Long a quiet farming area founded by Dutch settlers, Harlem began to gain its urban character in the 1870s, when the elevated railroad improved accessibility from downtown. Wealthier New Yorkers escaping from the congested central city built ornate brownstones and mansions. During the 1910s, the real estate market collapsed, and landlords filled the new buildings by renting to blacks from downtown and newly arrived from the south. This was the beginning of Harlem's Renaissance. Many famous African-American writers, poets, musicians, academics grew up in or moved to Harlem. During prohibition, Harlem became the center of the city's nightlife.
Harlem began to decline in the 1960s. Race riots, common in many American cities at the time, spurred over 100,000 residents to flee to the suburbs. Landlords abandoned buildings that no longer produced profits. The government bought up about two-thirds of the buildings in Harlem, many of them vacant. Banks "red-lined" Harlem, blocking home mortgage and improvement loans. Harlem continued its downward spiral in the 1980s, when the crack epidemic hit hard.
In the face of this adversity, community organizers, politicians, and planners began working to turn Harlem around. Churches created non-profit development corporations to revitalize the community and build low-income housing, aided by government loans. By the 1990s, outsiders were beginning to take another look at Harlem. Middle-class New Yorkers, many of them black, who were priced out of much of the rest of Manhattan, began snapping up the inexpensive, grand old buildings in Harlem. Rents and home prices continue to skyrocket today. Ironically, the lack of investments in Harlem during much of the 20th century meant that few of the beautiful old buildings had been replaced by less-charming modern buildings.
Today, many say Harlem is going through a Second Renaissance. The crime rate is down significantly. Harlem is now an obligatory stop for many tour buses, and upscale travel and lifestyle magazines increasingly include Harlem as one of the hip, up-and-coming neighborhoods to see in New York City. Former President Clinton set up office in Harlem. Many residents and business owners are happy to see Harlem on the upswing, but they are deeply concerned about the impact of rising costs on the poor and working class of Harlem. Longtime residents often cannot afford to stay in Harlem when they need to move to different or larger apartments. Stories of illegal eviction threats abound.
Critics say that developers, politicians, and local planners are catering to those who don't need assistance by subsidizing construction of new moderate-income and market-rate housing. Urban revitalization policies have indeed changed since the 1960s when the federal government built large enclaves of subsidized, low-income housing projects. Today, the government often seeks to encourage mixed-income neighborhoods. And since the average per capita income in Manhattan (in 1999) is about three times that of Harlem, what the government considers "affordable" housing for many New Yorkers is, in any case, out of reach for many longtime Harlem residents.
Diana Marsh is a graphic designer and urban planner who divides her time between the Bay Area and New York City.