The original settlers of Harlem were the Wecksquaesgek Indians. The Dutch settled there in 1639 and called it Nieuw Haarlem (New Harlem) after a city in Holland. By 1658, the community consisted of a Dutch Reformed Church at the town center and an inn at the ferry to the Boston Road. Then in 1664, the British invaded and they anglicized Nieuw Haarlem to Harlem. Harlem even had a role in the Revolutionary War: on September 16, 1776, during the Battle of Harlem Heights, American soldiers met British troops near 106th Street and Broadway and the British were forced to retreat.
In the early 1800s, the population of Harlem grew modestly and although investors began buying and selling properties, it remained an agricultural society. With the building of the New York and Harlem Railroad in the 1830s, there was an increase in
real estate buying/selling but up until the 1870s, most of the area was farmland and some Irish and German immigrants began small settlements. In 1880, the New York Elevated Railroad extended to Harlem and with easier and cheaper transportation, realtors began an apartment-building boom. Even though the realtors aimed for wealthy whites, it was Italian and Jewish immigrants who began to pour into the neighborhood from the overpopulated Lower East Side. Also, Puerto Ricans along with some African Americans and West Indians began arriving and by 1940 “Spanish Harlem” came to be.
In 1904, the mass migration of blacks into the area began because of a real estate crash in Harlem and the worsening conditions of blacks in other parts of the city. Landlords could not find white renters for their properties, so that the Afro-American Realty Company helped blacks migrate from their previous neighborhoods. Then the Great Migration took place as blacks left the South to escape Jim Crow laws. They found jobs in the industries created for WWI and many settled in Harlem. The high cost of space forced people to live in close quarters, and the population density of Harlem became over 215,000 per square mile in the 1920s.
The influx of blacks into Harlem contributed to the Harlem Renaissance, which spanned between 1920s and 1930s. It was a movement toward equality through a flourishing of the arts. With African-American activists such as W.E.B du Bois and Marcus Garvey steps toward achieving civil rights were taken. There was also an explosion of music and art at this time. Harlem earned its reputation as the Mecca for Jazz and blues. Venues like Apollo Theater, which opened in 1914, and the Cotton Club became places where musician such as Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway became famous.
When the Great Depression hit, Harlem was hit hard. With layoffs and foreclosures, increased economic tensions between the black community and the white shop owners of Harlem. This led to the Harlem Race Riot of 1935. Harlem played a crucial role in the Civil Rights Movement as many activist groups such as the Black Panthers formed there. From the 1930s onward, Harlem was in a state of decline and was home to many crimes and illegal activities in the 1970s and 80s. In the 1990s, Harlem underwent rapid gentrification with increased crime control and development of retail. The price of real estate increased by 300 percent at this time and the price remains high today. Currently although there’s a large African American, African, and Hispanic population, due to gentrification there’s a Caucasian population present too.