African-American residents began to arrive en masse in 1905, with numbers fed by the Great Migration. In the 1920s and 1930s, Central and West Harlem were the focus of the “Harlem Renaissance”, an outpouring of artistic work without precedent in the American black community. However, with job losses in the time of the Great Depression and the deindustrialization of New York City after World War II, rates of crime and poverty increased significantly. Harlem’s black population peaked in the 1950s. In 2008, the United States Census found that for the first time since the 1930s, less than half of residents were black, and black residents only counted for 40% of the population.
Since New York City’s revival in the late 20th century, Harlem has been experiencing gentrification. Despite this influx of new wealth, many residents of West, Central, and East Harlem rely on welfare, at 34.9%, 43.3%, and 46.5% of the population, respectively.
By the 1970s, many of those Harlemites who were able to escape from poverty left the neighborhood in search of safer streets, better schools and homes. Those who remained were the poorest and least skilled, with the fewest opportunities for success. Though the federal government’s Model Cities Program spent $100 million on job training, health care, education, public safety, sanitation, housing, and other projects over a ten-year period, Harlem showed no improvement. The city began auctioning its enormous portfolio of Harlem properties to the public in 1985. This was intended to improve the community by placing property in the hands of people who would live in them and maintain them. In many cases, the city would even pay to completely renovate a property before selling it (by lottery) below market value.
After the 1990s, Harlem began to grow again. Between 1990 and 2006 the neighborhood’s population grew by 16.9%, with the percentage of blacks decreasing from 87.6% to 69.3%, then dropping to 54.4% by 2010, and the percentage of whites increasing from 1.5% to 6.6% by 2006, and to “almost 10%” by 2010. A renovation of 125th Street and new properties along the thoroughfare also helped to revitalize Harlem.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Central and West Harlem was the focus of the “Harlem Renaissance”, an outpouring of artistic work without precedent in the American black community. 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.
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. 133rd Street, known as “Swing Street”, became known for its cabarets, speakeasies and jazz scene during the Prohibition era, and was dubbed “Jungle Alley” because of “inter-racial mingling” on the street. Some jazz venues, including most famously the Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington played, and Connie’s Inn, were restricted to whites only. Others were integrated, including the Renaissance Ballroom and the Savoy Ballroom.
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. Harlem lacked any permanent performance space until the creation of the Gatehouse Theater in an old Croton aqueduct building on 135th Street in 2006. From 1965 until 2007, the community was 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 1989, and closed with the Boys Choir. Harlem is also home to the largest African American Day Parade which celebrates the culture of African diaspora in America. The parade was started up in the spring of 1969 with Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. as the Grand Marshal of the first celebration.
Arthur Mitchell, a former dancer with the New York City Ballet, established Dance Theatre of Harlem as a school and company of classical ballet and theater training in the late 1960s. The company has toured nationally and internationally. Generations of theater artists have gotten a start at the school. Manhattan’s contributions to hip-hop stems largely from artists with Harlem roots such as Big L, Kurtis Blow and Immortal Technique. Harlem is also the birthplace of popular hip-hop dances such as the Harlem shake, toe wop, and Chicken Noodle Soup.
Harlem is currently experiencing a gourmet renaissance with new dining hotspots popping up uptown around Frederick Douglass Boulevard. At the same time, some residents are fighting back against the powerful waves of gentrification the neighborhood is experiencing. On October 17, 2013, residents staged a sidewalk sit-in to protest a five-days-a-week farmers market that would shut down Macombs Place at 150th Street.
In 1910, 10% of Harlem’s population was black but by 1930, they had become a 70% majority. The period between 1910 and 1930 marks a huge point in the great migration of African Americans from the South to New York. This point also marks an influx from downtown Manhattan neighborhoods where blacks were feeling less welcome, to the Harlem area. The black population in Harlem peaked in 1950 with a 98% share of the population (population 233,000).
As of 2000, Central Harlem had a black community comprising 77% of the population; however, the majority of African Americans moved out as more and more foreigners began to move in. Central Harlem is the most famous section of Harlem and thus is commonly referred to simply as Harlem. Central Harlem is home to the famous Apollo Theater.