The Growth and Decline of Harlem's Housing

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The Growth and Decline of Harlem's Housing

Harlem today suffers from many of the social ills facing cities across the United States. Gang violence, drug use, and poverty have left their mark on the landscape in the form of burned out buildings and uninhabited blocks. However, one can still see the remains of a different time. Boarded up apartment buildings and brownstones, their windows cemented over, have facades covered with beautiful stone and iron work. Interspersed with these buildings are wooden houses unlike those in other parts of New York City which hark back to the days before Harlem was an urban environment. The history of how these buildings were erected and why they deteriorated is connected to the amazing transformation of Harlem which began in the 1880's. In the space of forty years, Harlem changed from a rural community to a blossoming urban area, and then fell into decline. The economic and social factors which led to this rapid rise and fall provide insight into the current conditions of Harlem and other urban areas across the country.


The history of housing in Harlem extends back beyond the first Dutch traders, who arrived in 1637, to Native Americans who had inhabited the land for generations. However, this paper is only concerned with those buildings which remain part of Harlem's landscape today. The earliest of the these buildings, Alexander Hamilton's Grange, was built in 1801. While today this two story colonial house is wedged awkwardly between its neighbors on Convent Avenue, its once beautiful verandahs, elegant Doric columns, and 35 acre estate were originally designed to fit in with far different surroundings.(2) Harlem in these early years was too far from New York City to merit real estate speculation and remained an isolated rural land of rolling hills covered by grass and trees. Even after 1853 when the Third Avenue horse-railroad opened service to Harlem, the one hour and twenty minute trip prevented the area from changing in character.(3)


In was not until the 1880's that Harlem's life as a sparsely populated settlement ended. The extension of the Second and Third Avenue railroads, and subsequently the Eight and Ninth Avenue lines, to the northern region of Manhattan cut travel time from City Hall to Harlem in half and opened up the area's large expanse of land to development. Real estate operators, expecting to draw residents from the over crowded conditions in lower Manhattan, began a wave of construction. Then newly designed dumbbell tenements were particularly popular on the blocks surrounding the elevated railroad lines. Although these failed to provide even decent accommodations, they were seen by landowners as the most efficient way to house low-income individuals and they did offer an improvement over the crowded and deteriorated conditions of the makeshift and rear tenements in lower Manhattan. Perhaps more important to their popularity, however, was the timing of their completion just as a surge of new European immigrants moved into New York's Lower East Side. This led to the first wave of migration into Harlem by the more established residents of the downtown community who were able to escape up the "el" tracks.(4)

However, the Harlem community that emerged included not only low-income immigrant workers who filled the tenement buildings. Slightly more well off families moved into newly built brownstone houses that lined some of the side streets further away from the train lines, while a number of affluent midtown residents built luxury homes along some of the more interior avenues.

The success of this initial phase of construction lead to continued development. In 1895, the Metropolitan Street Railway Company extended its overhead line up Central Park West into Central Harlem and municipal leaders began talking of a public subway system which would provide even more rapid transit. Speculative buying became commonplace with individuals purchasing plots of land only to sell them again after a short while for a tidy profit. …


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