlem, are struggling. High poverty rates plague the area, particularly between 114th and 118th streets which was once known as Little Senegal or Le Petit Senegal. According to the Community Health Profiles, in 2015, 13% of residents were unemployed; additionally, 29% of all people living in Central Harlem were below the poverty line, causing Central Harlem to be the second poorest neighborhood in Manhattan.4 Nearly half of Central Harlem’s residents, 49%, struggle to pay their monthly rent.5

Interestingly, while city-wide incomes have declined since 1990, the incomes in gentrifying neighborhoods, such as Central Harlem, have increased.6 However, there is no conclusive evidence as to the reason for this trend. Regardless, food pantries and welfare centers are far from scarce in the neighborhood. The Community Kitchen and Food Pantry on 116th Street alone serves more than 50,000 hot meals a month.7

Community Kitchen and Food Pantry on 116th Street in Central Harlem.15
Comparison of Central Harlem homes valued at more than $300,000 in 2000 and 2015.16 17

The extreme poverty has helped bring gentrification to Central Harlem. Residents are increasingly unable to pay their rents, driving out residents and business owners, who are moving to the Bronx and Brooklyn.8 Even the Senegalese Association of America’s office succumbed to the mounting rent. After being in its current location for 30 years, the office must relocate as rent, which began at $1,300 a month, increased to $6,000 a month.9 From 2000 to 2015, the number of homes valued to be over $300,000 between 114th St and 118th St has more than doubled from 82 to 189. Surrounding blocks, however, have seen even more drastic changes. In 2000, 14.3% or 99 homes between 114th St and Central Park that were worth over $300,000 and in 2015, 84.3% or 484 homes met that evaluation. The slower incline in house values between 114th St to 118th, can indicate that gentrification is far from finished in the area because the real estate is comparatively less expensive than surrounding blocks.10 11

While walking the streets between 114th and 118th and talking to some of the business owners, the decline of the once prominent Senegalese community is evident. Very few signs are written in French, the language of Senegal, and the once flourishing Malcolm Shabazz Market, has few shoppers. Luxury apartments have begun to spring up around Central Harlem and for sale signs are now hung in local businesses, a clear indication of the slow disappearance of the Senegalese and the larger long-term community. Kaaw Sow of the Senegalese Association of America, is fearful when looking toward the future, “If we go, they will speak about us as history, saying ‘here used to be an African restaurant’ and here used to be this but it is not here any more. It won’t be ‘Little Senegal’ any more. It’s not Harlem, any more.12

1. Sam Roberts, “No Longer Majority Black, Harlem Is In Transition.” The New York Times, 05 Jan. 2010.
2. Ibid.
3. Richard Florida, “Where New York Is Gentrifying and Where It Isn’t,” CityLab, 12 May 2016.
4. NYC Health, “Manhattan Community District 10: Central Harlem,” Community Health Profiles 2015.
5. Ibid.
6. Kate Abbey-Lambertz. “How Sky High Rents Are Radically Changing New York Neighborhoods,” The Huffington Post, 12 May 2016.
7. Ginger Adams Otis, “Central Harlem Food Pantry Just Steps from Upscale Restaurants,” NY Daily News, 18 Mar. 2014.
8. Majorie Cohen, “Little Senegal on Harlem’s 116th Shrinks as Gentrification Takes Hold,” Brick Underground, 22 Mar. 2017.
9. Leslie Goffe. “The Harlem Gentrification: From Black to White,” New African Magazine, 25 June 2014.
10. Social Explorer, “Homes Valued to be More than $300,000,” Census 2000.
11. Social Explorer, “Homes Valued to be More than $300,000,” ACS 2015.
12. Leslie Goffe. “The Harlem Gentrification: From Black to White.”
13. Kate Abbey-Lambertz. “How Sky High Rents Are Radically Changing New York Neighborhoods.”
14. NYC Health, “Manhattan Community District 10: Central Harlem.”
15. Ginger Adams Otis, “Central Harlem Food Pantry Just Steps from Upscale Restaurants.”
16. Social Explorer, “Homes Valued to be More than $300,000.”
17. Social Explorer, “Homes Valued to be More than $300,000.” 

West African Clothing

Kilimanjaro Fashions, 116th St.

Although gentrification is slowly taking hold of Central Harlem, West African influence in Little Senegal is still apparent in food, culture, and clothing. The importance of West African clothing stands out because of the numerous purveyors. Whether it is outside flea market-type shops at the Malcolm Shabazz market or storefronts like Kilimanjaro Fashion, there are places to buy African clothing every few blocks. Walking around Central Harlem, one can see several people in traditional African grabs. The shops that explored in this article varied from high-end to more casual clothing. “The quality difference,” one employee of a high-end African clothing store said, “is that the high-end clothing is imported from Austria and Germany, while the lower quality products are from China.” She also explained that the same phenomenon exists in West Africa and that none of the West-African clothing is produced in West Africa.

Another interesting aspect to the African clothing in Central Harlem is the diverse clientele. The clientele is truly representative of the West African diaspora; one employee at a clothing store claims that shoppers come from countries like Ghana, Mali, Senegal, and Nigeria. From visits to the area and research, it is clear that Little Senegal is not only influenced by the Senegalese, but also by people from several West African countries. Although each country has its own unique culture, a unifying factor between them is their clothing.

Storefront on 116th Street.

A series of interviews with different employees at African clothing stores, revealed the importance of the garbs. The clothes are made with specific symbols and colors that convey meaning. For example, white symbolizes spirituality and purity, while blue represents love. The patterns on the clothes also hold meaning; the Kente cloth pattern, one of the most popular designs, has symbols that are representative of religion and culture. One storefront employee explained that specific garbs are often worn on special occasions or to commemorate certain important events.

The vibrancy and beauty of some of the fabrics is refreshing particular in contrast to the concrete background of Central Harlem. It is refreshing to witness how parts of West African culture have been so well preserved through clothing in Little Senegal.


4 East 116th Street.

Among the large, towering buildings in Little Senegal lies a tiny cell phone store. The store is so narrow that no more than two people can stand side by side. A tall, shy man (who declined to give his name) stands behind the counter, waiting for prospective customers to enter. The store sells android phones, iPhones, and many different phone accessories. He was born in Ghana and immigrated to the United States “a long time ago.” He lives in the Bronx and goes to Little Senegal to work in a cell phone shop, like many others who work in the area.

The man has seen Little Senegal and the rest of Harlem dramatically change over time. The increased cost of living in Little Senegal has led to gentrification in the neighborhood. Many of the immigrants and locals of the area have needed to move to cheaper areas in New York City such as the Bronx. The man said that locals who still live in the area do not only come from Senegal, but also from several other West African countries such as Ghana and Nigeria. He mentions Senegalese-style restaurants are still prominent throughout the neighborhood, with Asian and fast-food restaurants scattered throughout the area as well. Business, according to the man, is slower than it used to be. This could presumably be because of the neighborhood’s emerging demographic that is not interested in the areas traditional stores, changing the once bustling cultural center into an area that is slowly losing its identity.