Central Harlem History

12/30/05 - Central Harlem is the heart and soul of Harlem, where the past coexists with the present. Historic buildings and landmarks still stand, re-purposed into modern entertainment venues, educational institutions, restaurants, and galleries. Central Harlem is where you'll find the famous Apollo Theater and former President Bill Clinton's office, as well as blocks of turn-of-the-century townhomes along Astor's Row and Strivers' Row, and churches like the Church of the Intercession and Abyssinian Baptist Church. 

Many great minds once lived here or currently call this neighborhood home, including James Van Der Zee, Father Divine, leader of Father Divine's International Peace Mission Movement, and Maya Angelou.  A Revolutionary War battle was even fought in Trinity Cemetery, which surrounds the Church of the Intercession. 

Home to History

Central Harlem's main areas include the St. Nicholas Historical District (or Striver's Row), Astor's Row, and Mount Morris Park. 

Strivers' Row/St. Nicholas Historical District

Officially named the St. Nicholas Historic District, the area between 7th and 8th Avenues on 138th and 139th Streets earned the name Strivers' Row because of its upwardly-mobile residents. The houses here were designed by some of America's best-known architects, including Stanford White, who designed the neo-Italian Renaissance houses on the north side of W. 139th Street. 

Ironically, the homes were slated for middle class black families; however, only the wealthy could afford to live in this neighborhood. Doctors, lawyers and popular musicians like Eubie Blake and Fletcher Henderson lived in Strivers' Row. Today, renovated Georgian-style homes sell for $1.5-2 million. Strivers' Row is also widely known because one of the first African American architects, David H. King (who built Madison Square Garden and the base of the Statue of Liberty) built several row houses in the area. Before the term Strivers' Row was coined, the row houses were called "King Model Houses" after the developer. Other designers that contributed to Strivers' Row townhomes include James Brown, Bruce Price, and Clarence S. Luce. 

Today, the area is a gateway to the past. Signs affixed to alleyway entrance gates still read "Walk Your Horses." What once were used to stable horses, now are used as parking spaces-an oddity in New York real estate. 

Astor's Row

Is the name given to the 28 semi-attached row houses built on the south side of 130th Street between Fifth Avenue and Lenox in Harlem. The houses are set back from the street and all have front yards-which is not common for homes in Manhattan-and all have wooden porches. If you'd been parachuted in and had no idea where you were, you would probably guess Savannah, Georgia or other city in the South. The homes were built on land purchased for $10,000 in 1844 by John Jacob Astor. Astor's grandson, William Backhouse Astor, hired architect and builder Charles Buek to complete the project. The homes in Astor's Row were completed between 1880-1883. 

Originally these townhomes were occupied by white New Yorkers but in 1920, most of the homes were sold to a real estate operator, who sold the homes to black buyers. Unfortunately, these historic houses were not maintained as from 1930 - 1990, as Harlem experienced economic hardship. As a result, the magnificent wooden porches decayed. In 1981, New York City declared the entire row historic landmarks and raised funds to restore the facades, plumbing, heating systems, and electrical lines, making the area one of New York's brightest gems, once again. 

One of the most infamous Astor's Row tenants was Father Divine, who lived on the north side of Astor Row in 1932. Present-day Astor's Row is racially integrated, and is one of the stellar architectural landmarks in Harlem. It's located within walking distance of Sylvia's Restaurant of Harlem, Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, and the Langston Hughes House. 

Mount Morris Park Historic District

In 1971, the Mount Morris Park Historic District was declared a Historic District by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and is one of the earliest landmarked districts in the five boroughs. Encompassing a 16-block area north from West 118th to West 124th Streets and west from Fifth Avenue to Malcolm X Boulevard (Lenox Avenue), this neighborhood includes an impressive collection of late 19th- and early 20th-century architecture representing the many styles associated with the Gilded Age. 

Prior to its landmark status, the main attraction of this neighborhood was called Mount Morris Square, which was established in 1839 on over 20 acres of an old land grant farm, and then became part of the New York City public park system. The park was again renamed in 1973 and is now Marcus Garvey Park, honoring the leader of the international Pan-African movement. 

Famous Central Harlem Residents

James Van Der Zee

The son of Ulysses S. Grant's maid and butler, James Van Der Zee opened his first photography studio in Harlem in 1915. For 60 years, he worked in obscurity, capturing the essence of Harlem life. In 1967 the Metropolitan Museum of Art uncovered Van Der Zee's remaining 40,000 prints and negatives and displayed many of them in its "Harlem on My Mind" exhibit in 1969. Van Der Zee's studio at 270-272 Lenox Avenue was recently purchased by a private owner and is being restored to its original condition. 

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes was one of the first African Americans to earn a living solely as a writer. Nicknamed the "Poet Laureate of Harlem", Hughes was known mainly for his poetry. He also wrote plays, novels, nonfiction pieces, and an opera. Hughes moved to Harlem in 1926, where he encountered artists, writers, and scholars like Aaron Douglas, Countee Cullen, and Alain Locke. He was inspired by the jazz and blues he heard in places such as the Savoy Ballroom. His involved in the energetic literary, art and music scenes enabled him to write with stunning clarity about the social, political and cultural atmosphere of Harlem in the 20s and 30s. 

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston moved to Harlem in 1925 after winning second place in a writing contest sponsored by Opportunity Magazine. Hurston's writing identified the struggles of African Americans living in the rural South in the early 1800s through colorful southern dialects, traditions and folklore. She is well-known for her two most acclaimed books, Jonah's Gourd Vine and Their Eyes Were Watching God. 

W.E.B DuBois

In 1896 W.E.B. DuBois was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University. His essay collection, The Souls of Black Folk, was published in 1903, and became an instant classic. He founded the grass roots magazine, The Crisis, which was the flagship publication of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). DuBois championed the achievements of many African-American writers and scholars, urging them to fight racism through literary works. He was responsible for the term "Talented Tenth," an elite group of African-Americans who met DuBois' definition of artisanship. 

Central Harlem Attractions

If you're planning on visiting our neighborhood, we highly recommend making room in your itinerary for the following attractions:

* Trinity Cemetery. Travel back in time as you tour Trinity Cemetery, where troops under Gen. George Washington engaged in combat during the Revolutionary War. Opened in 1843, Trinity Cemetery was once Manhattan's only active burial ground. The cemetery is on the National Register of Historic Places and surrounds the Church of the Intercession. Notables interred here include naturalist John James Audubon; Madame Eliza Jumel; the Astor family and the Schermerhorns; Charles Dickens' son; novelist Ralph Ellison; Michael Hogan; 1840s pro baseball player E.R. Dupignac; and poet Clement Clarke Moore just to name a few. 

* Church of the Intercession. Located at 155th and Broadway the Church of the Intercession was constructed between 1911-1914 and is quite possibly the finest example of Neo-Gothic architecture in New York. The church's architect was Bertram Governor Goodhue, who is buried within the church. Every Christmas the church celebrates the Clement Clarke Moore Candlelight Carol Service, honoring Clark Moore, the poet who wrote "A Visit From Saint Nicholas." 

* Muhammad Mosque No. 7. This Harlem landmark is the New York headquarters of the Nation of Islam. Located at 106-8 West 116th Street, Muhammad Mosque No. 7 was established by Malcolm X, the famous civil rights leader. Malcolm was appointed as a minister and national spokesman for the Nation of Islam by Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm used media outlets to communicate the Nation of Islam's message. His convictions and dynamic presence attracted many new members. Malcolm was responsible for increasing membership in the NOI from 500 in 1952 to 30,000 in 1963. 

* Theresa Towers (formerly the Teresa Hotel). Frequented by celebrities of the day, Teresa Hotel was once known as the "Waldorf of Harlem." Built and opened in 1913, it was only desegregated in 1940. In 1960, Fidel Castro was a guest here. The former Secretary of Commerce in Bill Clinton's administration, Ronald Brown's father managed this hotel when Ron was growing up. The hotel was also the headquarters of organizations such as the March on Washington led by A. Philip Randolph, and Malcolm X's Organization for African Unity. The building now contains offices. 

* Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is a national research library is a great resource for learning about the African-American experience, as well as about the lives of individuals around the world of African descent. The Center earned international acclaim in 1926 when it acquired the personal collection of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, the Puerto Rican-born Black scholar and bibliophile. Schomburg served as curator from 1932 until he died in 1938. The Center was renamed in his honor and the collection has continued to grow. Today, the Schomburg Center contains over 5,000,000 items and provides services and programs for constituents from the United States and abroad. 

* Apollo Theater. Is by far one of the most famous Harlem institutions. Known world-wide as a popular music venue, the Apollo Theater is known for its heavy involvement in promoting African-American artists. 

Located at 253 W. 125th Street in Harlem, the Apollo earned its reputation during the Harlem Renaissance. In 1934, the theater introduced its still popular Amateur Night shows. The Apollo is credited for launching the careers of performers such as Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, Gladys Knight, Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5, and Lauryn Hill. 

* Countee Cullen Regional Branch Library. The present day Countee Cullen Regional Branch Library is located where Madame C.J. Walker's townhouse once stood. Madame C.J. Walker was a self-made millionaire, who made her fortune manufacturing hair care products specifically for African-American women. Starting out with only $1.25, she built her company into an empire. In 1916, Madame C.J. Walker moved to New York, where she bought a house at 108 W. 136th St. and opened an elegant fully equipped beauty salon next door at 110 W. 136th St. 

Mme. Walker was also a civil rights activist and in 1917 visited the White House to petition President Woodrow Wilson to make lynching a federal crime. She traveled the country promoting her hair care line and lecturing on women's rights and African-American rights. When she died in 1919, she left her fortune and business to her daughter, A'Lelia Walker, who organized a literary salon in her townhouse at 108 W. 136th Street, which she named after Countee Cullen's column in Opportunity. The walls of the rooms displayed poems by Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. 

* Graham Court. One of Harlem's most impressive properties, Graham Court, located on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, was commissioned in 1901 by William Waldorf Astor and designed by Clinton & Russell. The property contains eight elevators and was purchased by the City in 1992. Recently, it was sold to private owners, who are restoring it to its original grandeur. 

* Dunbar Houses (Dunbar Apartments). Built by the Rockefeller family, the Dunbar Apartments located between 7th and 8th Avenues on 149th to 150th Street, were built to meet a demand for affordable housing in Harlem. The five-acre apartment complex was named in honor of the black poet and housed 511 moderately-priced rental units, as well as a playground, several stores, and a branch of the Dunbar National Bank. But despite the intentions of these apartments being affordable, the rents were still out of reach of many Harlem residents. Instead, the homes were occupied by poets, musicians, actors and scholars including poet Countee Cullen, labor organizer Asa Philip Randolph, musician Fletcher Henderson, actor Paul Robeson, and scholar W.E.B. DuBois. 

* Abyssinian Baptist church. The Abyssinian Baptist Church was constructed in 1808 by a group of wealthy Ethiopian traders who refused to accept the segregation policies of other New York churches. In 1908, Rev. Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., a fervent proponent of civil rights, became pastor of the church. In 1922, the congregation moved to Harlem, in a newly constructed Neo-Gothic style church. 

Rev. Powell was an active participant in the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. His life's work was to improve social conditions for African Americans. His church was a religious and social center for the community. During the Depression, the Abyssinian fed thousands of Harlem's poor residents. 

One of his most widely known acts was the boycott against Blumstein Department Store, when the Rev. Powell urged the black community to leverage their buying power to force white business owners to hire black employees as store clerks and not just janitors and cleaning staff. Although Blumstein's made 75 percent of its sales to blacks, the store's owners refused to hire them as clerks or cashiers. In 1934, after weeks picketing, and a successful boycott, the owners yielded. 

* Mt. Olivet Baptist Church. Built in 1907, this architectural marvel was originally Temple Israel, a congregation of Jewish families from Germany. Mount Olivet, an old and influential black congregation in New York, bought the building in 1925. This house of worship was built in the Neo-Roman Style and was designed by Arnold W. Brunner. Brunner, who studied at the E'cole des Beaux Arts in Paris, was a leader in grand Classical Revival synagogues. 

* Mother A.M.E. Zion Church. The oldest black church in the US, Mother A.M.E. Zion was founded in 1796 by African-American residents. In the mid-1800s, the church was known as a "freedom church," a safe stop for slaves traveling along the Underground Railway. The present Neo-Gothic building was designed by George W. Foster, Jr., one of the first black architects to be registered in the US. 

* Studio Museum of Harlem. Founded in 1968, the Studio Museum of Harlem is dedicated to advancing the work of African American artists and artists of African descent. Through its Artists-in-Residence program, exhibitions, and public programs, the museum presents work from around the globe that has been inspired by African cultures. The museum got its name from its Artists-in-Residence program. For this 12-month residency, the museum provides three emerging artists with art materials, a stipend, and space to create their work. Artists come from cities around the country such as St. Louis, Memphis, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago and Washington, D.C. 

SMH offers educational and public programs for families, adults, and youth, such as "Words in Motion," where students learn to express themselves using the visual arts, poetry, spoken word, and DJ-ing. 

* 267 House. The building located at 267 W. 136th Street was converted into rent-free housing for artists by Iolanthe Sydney. Many artists have spent time 267 House, including Wallace Thurman and Richard Bruce Nugent. Writers Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes lived at the house in the summer of 1926. 267 House became known as the center for a younger generation of artists and writers. 

Getting to Central Harlem

Central Harlem includes 110-155th Streets. To get here, take the A, B, C, D, 2, 3 trains. 

Amy Covington