When traveling to New York City, the obvious hot spots are Times Square, Grand Central, the Empire State Building, etc. With so much to see and do, it’s hard to see the whole city in one trip. That being said, there is one neighborhood that most people don’t make time for, but should. That neighborhood is Harlem. Luckily, a tour group called Free Tours by Foot offers a fabulous tour of the neighborhood. Home to a number of historically famous landmarks, Harlem has gone through several phases of gentrification and depression, as well. Originally a farming territory until the late 1800’s, Harlem was a separate colony from Manhattan, connected by Broadway. If you have ever actually explored the neighborhood, you know how hilly it is. Those hills were once cliffs that now serve as sidewalks, roads, and parks.
What really made upper Manhattan more accessible was the construction of railroads – namely the Metro North Railroad originating from Grand Central Concourse (now Grand Central Terminal). The first immigrants to begin settling uptown were the Germans and Jews in Yorkville, as well as Italians, all alongside the famous Harry Houdini who lived on 113th street and 7th avenue. This migration uptown lead to what we know as the Harlem Renaissance.
You might be wondering how Harlem went from farming rural land to the urban metropolis it is today. Well, did you know that Manhattan was the second largest slave town in the world at one point? Only Charleston, South Carolina saw more slaves than NYC. They cut down all the trees on Broadway, and built sewers. 1827, though, finally saw the end of slavery in Manhattan.
This tour also highlighted some points of interest like famous churches, and the old Harlem Renaissance Ballroom. Two streets in particular stood out in the neighborhood as being exceptionally beautiful. Lined with trees and gorgeous brownstones, 138th and 139th streets are nicknamed “Striver’s Row,” as the residents there strive to maintain the beauty. We also saw, from a distance, the Harlem YMCA, which was the front porch of the Harlem Renaissance. At that time, the facility had SRO’s, or single room occupancies, one of which actually housed Malcolm X for about 4 months.
After riots ravaged the neighborhood from 1964-1968, the building owners had to come up with ways to get tenants back uptown. As a result, leases were sold for $1 and investors would have the buildings to do with what they pleased. The city saw this as an opportunity to make some cash, and by 1993, the city of New York owned 60% of the buildings in Harlem.
Luckily, the neighborhood that we know and love today continues to gentrify and thrive. Harlem is a culturally rich neighborhood home to a diverse multitude of people. Sometimes it feels more suburban; with block parties in the 140’s every weekend over the summer, and sometimes it feels super urban with street vendors lining busy streets. Whatever you fancy, Harlem is a perfect neighborhood to explore on your next trip to New York City, especially with Free Tours by Foot.
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