Walking Tours: Harlem
Harlem is located in the northern portion of Manhattan and is one of the foremost African-American communities in the world, but it wasn't always that way.
Settled by the Dutch in 1658 and called Nieuw Haarlem, the area at the northern end of Manhattan featured lush farmland in the flat, eastern section and large estates for well-known families like the Delanceys, Bleekers, Rikers, Beekmans and Hamiltons in the high, western section. Following an economic decline in the 1830s that saw many of the farms abandoned and the estates sold at public auction, Harlem became home to people looking for cheap property and housing, and a refuge for newly-arrived immigrants - including the Irish.
New and better forms of transportation, and the increasing population of New York after the Civil War helped transform Harlem into a middle and upper-middle class neighborhood. In 1837, the New York and Harlem Railroad began operating from lower Manhattan to Harlem. The addition of three lines of elevated rail service spurred new residential development in the area. In the 1870s a wave of speculative development hit Harlem and construction began on new single-family row houses, tenements and luxury apartment houses. Commercial businesses, as well as religious, educational and cultural institutions began to spring up around Harlem to serve the growing population.
More improvements in the transportation system in the late 1890s led to another wave of real estate speculation. By the time the Lenox Avenue subway opened at 145th street in 1904, nearly all of the vacant land in Harlem was built upon. The increase in residential construction led to extensive vacancies and inflated rents. The real estate market in Harlem collapsed in 1904-05. A black businessman named Philip Payton took advantage of the situation. Through his Afro-American Realty Company, Payton acquired five-year leases on white-owned properties, managed them and rented them to African-Americans at 10 percent above the deflated marketprice. Thus began the migration of middle class Blacks to Harlem.1
Harlem - then and now - is a city within a city, a neighborhood that has maintained its mystique through cycles of boom and bust. In 1925, James Weldon Johnson described it as a "mecca for the sight seeker, the pleasure seeker, the curious, the adventurous, the enterprising…" But the community of new law apartments and handsome dwellings with well-paved and well-lighted streets that Johnson knew in 1925 had begun to deteriorate by 1939. Abandonment accelerated in the late 1970s with large City tax foreclosure actions that made New York City the owner of more than 1,000 buildings in Central Harlem, most of them vacant. Central Harlem includes an area that is roughly bounded by 8th Avenue to the west, Madison Avenue to the east, 155th Street to the north, and 110th Street to the south.
Today, all but a handful of vacant buildings in the City's Central Harlem portfolio are scheduled for rehabilitation through various city-sponsored programs. Expanses of vacant lots are being transformed again into blocks of three-family residences and larger mixed-use commercial/residential structures. As you walk about the Harlem community to the west and south of Marcus Garvey Park, you'll notice how many homeownership opportunities are included in this redevelopment effort. Homeownership is a way for New Yorkers to invest in their communities while they build equity for themselves and their families. Harlem's Community Boards, along with HPD, are working to increase the homeownership rate in Harlem from the current 10% to be more in line with the rest of the city, where it's now 32%. Not everyone is in a position to be a homeowner, so HPD has also sponsored projects to provide affordable, quality rental apartments. In both new construction and rehabilitation, HPD has been sensitive to the architectural integrity of a legendary community marked by landmark row houses and grand religious and public buildings.
Come along and see what's happening to housing in Harlem.
Begin by standing at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and West 116thStreet. Soon this vacant lot will be 1400 Fifth Avenue ( A ), an internet-ready, environmentally-friendly building for 21st century Harlem. The project will be developed by Harlem-based Full Spectrum Building and Developers Inc., and will include 30,000 square feet of retail and commercial space and 129 spacious condominium apartments. Amenities will includea landscaped interior courtyard, a geothermal heating and cooling system and convertible home office space, reflective of the trend to work at home. Government subsidies will make this condo affordable to middle-income families. Income levels for buyers of the condo units will range from $50,000 to $130,000 depending upon the sizeof the household. As with all HPD-sponsored housing, units will be sold by lottery. At least 30% of the units will be given to current residents of the community.
Look east along 116th Street toward Madison Avenue and note the building under construction about a block away on the north side of the street. This is a rental building for low-income families known as Tony Mendez Apartments, financed through the State's Homes for Working Families Program. The site was formerly City-owned land and HPD's urban planners helped bring the development to fruition. The building combines state funding with tax-exempt bond financing from the New York City Housing Development Corporation. Start walking west along West 116th Street. About two-thirds of the way down the block, the brightly colored onion domes on the south side of the street belong to the Malcolm Shabazz Vendors Market, evocative of the souks of northern Africa and the Middle East. The Malcolm Shabazz Development Corporation, in cooperation with HPD and the NYC Partnership, opened this 25,000 square foot village marketplace in the summer of 1999. The marketplace provides space for 115 local vendors selling food, arts, crafts, sculpture, and ethnic apparel.
Directly across the street at the corner of 116th and Malcolm X Boulevard (Lenox Avenue) along the north side of the block is HPD's newest ANCHOR project, the Renaissance Plaza( B ).
(ANCHOR stands for Alliance for Neighborhood Commerce, Homeownership andRevitalization.) This building contains 240 cooperative apartments and 62,000 square feet of retail and commercial space. Among the stores locating here are Rite Aid Drug, a branch of Carver Federal Savings Bank, Met Foods, Petland Discounts, tutoring space for the Rheedlen Family Center and the women's clothier, Ashley Stewart. Income levels for buyers of the limited equity co-ops range from $36,000to $133,000 depending on the size of the household. The Renaissance Plaza is completely sold out: testimony to the desire for homeownership opportunities in Harlem were the 4000 applications received for the 240 apartments built!
Cross to the west side of Malcolm X Boulevard (Lenox Avenue) and walk north to West 117th Street. Notice the two vacant lots at the northwest and southwest corners of Malcolm X Boulevard (Lenox Avenue) and West 117th. These lots are the future site of Lenox Gardens which will include two six-story buildings with 49 housing units, commercial space and underground parking. This site will be developed in calendar year 2002 through the ANCHOR program.
Next to the vacant lot on the north side of West 117th are four brownstone buildings. At the same time the two lots are developed, these brownstones will be rehabilitated. The rehabilitation will return up to 16 units of affordable housing to the community. Head west along West 117th Street and glimpse Malcolm Shabazz Gardens( C ), a cluster of 41 three-family townhouses for moderate-income families developedby the Bluestone Organization and the Malcolm Shabazz Development Corporationas part of HPD's Partnership New Homes Program - jointly sponsored by HPD and the New York City Housing Partnership. The entire development is sold out, yet another indication of the popularity of homeownership in Harlem.
In the midst of the new town homes, are two properties 140 and 141. These two buildings are being rehabilitated through the Tenant Interim Lease (TIL) program. The TIL Program enables low-income tenants in City-owned buildings to purchase their apartments. Requirements are stringent. The tenants must be organized and demonstrate both the ability and desire to self-manage. Once accepted into the program, tenants receive extensive training in property management and financial record keeping, and actually operate the property under a lease with HPD. During this period, HPD funds the building rehabilitation. After completion of renovations and all program guidelines are fulfilled, buildings are sold to a cooperative corporation established by the tenants. Individual tenants purchase shares for these apartments for $250.
At the end of the block on the north side is number 157, a former city-owned building rehabilitated in 1994 through the Vacant Buildings Program( D ). The 18 apartments here, along with an additional 47 in its companion buildings nearby, were rented to low-income families.
On the south side of the street is the service entrance of one of Harlem's grandest properties, the landmark Graham Court( E ), 1923-1937 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard.
Turn the corner and walk south about 100 feet to take a peek through the arched passageway to glimpse its interior courtyard. Constructed in 1901, this building, commissioned by William Waldorf Astor and designed by architects Clinton & Russell, contains eight elevators. Graham Court introduced style to Harlem at the onset of the 20th century; its counterpart in the new millennium is 1400 Fifth Avenue, where we began this tour.
Walk north on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, originally Seventh Avenue, and turn east onto West 118th Street. On the north side of the block at 147 is a row house, recently renovated and sold in January 2001 through the HomeWorks Program ( F ). The city acquired this four unit property in 1992 after a former owner stopped paying taxes. Next door to the building, at 149-155 West 118th, is a building which was formerly owned by the New York City Department of Corrections and which will also be rehabilitated through the HomeWorks Program.
There are 35 houses in this immediate area included in HomeWorks, a rehabilitation program for brownstones. Another example of a building recently renovated through HomeWorks is located further down the block at number 106 West 118th.
Across the street from this building is 103 West 118th which will be rehabilitated through the Vacant Building 2000 program.
Home buyers in HomeWorks are selected through an HPD-supervised lottery in which 50 percent of the properties are reserved for applicants already residing in the community. Another five percent are set aside for uniformed New York City police officers as part of HPD's NYPD Home program to encourage police officers to buy homes in New York City.
Most of Harlem's row houses were built at the end of the 19th century when Harlem experienced a wave of speculative development tied to the extension of the elevated rail line to 129th Street. As the community's fortunes waned, many of these beautiful structures were turned into rooming houses, fell into varying states of disrepair, and were finally abandoned. Unfortunately, not all these glorious row houses could be restored. Fire destroyed or severely damaged many of them. Quite a few were in such terrible shape that they had to be torn down in the 1970s and 80s. Those losses created the large tracts of vacant land where new housing is rising.
Walking further east along West 118th between Malcolm X Blvd. (Lenox Ave.) and Fifth Avenue you will notice seven more three family Shabazz Gardens Partnership New Homes such as the ones you originally saw on West 117th.
Continue east on West 118th St. to the corner of Fifth Avenue. Look south at the block between East 118th and East 117th Streets. The brand new four-story brick row houses you see are another NYC PartnershipNew Homes Development, Fifth Avenue Homes ( G ). This development encompasses the entire block from West 117th to West 118th,and from Fifth Avenue to Madison Avenue. It includes 40 three-unit homes. The Partnership New Homes Program is New York City's largest new housing construction program. The community-based sponsor is Hope Community, a local group with extensive experience in housing and social services.
Notice the stoops, the quintessential characteristic of the New York City row house, introduced by the Dutch. The stoop, a grand exterior staircase, and the height of the houses - four stories instead of the Partnership's trademark three - are the highlights of a design by an HPD architect determined to respect the integrity of Harlem's beautiful brownstone blocks. We'll see the 19th century versions as we approach Marcus Garvey Memorial Park immediately to the north.
Walk north on Fifth Avenue to West 119th Street and then start walking west. On the southern side of West 119th Street at numbers 48 and 50 are two examples of buildings already rehabilitated through the Tenant Interim Lease Program ( H ).
Each of these buildings contains 10 tenant-owned apartments. They began the path to tenant-ownership in 1997 and were sold to the tenants in 2000 after an extensive rehabilitation.
Walking around these few blocks reveals the enormity of the redevelopment and preservation efforts underway in Harlem. Virtually every available resource has been tapped to produce both rental and homeownership opportunities for a broad range of New Yorkers with a variety of needs. Included in the mix are the commercial hubs on the major east-west blocks, where goods and services are available to an expanding population. This transformation is a cooperative venture between government, not-for-profit community-based organizations, neighborhood business people, and financial institutions.
Keep walking west along West 119th Street until you get to Malcolm X Boulevard (Lenox Avenue) and then go north to the corner of West 120th Street. At the northeast corner of West 120th and Malcolm X Blvd. (Lenox Avenue) are 200 and 202 Malcolm X Boulevard. These two beautiful buildings are being renovated through HomeWorks . Note the mansard roof. Mansard roofs were usually built on very upscale homes. They were first used in French Renaissance architecture and later were popular in Victorian buildings in Europe and America. These particular buildings were built in 1888. Number 204 is missing and where it used to stand will become open space which will become part of the 202 property. Across the avenue is the stately Mt. Olivet Baptist Church ( I ). Originally this was Temple Israel, where German Jewish families who settled this area at the end of the 19th century worshipped. It's just one of six historic churches located in the immediate area.
Keep walking north along Malcolm X Boulevard until you get to West 122nd. Turn east onto West 122nd Street for a look at the heart of the Mt. Morris Historic District. To preserve these exquisite Victorian row houses and maintain the integrity of this historic neighborhood, the five blocks bounded by Mt. Morris Park West on the east, West 125th Street to the north, Lenox Avenue on the west and West 119th Street on the south were given New York City landmark status in November 1971.
West 122nd Street ends at the park originally called Mt. Morris Park but re-named in 1973 for the black nationalist Marcus Garvey. The park was recently renovated and given a new baseball field and field house which you can see at the end of block. Inside the park atop "the mount" is a fire tower, an early example of cast iron construction. At one time, there were other towers similar to this one on elevated points throughout Manhattan where people watched for fires and signaled the alarm for the bucket brigades.
Along the north end of the park at West 124th Street is the Harlem Branch of the New York Public Library built in 1909 by Andrew Carnegie. But the real interest here is to the south. Walk down Mount Morris Park West to see the row of facades secured by steel beams that line part of the block between West 121st and West 120th Streets. These are known as The Ruins ( J ), the future site of a residential development. The deteriorated row houses were acquired by New York State. Through the Empire State Development Corporation a completely new structure containing state of the art apartments will rise behind these "false fronts" that will be restored in accordance with Landmark specifications. Continue walking south to West 120th Street and start walking around the park. Another fine example of historic preservation is the building facing the park at number 28 West 120th Street. This 10-unit building was rehabilitated in 1999 in accordance with landmark standards through HPD's Neighborhood Entrepreneurs Program (NEP). Note the beautiful wood entrance door. Just down the block at number 16 is another HomeWorks brownstone with three units. The picture below shows the great view the owner has of the park. Continue around and along 120th Street to the southeastern corner of the park. Looking south down Madison Avenue you will notice the start of another major construction project. The three block assemblage includes all of the area between East 117th Street and East 120th Street, and Madison Avenue and Park Avenue.This site is being developed through HPD's Cornerstone Program and will include more than 700 units of housing, commercial space, town houses and off street parking.
The Cornerstone Program is HPD's new multi-family new construction housing initiative. This initiative will create over 2,300 new middle-income and market-rate housing units in northern Manhattan over the next three years, financed principally through private sources. Working in tandem with the Housing Development Corporation's New Housing Opportunities Program (New HOP), and other funding sources, HPD is encouraging the development of new homeownership and rental multifamily apartment buildings without direct HPD Capital Budget subsidy.
HPD's Cornerstone Program seeks to spur the creation of new homeownership and rental apartments in areas like Harlem where the city is making substantial housing and commercial investments. The housing, community, and commercial space made available through this first round of the Cornerstone Programwill help expand and diversify Harlem's economic base and allow more families to live, shop, and work in Harlem. Head north along the park (Madison Avenue) to the yellow-colored brick buildings between 122nd and 124th Streets. These buildings are Maple Court and MaplePlaza ( K ), a limited equity cooperative complex financed through NYC Housing Development Corporation tax exempt bonds.
HPD and its partners have implemented programs to help return Harlem buildings to their once-majestic splendor and will continue to play a part in Harlem's renaissance.
1 Harlem: The Making of the Ghetto