The first European settlement in what is now Harlem was by Hendrick de Forest and
Dutch settlers in 1637. The area was repeatedly savaged by Native Americans, leading
many Dutch to abandon it. The settlement was formalized in 1658 as Nieuw Haarlem
(New Haarlem), after the Dutch city of Haarlem, under leadership of
Peter Stuyvesant. The Indian trail to Harlem's lush bottomland meadows was rebuilt
by eleven black laborers on behalf of the Dutch West India Company, and eventually
developed into the Boston Post Road. In 1664, the English took control of the New
Netherland colony and anglicized the name of the town to Harlem. On September 16,
1776, the Battle of Harlem Heights, sometimes referred to as the Battle of Harlem
or Battle of Harlem Plain, was fought in western Harlem around the Hollow Way (now
West 125th St.), with conflicts on Morningside Heights to the south and Harlem Heights
to the north.
In 1765, Harlem was a small agricultural town not far from New York City.Harlem was
"a synonym for elegant living through a good part of the nineteenth century." In
the early years of that century, Harlem remained a place of farms, such as James
Roosevelt's, east of Fifth Avenue between 110th and 125th Streets. As late as 1820,
the community had only 91 families, one church, one school, and one library. Wealthy
farmers, called "patroons," maintained country estates largely on the heights overlooking
the Hudson River. Service connecting the suburb of Harlem with New York was by steamboat
on the East River, an hour and a half's passage, sometimes interrupted when the river
froze in winter, or else by stagecoach along the Boston Post Road, which descended
from McGown's Pass (now in Central Park) and skirted the salt marshes around 110th
Street, to pass through Harlem. An 1811 New York City planning commission opined
that Harlem would not be developed for over a hundred years. The New York and Harlem
Railroad (now Metro North) was incorporated in 1831, to better link the city with
the suburb, starting at a depot at East 23rd Street. It was extended 127 miles north
to a railroad junction in Columbia County at Chatham, New York by 1851. In the years
between about 1850 and 1870, the village of Harlem declined. Many large estates,
including the Hamilton Grange of Alexander Hamilton, were auctioned off as the soil
was depleted and crop yields fell. The land became occupied by Irish squatters, whose
presence further depressed property values. The impoverished village was taken over
by the city of New York in 1873.
125th Street station on the 7th Av. IRT LineRecovery came when elevated railroads
were extended to Harlem in 1880. With the construction of the els, urbanized development
occurred very rapidly, with townhouses, apartments, and tenements springing up practically
overnight. Developers anticipated that the planned Lexington Avenue subway would
ease transportation to lower Manhattan, and feared that new housing regulations would
be enacted in 1901, so they rushed to complete as many new buildings as possible
before these came into force. Early entrepreneurs had grandiose schemes for Harlem:
Polo was actually played at the original
Polo Grounds, later to become home of
the New York Giants baseball team, and Oscar Hammerstein I opened the Harlem Opera
House on East 125th Street in 1889. In 1893, Harlem Monthly Magazine wrote that "it
is evident to the most superficial observer that the centre of fashion, wealth, culture,
and intelligence, must, in the near future, be found in the ancient and honorable
village of Harlem." However, the construction glut and a delay in the building of
the subway led to a fall in real estate prices which attracted Eastern European Jews
to Harlem in large numbers, reaching a peak of 150,000 in 1917. Presaging their later
response to the arrival of black Harlemites, existing landowners tried to stop Jews
from moving into the neighborhood. At least one rental sign declared “Keine Juden
und Keine Hunde” (No Jews and no dogs). They needn't have bothered; Jewish Harlem
was an ephemeral entity, and by 1930, only 5,000 Jews remained. The area now known
as Spanish Harlem became occupied by Italians. Italian Harlem is now gone as well,
though traces lasted into the 1970s, in the area around Pleasant Avenue. In the early
20th century, Harlem was also home to a significant Irish population, and a large
group of Finns.
The arrival of African Americans
Marcus Garvey ParkSmall groups of black people lived in Harlem as early as 1880,
especially in the area around 125th Street and "Negro tenements" on West 130th Street.
The mass migration of blacks into the area began in 1904, thanks to another real
estate crash, the worsening of conditions for blacks elsewhere in the city, and the
leadership of a black real estate entrepreneur named Phillip Payton, Jr. Harlem experienced
another real estate bust in 1904-1905; after the collapse of the 1890s, new speculation
and construction started up again in 1903 and the resulting glut of housing led to
a crash in values that eclipsed the late-19th century slowdown. Landlords could not
find white renters for their properties, so Philip Payton stepped in to bring blacks.
His company, the Afro-American Realty Company, was almost single-handedly responsible
for migration of blacks from their previous neighborhoods, the Tenderloin, San Juan
Hill (now the site of Lincoln Center), and Hell's Kitchen in the west 40s and 50s.
The move to northern Manhattan was driven in part by fears that anti-black riots
such as those that had occurred in the Tenderloin in 1900 and in San Juan Hill in
1905 might recur. In addition, a number of tenements that had been occupied by blacks
in the west 30s were destroyed at this time to make way for the construction of the
original Penn Station.
In 1907, black churches began to move uptown. St. Philip's Episcopal Church, for
one, purchased a block of buildings on West 135th Street to rent to members of its
congregation.During World War I, black laborers were actively recruited to leave
the southern United States and work in northern factories, thinly staffed because
of the war. So many came that it "threaten[ed] the very existence of some of the
leading industries of Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Alabama." Many came to Harlem.
By 1920, central Harlem was predominantly black and by 1930, blacks lived as far
south as Central Park, at 110th Street. The expansion was fueled primarily by an
influx of blacks from the West Indies and the southern U.S. states, especially Virginia,
South and North Carolina, and Georgia. As blacks moved in, white residents left;
between 1920 and 1930, 118,792 white people left the neighborhood and 87,417 blacks
Between 1907 and 1915, some white residents of Harlem resisted the neighborhood's
change, especially once the swelling black population pressed west of Lenox Avenue,
which served as an informal color line until the early 1920s. Some made pacts not
to sell to or rent to blacks. Others tried to buy property and evict black tenants,
but the Afro-American Realty Company retaliated by buying other property and evicting
whites. They also attempted to convince banks to deny mortgages to black buyers,
but soon gave up.
These buildings on West 135 Street were among the first in Harlem to be occupied
entirely by blacks; in 1921, #135 became home to Young's Book Exchange, the first
"Afrocentric" bookstore in Harlem.
Employment among black New Yorkers fell as some traditionally black businesses, including
domestic service and some types of manual labor, were taken over by other ethnic
groups, or the industries in question left New York City altogether. The entertainment
industry was a major employer in Harlem but relied on income from wealthier whites,
whose numbers dropped significantly after Harlemites rioted in 1935, and who stopped
coming to Harlem almost altogether after a second round of riots in 1943. Many Harlemites
found work in the military or in the Brooklyn shipyards during World War II, but
the neighborhood declined rapidly once the war ended.
There was little investment in private homes or businesses in the neighborhood between
1911 and the 1990s. However, the unwillingness of landlords elsewhere in the city
to rent to black tenants, together with a significant increase in the black population
of New York, meant that rents in Harlem were for many years higher than rents elsewhere
in the city, even as the housing stock decayed. In 1920, one-room apartments in central
Harlem rented for $40 to whites or $100-$125 to blacks. In the late 1920s, a typical
white working class family in New York paid $6.67 per month per room, while blacks
in Harlem paid $9.50 for the same space.The worse the accommodations and more desperate
the renter, the higher the rents would be. This pattern would persist through the
1960s; in 1965, CERGE reported that a one room apartment in Harlem rented for $50-$74,
while comparable apartments rented for $30-$49 in white slums. The high rents encouraged
some property speculators to engage in block busting, a practice whereby they would
acquire a single property on a block and sell or rent it to blacks with great publicity.
Other landowners would panic, and the speculators would then buy additional houses
relatively cheaply. These houses could then be rented profitably to blacks.
The high cost of space forced people to live in close quarters, and the population
density of Harlem in these years was stunning — over 215,000 per square mile in the
1920s. By comparison, Manhattan as a whole had a population density under 70,000
per square mile in 2000. The same forces that allowed landlords to charge more for
Harlem space also enabled them to maintain it less, and many of the residential buildings
in Harlem fell into disrepair. The 1960 census showed only 51% of housing in Harlem
to be "sound," as opposed to 85% elsewhere in New York City.In 1968, the New York
City Buildings Department received 500 complaints daily of rats in Harlem buildings,
falling plaster, lack of heat, and unsanitary plumbing. Tenants were sometimes to
blame; some would strip wiring and fixtures from their buildings to sell, throw garbage
in hallways and airshafts, or otherwise deteriorate the properties which they lived
in or visited.
Harlem has many townhouses, such as these in the Mount Morris Historic District.Inadequate
housing contributed to racial unrest and health problems. However, the lack of development
also preserved buildings from the 1870-1910 building boom, and Harlem as a result
has many of the finest original townhouses in New York. This includes work by many
significant architects of the day, including McKim, Mead, and White, James Renwick,
William Tuthill, Charles Buek, and Francis Kimball.
The neighborhood enjoyed few benefits from the massive public works projects in New
York under Robert Moses in the 1930s, and as a result had fewer parks and public
recreational sites than other New York neighborhoods. Of the 255 playgrounds Moses
built in New York City, he placed only one in Harlem.
As the building stock decayed, landlords converted many buildings into "single room
occupancies," or SROs, essentially private homeless shelters. In many cases, the
income from these buildings could not support the fines and city taxes charged to
their owners, or the houses suffered damage that would have been expensive to fix,
and the buildings were abandoned. In the 1970s, this process accelerated to the point
that Harlem, for the first time since before WWI, had a lower population density
than the rest of Manhattan. Between 1970 and 1980, for example, Frederick Douglass
Boulevard between 110th Street and 125th Street in central Harlem lost 42% of its
population and 23% of its remaining housing stock.By 1987, 65% of the buildings in
Harlem were owned by the City of New York, and many had become empty shells, convenient
centers for drug dealing and other antisocial activity. The lack of habitable buildings
and falling population reduced tax rolls and made the neighborhood even less attractive
to residential and retail investment.
The worst part of Harlem, ultimately, was the "Bradhurst section" between Adam Clayton
Powell Jr. Boulevard and Edgecombe, from 139th Street through 155th, in central Harlem.
In 1991, this region was described in the New York Times as follows: "Since 1970,
an exodus of residents has left behind the poor, the uneducated, the unemployed.
Nearly two-thirds of the households have incomes below $10,000 a year. In a community
with one of the highest crime rates in the city, garbage-strewn vacant lots and tumbledown
tenements, many of them abandoned and sealed, contribute to the sense of danger and
desolation that pervades much of the area."
After years of false starts, Harlem began to see rapid gentrification in the late
1990s. This was driven by changing federal and city policies, including fierce crime-fighting
and a concerted effort to develop the retail corridor on 125th Street. Starting in
1994, the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone funneled money into new developments including
the Harlem USA retail complex. Finally, wealthier New Yorkers, having gentrified
every other part of Manhattan and much of Brooklyn, had nowhere else to go. The number
of housing units in Harlem increased 14% between 1990 and 2000 and the rate of increase
has been much more rapid in recent years. Property values in Central Harlem increased
nearly 300% during the 1990s, while the rest of the City saw only a 12% increase.[
Even empty shells of buildings in the neighborhood were, as of 2007, routinely selling
for nearly $1,000,000 each.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton has rented office space at 55 West 125th Street
since completing his second term in the White House in 2001.
Culture and politics
As a center of black life
125th Street between Park and Madison AvenueIn the 1920s, Harlem was the center
of a flowering of black culture that became known as the Harlem Renaissance. The
Harlem Renaissance was a time of amazing artistic production, but ironically, blacks
were sometimes excluded from viewing what their peers were creating. Some jazz venues,
including most famously
the Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington played, were restricted to whites only. Others,
including the Renaissance Ballroom and
the Savoy Ballroom, were integrated.
This period of Harlem's history has been highly romanticized since the 1920s, though
it was the time when the neighborhood began to become a slum, and some of the storied
traditions of the Harlem Renaissance were driven by poverty, crime, or other social
ills. For example, in this period, Harlem became known for "rent parties," informal
gatherings in which bootleg alcohol was served, and music played. Neighbors paid
to attend, and thus enabled the host to make his or her monthly rent. Though picturesque,
these parties were thrown out of necessity. Further, over a quarter of black households
in Harlem made their monthly rent by taking in lodgers, who sometimes brought bad
habits or even crime that disrupted the lives of respectable families. Urban reformers
campaigned to eliminate the "lodger evil" but the problem got worse before it got
better; in 1940, 40% of black families in Harlem were taking in lodgers.
The high rents and poor maintenance that Harlem residents suffered through much of
the 20th century was not merely the product of racism by white landlords; though
precise statistics are not available, wealthier blacks purchased land in Harlem,
and even by 1920, a significant portion of the neighborhood was owned by blacks.
By the late 1960s, 60% of the businesses in Harlem responded to surveys reporting
to be owned by blacks, and an overwhelming fraction of new businesses were black-owned
after that time.
In 1928, the first effort at housing reform was attempted in Harlem with the construction
of the Paul Lawrence Dunbar Houses, backed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. These were
intended to give people of modest means the opportunity to live in and, over time,
purchase houses of their own. The Great Depression hit shortly after the buildings
opened, and the experiment failed. They were followed in 1936 by the Harlem River
Houses, a more modest experiment in housing projects. And by 1964, nine giant public
housing projects had been constructed in the neighborhood, housing over 41,000 people.
Stately Harlem apartment buildings adjacent to Morningside Park.The Apollo Theater
opened on 125th Street on January 26, 1934, in a former burlesque house. The Savoy
Ballroom, on Lenox Avenue, was a renowned venue for swing dancing, and was immortalized
in a popular song of the era, Stompin' At The Savoy. In the 1920s and 1930s, between
Lenox and Seventh avenues in central Harlem, over 125 entertainment places operated,
including speakeasies, cellars, lounges, cafes, taverns, supper clubs, rib joints,
theaters, dance halls, and bars and grills.
Though Harlem musicians and writers are particularly well remembered, the community
has also hosted numerous actors and theater companies, including the New Heritage
Repertory Theater, National Black Theater, Lafayette Players, Harlem Suitcase Theater,
The Negro Playwrights, American Negro Theater, and the Rose McClendon Players. In
1936, Orson Welles produced his famous black Macbeth at the Lafayette Theater in
Harlem. Grand theaters from the late 19th and early 20th centuries were torn down
or converted to churches, and Harlem lacked any permanent performance space until
the creation of the Gatehouse Theater in an old pumping station on 135th Street in
In the post-World War II era, Harlem ceased to be home to a majority of NYC's blacks,
but it remained the cultural and political capital of black New York, and possibly
black America. The character of the community changed in the years after the war,
as middle class blacks left for the outer boroughs (primarily The Bronx, Queens and
Brooklyn) and suburbs. The percentage of Harlem that was black peaked in 1950, at
98.2%. Thereafter, Hispanics and, more recently, white residents have increased their
Church of Nazareth, 144th Street and Hamilton Terrace. The building is currently
a burned-out shell.Black Harlem has always been religious, and the area is home to
over 400 churches. Major sects represented include Baptists, Methodists (generally
operating under the name African Methodist Episcopalian, or "AME"), Episcopalians,
and Roman Catholic. The Nation of Islam and splinter Black Muslim groups maintain
mosques in Harlem, and the Mormon church established a chapel at 128th Street in
2005. Many of the area's churches are "storefront churches", which operate out of
an empty store, or a building's basement, or a converted brownstone townhouse. These
smaller organizations may have congregations of only 15 or 20 people, but there are
hundreds of them. Judaism, too, maintains a presence in Harlem, including The Old
Broadway Synagogue, Temple Healing from Heaven, and Temple of Joy. There is also
a non-mainstream synagogue of black Jews known as Commandment Keepers, based in a
synagogue at 1 West 123rd Street.
Especially in the years before World War II, Harlem produced popular Christian "cult"
leaders, including George Wilson Becton and Father Divine.
Since 1965, the community has been home to the Harlem Boys Choir, a famous touring
choir and education program for young boys, most of whom are black. The Girls Choir
of Harlem was founded in 1988. Manhattan's contribution to hip-hop stems largely
from the artists who have Harlem roots, including Kurtis Blow and P. Diddy. Harlem
is also the birthplace of popular hip-hop dances such as the Harlem shake, toe wap,
and Chicken Noodle Soup.
Since the arrival of blacks in Harlem, the neighborhood has suffered from unemployment
rates higher than the New York average (generally more than twice as high), and high
mortality rates as well. In both cases, the numbers for men have been consistently
worse than the numbers for women. Unemployment and poverty in the neighborhood resisted
private and governmental initiatives to ameliorate them. In the 1960s, uneducated
blacks could find jobs more easily than educated ones could, confounding efforts
to improve the lives of people who lived in the neighborhood through education. Infant
mortality was 124 per thousand in 1928 (twice the rate for whites). By 1940, infant
mortality in Harlem was 5% (one black infant in twenty would die), still much higher
than white, and the death rate from disease generally was twice that of the rest
of New York. Tuberculosis was the main killer, and four times as prevalent among
Harlem blacks than among New York's white population. A 1990 study reported that
15-year-old black women in Harlem had a 65% chance of surviving to age 65, about
the same as women in India. Black men in Harlem, on the other hand, had only a 37%
chance of surviving to age 65, about the same as men in Angola. Infectious diseases
and diseases of the circulatory system were to blame, with a variety of contributing
factors including the deep-fried foods traditional to the neighborhood, which may
contribute to heart disease.
Harlem has one of the highest asthma rates in the United States. Increased risk of
asthma may be brought about by high particulate matter from the diesel emissions
of buses and trucks, which levels are higher in Harlem than elsewhere in New York
Not surprisingly, as a neighborhood with a long history of marginalization and economic
deprivation, Harlem has long been associated with crime.
In the 1920s, the Jewish and Italian mafia played a major role in running the whites-only
nightclubs in the neighborhood and the speakeasies that catered to a white audience.
Mobster Dutch Schultz controlled all liquor production and distribution in Harlem
in the 1920s.
Rather than compete with the established mobs, black gangsters concentrated on the
"policy racket," also called the Numbers game, or "bolita" in Spanish Harlem. This
was gambling scheme similar to a lottery that could be played, illegally, from countless
locations around Harlem. According to Francis Ianni, "By 1925 there were thirty black
policy banks in Harlem, several of them large enough to collect bets in an area of
twenty city blocks and across three or four avenues."
By the early 1950s, the total money at play amounted to billions of dollars, and
the police force had been thoroughly corrupted by bribes from numbers bosses. These
bosses became financial powerhouses, providing capital for loans for those who could
not qualify for them from traditional financial institutions, and investing in legitimate
businesses and real estate. Remarkably, one of the powerful early numbers bosses
was a woman, Madame Stephanie St. Clair.
The popularity of playing the numbers waned with the introduction of the New York
State lottery, which has higher payouts and is legal, but the practice continues
on a smaller scale among those who prefer the numbers tradition or who prefer to
trust their local numbers bank over the state.
1940 statistics show about 100 murders per year in Harlem, "but rape is very rare."
By 1950, essentially all of the whites had left Harlem and by 1960, the black middle
class had gone. At the same time, control of organized crime shifted from Jewish
and Italian syndicates to local black, Puerto Rican, and Cuban groups that were somewhat
less formally organized. At the time of the 1964 riots, the drug addiction rate in
Harlem was ten times higher than the New York City average, and twelve times higher
than the United States as a whole. Of the 30,000 drug addicts then estimated to live
in New York City, 15,000 to 20,000 lived in Harlem. Property crime was pervasive,
and the murder rate was six times higher than New York's average. Half of the children
in Harlem grew up with only one parent, or none, and lack of supervision contributed
to juvenile delinquency; between 1953 and 1962, the crime rate among young people
increased throughout New York City, but was consistently 50% higher in Harlem than
in New York City as a whole.
Injecting heroin grew in popularity in Harlem through the 1950s and 1960s, though
the use of this drug then leveled off. In the 1980s, use of crack cocaine became
widespread, which produced collateral crime as addicts stole to finance their purchasing
of additional drugs, and as dealers fought for the right to sell in particular regions,
or over deals gone bad.
In 1981, 6,500 robberies were reported in Harlem. The number dropped to 4,800 in
1990, perhaps due to an increase in the number of police assigned to the neighborhood.
Over the next ten years, with the end of the "crack wars" and with the initiation
of aggressive policing under mayor Rudolph Giuliani, crime in Harlem plummeted. In
2000, only 1,700 robberies were reported. There have been similar changes in all
categories of crimes tracked by the New York City Police Department. In the 32nd
Precinct, for example, in Central Harlem, between 1993 and 2004, the murder rate
dropped 68%, the rape rate dropped 70%, the robbery rate dropped 60%, burglary dropped
81%, and the total number of crime complaints dropped 62%.
Politics and Activism in Harlem
The Red, black and green flag of the Universal Negro Improvement AssociationThe
NAACP became active in Harlem in 1910 and Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement
Association in 1916. The NAACP chapter there soon grew to be the largest in the country.
Activist A. Philip Randolph lived in Harlem and published the radical magazine The
Messenger starting in 1917. It was from Harlem that he organized the Brotherhood
of Sleeping Car Porters. W.E.B. DuBois lived and published in Harlem in the 1920s,
as did James Weldon Johnson and Marcus Garvey.
The earliest activism by blacks to change the situation in Harlem itself grew out
of the Great Depression, with the "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" movement. This
was the ultimately successful campaign to force retail shops on 125th Street to hire
black employees. Boycotts were originally organized by the Citizens' League for Fair
Play in June 1934 against Blumstein's Department Store on 125th Street. The store
soon agreed to more fully integrate its staff. This success emboldened Harlem residents,
and protests continued under other leadership, including that of preacher and later
congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., seeking to change hiring practices at other
stores, to effect the hiring of more black workers, or the hiring of members of particular
1935 saw the first of Harlem's five riots. The incident started with a (false) rumor
that a boy caught stealing from a store on 125th Street had been killed by the police.
By the time it was over, 600 stores had been looted and three men were dead. The
same year saw internationalism in Harlem politics, as Harlemites responded to the
Italian invasion of Ethiopia by holding giant rallies, signing petitions and sending
an appeal to the League of Nations. Such internationalism continued intermittently,
including broad demonstrations in favor of Egyptian president Nasser after the Suez
invasion of 1956.
Black Harlemites took positions in the elected political infrastructure of New York
starting in 1941 with the election of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. to the City Council.
He was easily elected to Congress when a congressional district was placed in Harlem
in 1944, leaving his City Council seat to be won by another black Harlemite, Benjamin
J. Davis. Ironically, Harlem's political strength soon deteriorated, as Clayton Powell,
Jr. spent his time in Washington or his vacation home in Puerto Rico, and Davis was
jailed in 1951 for violations of the Smith Act.
1943 saw the second Harlem riot. A black soldier was shot and wounded by a white
policeman, and the resulting riots saw hundreds of stores looted and six people killed.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Harlem was the scene of a series of rent strikes
by neighborhood tenants, led by local activist Jesse Gray, together with the Congress
of Racial Equality, Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited (HARYOU), and other groups.
These groups wanted the city to force landlords to improve the quality of housing
by bringing them up to code, to take action against rats and roaches, to provide
heat during the winter, and to keep prices in line with already-existing rent control
regulations. According to the Metropolitan Council on Housing, in the mid-1960s,
about 25% of the city's landlords charged more for rent than allowed by law.
Many groups mobilized in Harlem in the 1960s, fighting for better schools, jobs,
and housing. Some were peaceful and others advocated violence. By the early 1960s,
the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had offices on 125th street, and acted as
negotiator for the community with the city, especially in times of racial unrest.
They pressed for civilian review boards to hear complaints of police abuse, a demand
that was ultimately met. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. had become chairman of the House
Committee of Education and Labor at the start of the 1960s, and was able to use this
position to direct federal funds to various development projects back home.
The influence of the southern nonviolent protest movement was muted in Harlem. Martin
Luther King, Jr. was the black leader most respected in Harlem, but at least two
dozen groups of black nationalists also operated in New York. The most important
of these by far was the Nation of Islam, whose Temple Number Seven was run by
Malcolm X from 1952 - 1963. Malcolm was assassinated in the Audobon Ballroom
in Washington Heights in 1965, and the neighborhood remains an important center for
the Nation of Islam.
From the mid-20th century, the terrible quality of local schools has been a source
of distress. In the 1960s, about 75% of Harlem students tested under the grade levels
in reading skills, and 80% tested under grade level in math. In 1964, residents
of Harlem staged two boycotts to call attention to the terrible quality of local
schools. In central Harlem, 92% of students stayed home. In 1977, Isiah Robinson,
president of the New York City Board of Education, was quoted as saying that "the
quality of education in Harlem has degenerated to the level of a custodial service."As
of May 2006, Harlem is the heart of the charter schools movement in Manhattan; of
the 25 charter schools operating in Manhattan, 18 are in Harlem.
The third in Harlem's series of riots took place in July 1964 after the fatal shooting
of a 15-year-old black boy by a white police officer. One person was killed, more
than 100 were injured, and hundreds more were arrested. Property damage and looting
In the aftermath of the riots of July 1964, the federal government funded a pilot
program called Project Uplift, in which thousands of young people in Harlem were
given jobs during the summer of 1965. The project was inspired by a report generated
by HARYOU called Youth in the Ghetto, and HARYOU was given a major role in organizing
the project, along with the National Urban League and nearly 100 smaller community
In 1966, the Black Panthers organized a group in Harlem, agitating for violence in
pursuit of change. Speaking at a rally of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee,
Max Stanford, a Black Panther speaker, declared that the United States "could be
brought down to its knees with a rag and some gasoline and a bottle," the ingredients
of a Molotov cocktail.
In 1968, Harlemites rioted after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Two
died -- one stabbed to death in a crowd and another trapped in a burning building.
Mayor John Lindsay helped to quell the rioting by marching up Lenox Avenue in a "hail
of bricks" to confront the angry crowds.
Starting in the 1960s and continuing through the 1970s, Harlemites fought the introduction
of an immense sewage treatment plant, the North River Water Pollution Control Plant,
on the Hudson River in west Harlem. A compromise was ultimately reached in which
the plant was built with a state park, including extensive recreational facilities,
on top. The park, called Riverbank State Park, was opened in 1993 (the sewage plant
having been completed some years earlier).
The 1995 riots did not resemble their predecessors, and were organized by black activists
against Jewish shop owners on 125th street. Eight died.
Today, the Abyssinian Baptist Church is a particularly potent organization, wealthy
as a result of its extensive real estate holdings. It advocates on behalf of black
and poor New Yorkers.