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PBS: African American World

The Lenox Lounge in the 1930s
Arts and Culture:
A Walk Through History
More on This Story:
Preserving Harlem

Harlem was named early on in New York history — not surprisingly, when New York was still New Amsterdam. The small village founded by Peter Stuyvesant in 1658, was called New Harlem (Nieuw Haarlem) after the town of Haarlem back home. The area was mostly farmland until the mid-19th century when the city began expanding northward. The first type of construction was in the form of tenements, which became home to a changing groups of immigrants to the city. These were followed by luxury buildings designed to attract wealthy citizens fleeing crowded downtown areas. At the same time, the suburban train lines reached even further north and the middle classes soon left Harlem for destinations in the Bronx and Westchester. The Great Migration of African Americans to the North after World War I found the overlooked Harlem developments desperate for tenants.

When the Federal Writers Project turned its attention to Harlem in the 1930s for its guidebook series, the area above 125th street was divided into "Negro Harlem," "Spanish Harlem," and "Italian Harlem." NATIVE SON author Richard Wright was just one of the WPA writers who contributed to the volume. Many of the landmarks noted on the maps in the 1939 edition of the WPA guidebook are still visible — but just as many have gone the way of the Cotton Club — visible only in nostalgic films or black and white photos.

Harlem street scene, 1939
"The reason why I came to New York is because I was seduced by the legend of Harlem. Harlem was the African-American cultural capital. Harlem remains, in the minds of many people, the African-American cultural capital. And yet, one of the most compelling manifestations of that, the old buildings here, have not been given the due reverence that they deserve." --Michael Adams, Architect and Harlem Preservationist

Striver's Row
"West 138th and 139th Streets, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues are know in Harlem as STRIVER'S ROW because so many Negroes aspire to live in the attractive, tan-brick houses on these two tree-shaded streets. The residents are mostly of the better-paid, white collar, professional class." -- the WPA Guide to New York City, 1939

Minton's Theater
"At 253 West 125th Street, near Eighth Avenue is the Apollo Theatre, known as Harlem's "opera house." Opened in 1913 as a burlesque house, it became in 1934 a vaudeville theater. Weekly all-Negro reviews, with outstanding dance orchestras and musical comedy favorites, are presented to mixed audiences. The theater is owned an managed by whites, but the actors, actresses, and other employees are Negro." -- the WPA Guide to New York City, 1939

Sylvan Terrace
"135th Street and Seventh Avenue is the site of the former Small's Paradise nightclub, established in 1925, it was one of the greatest jazz venues ever created. And now, it's to be replaced by an International House of Pancakes. Some would say that this represents progress. I say, save Harlem from pancakes." --Michael Adams, Architect and Harlem Preservationist

Other old developments, like Sylvan Terrace, pictured at left, have managed to survive for several centuries — now carefully restored.

Audubon Ballroom
"The Audubon Ballroom and theater is amongst the most spectacular ever built in Harlem. It is most significantly the place where Malcolm X was killed. Half the Audubon was ruinously renovated into a biotech laboratory. The cornice was originally painted in many colors to match the terra cotta of the facade. Now it's green to match the bio-tech lab. And the back half of the Audubon was leveled completely for a parking lot. A parking lot at the place where Malcolm X was assassinated." --Michael Adams, Architect and Harlem Preservationist

Sources: Sources: Sanna Feirstein, NAMING NEW YORK; Federal Writers Project, THE WPA GUIDE TO NEW YORK, 1939; Andrew S. Dolkart, GUIDE TO NEW YORK CITY LANDMARKS

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