Harlem Walking Tour

I just returned from a month of living in Manhattan. During this time I took myself on a self-guided walking tour of Harlem, the famous predominantly Black neighborhood on north Manhattan island. This was an important place for me to visit as I am trying to be a better ally, and cultural and historical education is critical to that work.


Brief History of Harlem


In 1658, Dutch settlers led by Peter Stuyvesant founded Haarlem, named after a city in the Netherlands. It was completely razed by the British in the Revolutionary War, and took a long time to rebuild. For 200 years it existed mostly as farmland. In the 1880s, new rail lines encouraged the northward expansion of New York City, and a frenzy of development occurred. The area was badly over-speculated however, as the expansion pushed all the way north through Washington Heights and the Bronx, and hundreds of tenement apartments built in Harlem were left vacant. Most of the residents during this period were poor Jewish and Italian immigrants. In the early 1900s, a realtor named Phillip A. Payton approached several Harlem landlords and offered to fill their empty buildings with Black tenants. Payton began his work moving Black families into homes on the 130s blocks, and he and his wife lived on 131st street.

By 1915, Black residents from lower Manhattan, the American South, and as far away as the Caribbean came to Harlem around the time of the World War I seeking more equality and a better life. The Harlem Renaissance occurred in the 1920s, with an explosion of Black artistic and intellectual expression (please see my "Separate but Equal" post covering this time period in more detail). By 1930, 70% of Harlem's residents were Black.

The Great Depression destroyed much of the U.S. economy, and Harlem was no exception. Several deadly riots occurred between 1935 and 1943 over poverty and terrible living conditions. Harlem recovered much more slowly than other neighborhoods, partially due to underinvestment by absentee landlords. In the 1950s and 60s, walkouts and protests occurred against landlords who would not bring houses up to code, fumigate against rats and roaches, provide heat during the winter, or follow rent control regulations. The schools were chronically underfunded, and during this period 75% of children in attendance tested below grade level in reading and math. By the 1970s, many Harlemites left to find better schools and safer streets.

In the 1990s, Harlem began to experience a second renaissance. In 1985 New York City began auctioning off important Harlem properties below market value in the hopes that people who would care for the properties would take them over. The population began to grow again, and today Harlem is safer and more vibrant than it has been in decades.


Apollo Theater

The Apollo Theater was built in 1914. It was originally a burlesque house that enforced a strict "whites only" policy. By 1930s, the theater had fallen into disrepair and was closed. In 1933 a man named Sidney Cohen purchased and renovated the property, renaming it the Apollo Theater. The first shows at the theater were vaudeville acts, but by the mid-thirties bigger names came through, such as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, and the Count Basie Orchestra. "Moms" Mabley and "Pigmeat" Markham were comedians who regularly performed here. The Apollo's famous Amateur Night started during this period, and early winners included Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey.

In the 1940s, the theater continued to align with and serve Black audiences. The comics stopped performing in blackface makeup. Sammy Davis Jr. made his first Apollo appearance. 35 tickets were set aside every day for soldiers during WWII.

The 1950s were a huge time for the Apollo. Josephine Baker, Nipsey Russell, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonius Monk all performed live in the theater. Tito Puente put on mambo shows. Sidney Poitier acted in the Apollo's first dramatic play, "The Detective Story." Notable amateur night winners during this time period included Dionne Warwick and James Brown. The first live TV tapings began in this decade, called "Showtime at the Apollo."

The 1960s saw continued excellence and eminence from Apollo performers. The Isley Brothers, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, James Brown, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Commodores, Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, and the queen of soul herself, Ms. Aretha Franklin, all performed at the Apollo during this time. Jimi Hendrix won his Amateur Night appearance.

Aretha was the main draw during the 1970s. John Lennon and Yoko Ono performed a benefit concert for Attica in 1971. B.B. King played morning concerts for Harlem schoolchildren. Unfortunately, in 1976, the theater was again closed for financial reasons. In 1978, it was briefly reopened with performances by Sister Sledge and Parliament.

The Apollo was not officially reopened until 1985 after being purchased by a group of private investors. Amateur Night was restarted, and Showtime at the Apollo is revived as a TV show.

In the 1990s, the non-profit Apollo Theater Foundation was formed to manage and fund the theater. It has landmark status from the City and continues to be a functioning theater, although it has not been spared from COVID-19 restrictions, and there are currently no live shows.


Strivers' Row


On 138th and 139th streets, from Frederick Douglass Boulevard to Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, there are 160 homes known together as Strivers Row. The official name for the block is the St. Nicholas Historic District. One side of each street is lined with Georgian-inspired yellow brick homes, the other is charming Brownstones. They were originally named King Model Homes after the wealthy developer that built them in 1891. This developer, David King, also designed a version of Madison Square Garden and the base for the Statue of Liberty. He designed the King Model Home community with wealthy residents in mind and put unique features into the neighborhood, such as indoor plumbing and alleyways. The alleys are particularly unique on Manhattan island, as it cost builders a great deal of money to use sellable land for non-residential purposes so they were rarely built. Multi-story, stacked stables were usually built a few blocks from rich neighborhoods, but the alleys allowed this block to have their own private stables. This is why the “walk your horses” sign is there.

Upon completion, these homes rented for $80 a month, far above the local average of $18. Partially because of this high price point, partially because Harlem was being abandoned by white residents, the development failed to turn a profit and the homes were transferred to the company that financed them, Equitable Life Assurance Society. This company refused to sell the homes to Black residents, and as a result they sat empty for decades. "Redlining," or the practice of denying loans or services to Black residents, was a common practice in America and an entire article can be written on just this issue. Finally, in 1919, the homes were made available to Black citizens for $8,000 each. This is when Strivers' Row received its somewhat controversial colloquial name. Many famous Black residents have lived in these homes, from jazz stars, preeminent surgeons, and congressmen to (allegedly) Tupac Shakur and his mother. The houses now sell for several million dollars.

TL;DR: For decades these homes were empty because Black residents were legally prohibited from buying the nicest homes in their neighborhood. America in one sentence.


Sylvia's Restaurant

I had lunch at Sylvia's Restaurant. I couldn't sit inside (they were filming something in there and I just caught a glimpse, also stupid COVID), but they still offer takeout. The food was delicious. I had fried shrimp, grits, and candied yams. This restaurant was founded by Sylvia Woods in 1962 and is still owned and operated by her family. Before stupid COVID they had live music events weekly, including Gospel brunch Sundays. This was one of the top restaurants I visited in NYC and if you're ever in Harlem I highly, highly recommend it.


Named Streets

There seem to be more honorific street names in Harlem than anywhere else in New York City. Lenox Ave was named so in 1887 for James Lenox, one of NYC's first millionaires who loved books and gave away enough money to be considered generous but still rich. Dr. Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X, petitioned the city to rename the avenue 100 years later in 1987. She was partly successful as the street now has two names, although most everyone just uses Malcolm X boulevard.

Madam C.J. & A'Lelia Walker place is not a named street, but the sign exists to mark where one of Madam Walker's mansions used to stand. Born Sarah Breedlove in Louisiana, 1967, she was the first in her family to be born free after the Emancipation Proclamation. She became an orphan at age 6, was married at 14, became a mother at 18, and was widowed by 20. She met her second husband, Charles J. Walker, after moving to St. Louis. Walker began making specialty hair care products for Black women in her home. She moved to Colorado, kept growing her business, and divorced her husband. By 1908, she had moved to Pittsburgh and started a factory and beauty school. In 1910, she moved to Indianapolis and by this time she employed three thousand people (mostly Black women) and she became the world's first self-made female millionaire. She had two homes in New York, including the Harlem townhouse. She donated extensively to scholarships for women, the NAACP, the Black YMCA, and dozens of others. A'Lelia, Walker's daughter, turned the townhouse into a salon during the Harlem Renaissance, and eventually leased the property to the City. The City tore in down in 1941 to build a library, which is what stands in its place today.


Abyssinian Baptist Church

In 1808, a group of 16 Black baptists led by Reverend Thomas Paul, a Black minister from Boston, refused to accept segregated seating at their church services. They formed the Abyssinian Baptist Church, inspired by the ancient name of Ethiopia. The church moved through several properties around New York City. 100 years later, Reverend Dr. Adam Clayton Powell became Abyssinian's 17th pastor. Powell reoganized the church around the social needs of Black Americans. He was a progressive activist and an early member of the NAACP. In 1920, the church purchased land on West 138th street to build their new home and community house. The church was completed and dedicated in 1923. Within 5 years the congregation had completely paid off the mortgage. Leadership transferred to Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in 1937, and he continued his father's activism. He led the congregation in boycotts and community engagement against racial discrimination. In 1944, he was elected to the U.S. Congress. He served 14 terms in the House. He personally generated or amended 60 laws to benefit Black Americans, women, the poor, and schools. The church was declared a landmark in 1993, and they continue to function as a place of worship, and operate domestic and international education and aid programs.


Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is a free museum sponsored by donations and the New York Public Library. There were two exhibits when I visited: "Traveling While Black: A Century of Pleasure & Pain & Pilgrimage" and "Subversion & The Art of Slavery Abolition." Traveling While Black had many photos and items related to how the movement of Black Americans has always been restricted and controlled. There were some original postcards sent from Malcolm X on his pilgrimage around the world to important places in African-American culture. The "Green Book" was a periodical published with places that were safer for Black people to visit and stay while on their travels. The exhibit on slavery and abolition had original books, prints, and articles that were moving and tragic reminders of the terrors endured by Black Americans and ultimately, their resilience and continued strength. We owe them respect and equality. We need to learn this true history if we are ever to achieve that goal.


40 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All