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Washington Heights
Inwood on the Hudson
Marble Hill


Harlem, is no longer the name for the whole northern half of Manhattan. There are three neighbors that still use "Harlem" as part of their names on the island. Bounded by the Hudson River on the west the Harlem River on the east. The northern border runs at 155th Street, where Harlem meets Washington Heights. The Southern border is ragged and runs at an angle from 125th street on the west to 96th street on the east.

The three neighborhoods are:
East Harlem,  (more commonly referred to as Spanish Harlem): (east of Park Avenue, west to the East River, between East 96th Street and East 125th Street),
Central Harlem: (historic "Harlem" of the Black Renaissance) east of Morningside Avenue, and St. Nicolas Avenue and west of 5th Avenue, in between 110th Street and 155th Street),
West Harlem, (mainly used officially, generally not used)
The following are the 2 historic communities that make up this district and more commonly referred to:
Manhattanville, (east of the Hudson River and west of Amsterdam Avenue, between 122nd Street and 131st Street).
Hamilton Heights, (east of the Hudson River and west of St. Nicolas Avenue, in between 132nd Street and 153rd Street).

Henry Hudson claimed the Island of Manhattan for the Dutch in 1609. The Dutch colonized the southern tip of the island, creating the city of New Amsterdam in 1624. New Amsterdam had its northern border at present day Wall Street. The fertile Manhattan soil that lay above this city limit was used for farming purposes. One of these farmer communities started in 1658, was located at what is now East 96th Street and went by the name of Nieuw Haarlem (after the Dutch city of Haarlem). When the British took control over Manhattan in 1664, they changed New Amsterdam into New York and anglicized the name of many Dutch neighborhoods and streets. Haarlem became Harlem.  

Under British rule, Harlem grew into a large agricultural community. Rich family farmland estates were knitted together into a distinct society with a school, church and library at its center. The city could be reached by steamboat, leaving at the East River in New York City, or by stagecoach along the Boston Post Road (nowadays 3rd Avenue).

When the railroad and later the subway reached Harlem, it was assumed that the neighborhood would quickly turn residential. Speculators designed the area as an exclusive suburb for the white middle class, with stately houses, grand avenues and amenities. Oscar Hammerstein opened his Harlem Opera House there in 1889. But the affluent middle class did not arrive as fast as anticipated, and in order to survive and attract residents, building owners had to lower their rents, leading to an influx of Eastern European Jews. This way, the neighborhood became known as "Jewish Harlem" by the 1880's to 1930. The Italians would make East Harlem their home, when many left downtown Little Italy for better living accommodations uptown. In the end however, the Porto Rican population would become the most dominant community, creating what is now known as Spanish Harlem, or El Barrio.

Central Harlem – located west of Spanish Harlem - would develop into New York City’s, if not America’s, most well-known African-American community. Black people lived in Harlem as early as 1880, but mass migration only began in the early 1900’s. A real estate crash in 1890 led to landlords not being able to find white renters for their properties. Black realtor Philip A. Payton Jr. stepped in with the promise of high rents and full occupation, if only the landlords would allow black tenants into their property. At that time, the black communities of New York City were living in ghettos in Greenwich Village and the Tender Loin and were eager to relocate. In the meantime, blacks also started to move to Harlem from outside of the New York City. Conservative whites in the southern American states denied African-Americans their civil and political rights, and as they were a rising power, life in the south became increasingly difficult for black communities. Therefore African-Americans began to migrate to the industrial cities of the northern states. In 1920, 30% of Central Harlem’s population was black. In 1930, only ten years later, over 70% was.

The migration brought people from many different walks of life together, creating a very inspiring environment. This would lead to the Harlem Renaissance, the flowering of African-American cultural and intellectual life in Harlem, during the 1920s and 1930s. The immigrants from the south brought their jazz and blues with them to the city, where it was played in the nightclubs of Harlem, like the Apollo Theatre, the Cotton Club, and the Savoy Ballroom. Slowly the artists and intellectuals started challenging white paternalism and racism. They motivated a rejection of the imitation of the ways of the white and to celebrate black culture and pride instead. It was time for the New Negro, who through intellect and art would challenge racism and could reform America’s society into a stronghold of racial and social integration. The Harlem Renaissance served to uplift the black community and made its influence felt throughout the United States. With time the musical style and culture of blacks was becoming more and more attractive to whites too, which led to more opportunities for blacks to be published by white publishing houses. At the same time white composers and authors started to exploit African-American elements in their own works. Composers used poems written by black poets in their songs, and used the rhythms, harmonies and melodies of African-American music.

The Harlem Renaissance may have brought liberation and social repositioning for the black community in America, this didn’t happen overnight. In the 1920s, building owners outside of Harlem still refused to rent to blacks, leaving them no choice than to settle in the already overcrowded uptown neighborhood. Harlem home owners raised the rents without limit, knowing that their customers had nowhere else to go. In order to make ends meet, large groups of people had to cram together in small apartments. The building owners also didn’t maintain their properties, leading to rat infested slums, with lack of heat and sanitary plumbing. This was even worsened by that fact that, in order to make a buck, tenants would strip a building from everything valuable; electric wiring, fixtures, etc. By 1960, essentially everyone who could afford it had fled from Harlem (whites, affluent blacks, store owners), leaving behind a no man’s land where gangs ruled the streets. By the end of the eighties, a large part of Harlem’s buildings had become empty shells, convenient centers for drug dealing and other antisocial activity.

The zero tolerance administration of Mayor Rudi Giuliani swept Manhattan clean during the 1990’s, including Harlem. Main shopping district 125th Street has become a popular tourist destination, with its Apollo Theater and former president Bill Clinton’s local office. Tourism companies’ offer bus tours that end with a gospel sermon in one of Harlem’s many churches. Harlem has also become a desired living destination for the rich. As the island of Manhattan is limited in space, and downtown and midtown neighborhoods have all become gentrified and outrageously expensive, eyes have become focused on Uptown Manhattan, starting with Harlem. The lack social development in the neighborhood has preserved many old buildings. Harlem is extremely rich in original 19th century townhouses, especially in the Hamilton Heights section. This has lead to an influx of the well-to-do, slowly but surely forcing out the many blacks who can’t afford to live in Harlem anymore.

West of Central Harlem, straight below Hamilton Heights, lies Manhattanville. This area has been occupied since Dutch colonial days. The village of Manhattanville was officially established in 1806, around what’s now Broadway and 125th Street. Manhattanville was situated at approximately the same latitude as the former Dutch village of Harlem and the neighborhoods flourished together throughout the 19th century. Hotels, houses of entertainment and a post office made Manhattanville an alluring destination of suburban retreat from New York City downtown, yet its direct proximity to the Hudson River also made it an invaluable industrial entry point for construction materials and other freight. Noteworthy large immigrant populations were the Irish and Germans. After the Civil war the Jewish population of Central Harlem and East-Harlem began to filter into the western parts of Manhattanville. With the construction of road and railway viaducts over the valley in which the town sat, Manhattanville increasingly absorbed into the growing city of New York and became a marginalized industrial area, with, nowadays, a largely Cuban, Dominican and Puerto Rican population.

In the 1970s, the southern part of Manhattanville (up to about 125th Street) was being filled by Columbia and Barnard College students, staff and faculty, as the university continued to grow. This trend has continued to this day and is spreading north. Columbia University is planning a major expansion with a new campus, secondary school and park, obliterating the majority of Manhattanville’s viable history. The community of Manhattanville is vehemently opposing these plans.