Welcome to West Harlem

Let us take you on a tour:

You must take the A train to go to Sugarhill way up in Harlem sings Ella Fitzgerald accompanied by Duke Ellington’s orchestra. Well you heard her: Manhattan Uptown Bound A-Train, next stop West 125th Street. Fully accessible by the A, B, C, D, 1, 2, and 3. Yes, today we are paying a visit to West Harlem, cushioned by the Hudson River on the West, Central and Spanish Harlem on the east, Morningside Heights to the south, and Washington Heights to the north. Once dubbed the Capitial of Black America, Harlem boasts as home to Duke Ellington, Ralph Ellison, W.E.B. DuBois, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Riverside Church, the Cotton Club, the Apollo Theater, and many other historical and cultural landmarks. Hamilton Heights and Sugarhill are considered the sub-divisions of West Harlem; Hamilton Heights was named after the first U.S. Secretary of Treasury who lived in West Harlem (his home is now a visiting site) and Sugarhill was named as such during the 1920s, when the people felt as though it was the “sweetest” place to live due to the culture. Because of these things, among others, Harlem has always been one of New York City’s most famous neighborhoods.

Spanning the area between W125th to W155th streets from the Hudson River to St. Nicholas Avenue, once upon a time, West Harlem was a European neighborhood. It was settled by the Dutch in 1658 and thereafter majority of the population were the first-wave immigrants who came from Germany, Italy, and Ireland. In the later half of the 1800s, Harlem faced a building boom and many of the townhouses and brownstones seen today were built. Beautiful architecture became the focal point of Hamilton Heights. However, Harlem really became the neighborhood it is recognized as today following the Great Migration and World War II.  These events brought large numbers of African Americans from the South into New York, and eventually the Harlem area. This influx of black Americans caused an artistic movement during the 1920s called the Harlem Renaissance. Great African American artists and figures such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, W.E.B. DuBois, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday, contributed to the music, art, literature, and poetics that flowed through Harlem’s streets. Speakeasies and theaters, such as the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater, provided stages and platforms for these artists. It was again a hotbed for the Civil Rights Movement and Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. With Harlem establishing itself as the epicenter of black culture and art, much of its population continued to be majority black.  While some say the peak occurred in the 1950s when 98% of the population was black, others list the population peaked in 1970 when blacks counted for 64% of Harlem’s residents. Besides African Americans, Africans, West Indians, and Puerto Ricans also contributed to the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood.

Following the racial distress and falling property value of the 1970s and 1980s West Harlem lost a lot of its community and the area became crime and drug infested. Though some of the residents resisted, gentrification in the 1990s sought to increase the property value and give the neighborhood a “face lift.” This led to an increase in the population, specifically white young urban professionals, which was a controversial shift for many. Currently, Manhattan Community District 9, (which includes West Harlem and other neighboring divisions) has a population of 111,724. Whites make up about 17.8%, Blacks account for about 31% and Hispanics account for 43.2% of the population.

From its cultural centers, ethnic foodways, multi-ethnic populations, famous brownstones, artistic institutions, and so much more, culture in Harlem is still as thick as thieves. Truly a neighborhood worthy of exploration.

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