Harlem is a locality in the New York City borough of Manhattan, long known as a fundamental residential, cultural, and business center for many minorities, but it is far more than that. It is symbolic of the many divergent cultures that have come together, that have grown together, called by the lure of the legendary flame eternally held high by the Statue of Liberty. It is symbolic of the melting pot known as America, a melting pot that has been cooking a tried and true formula of Freedom for over 200 years now. East Harlem is a symbol of the hope, determination, acceptance and strength that has made America great.
Harlem was once an area of quiet farms, much as the original 13 colonies brimming with agricultural immigrants who pooled together to eke out a living. In Harlem existed communities filled by a few Hollanders, French Huguenots, Danes, Swedes and Germans. For three decades, the Germans were the dominant cultural element in the borough, with the Irish ranking second in numbers and influence. The immigration waves of the 1880s and 1890s brought in different cultural elements from Israel and Italy. Like the young nation itself, Harlem had attracted people seeking a fresh start and a fair chance from all four corners of the Old World. Then African-Americans began to come to Harlem from downtown, from the South, and from the West Indies. By the 1930’s, half a million people crowded into the largest area in New York. There were too many people and too few places, too little in the way of resources, and Harlem became the Nation’s biggest slum. However, its people persevered.
As the young nation grew, so did Harlem, growing and defining its boundaries. The United States increased its size and its population with the Louisiana Purchase, typically defining itself geographically, opening up more territory for those seeking freedom. This brought more immigrants and diverse cultures from around the world, most coming through New York City, many staying there, and settling in Harlem.
To this day, Harlem’s boundaries include the following: The East Harlem/El Barrio area, known as Spanish Harlem, a community that stretches from First Avenue to Fifth Avenue, from East 96th Street to East 125th Street. Then there’s Central Harlem, which expands from Central Park North to the Harlem River, as well as from Fifth Avenue to St. Nicholas Avenue. West Harlem, comprising Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill, expands from 123rd to 155th Streets also from St. Nicholas Avenue to the Hudson River.
East Harlem has been referred to as “German Harlem, Irish Harlem, Jewish Harlem, Italian Harlem and Spanish Harlem,’ also commonly known as “El Barrio.” It is a testament to the many, diverse ethnicities’ that have made their home in the borough. A microcosm of a Nation that has grown so much and overcome so many issues caused by cultural diversity, that a minority is its President. Today there is a considerable amount of Central and South American immigrant populations moving into the area, which have begun to match the large number of Puerto Ricans who have dominated the area for years. The ebb and flow of East Harlem’s diverse ethnic population has had a tremendous historical significance, and has been a microcosm of a nation forged by many diverse cultures, forming an interesting part of the early history of both New York City and the Nation.
Immigration to the United States, from the 19th century to the early 20th century has been the focus of much attention, and for good reason. A great mass of immigrants drawn from a myriad of various origins came in pursuit of the “American Dream”, which symbolized for them democracy, equality, liberty, justice and most of all, material well- being. We are promised these opportunities right in the Declaration of Independence, “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” no matter who we are. There is no better testament to this promise than East Harlem.
Industrialization and the establishment of the factory system throughout America offered promise of employment to the destitute masses in Europe. Most industrialists in America depended on cheap labor coming from Europe to man the factories, without caring one bit about what would happen to the immigrant laborers after their arrival. The masses flooded the market. With industrialization, vast changes in the United States began taking place. This would eventually lead to both positive and grave negative consequences.
The effort of those who worked together, regardless of culture, as in Harlem, to endure and make better lives for themselves and their families have made America what it is today, the financial epicenter of the World. Whether they worked on farms, in factories, built railroads, bridges, towns or cities, their rewards were greater than any nation could ever offer, they were given freedom and all the responsibilities that come with it. Those responsibilities include learning to accept and understand, and experience with different cultures and ethnic groups.
During the 1800’s, Harlem was developing all sorts of transportation projects in an effort to promote northward expansion. By 1831, the New York and Harlem Railroad Company was incorporated for the purpose of constructing a railroad from the central part of the city going into Harlem. This encouraged the residents of lower Manhattan to move northward to Harlem. With the erection of the “els,” metropolitanized development occurred extremely rapidly, precipitating the construction of apartment buildings and brownstones. Across America, at the same time, famous railroads were built. Canals were formed. Just like Harlem, America was expanding, growing, and integrating itself from one community to the other. This availability of reasonably priced housing and faster transportation allowed the working group to be able to live in East Harlem, and travel to their places of employment downtown.
In the West, railroad construction projects at this time drew many laborers from Asia. In Harlem, these construction projects attracted many immigrant wage laborers as well, from many different ethnic cultures, mostly during the 1880’s and 1890’s. The steady flow of cheap labor coming from abroad fueled America’s and Harlem’s industrial drive, and also gave the ruthless entrepreneurs a superb opportunity to reap profits from the sweat off of the backs of the various minorities that came seeking a fair chance. However in Harlem, as in America, they endured and overcame, and that is what the American Spirit is all about. Enduring, toiling, earning, and moving forward instead of backward.
In San Francisco, the Chinese worked on the Pacific railroads, living in shanty towns and working for a pittance. In Harlem, the first group to go to work building America’s pathway to an industrious future was the German and Irish workers who laid down the trolley tracks and dug the subway tunnels. Because of East Harlem’s cheap tenement rent and its convenient public transportation system, many central and eastern European factory workers were able to commute from lower Manhattan’s sweatshops. As a result of this construction, East Harlem became highly populated with a hard working Irish and Italian community.
East Harlem was one of the major locations for Jewish residences at this time as well. It was the veritable melting pot of diversity that the United States prides itself on. During the 1920’s, East Harlem had a Jewish population of circa 177,000, to continue with its German, Irish and Italian populations, all living together, working to make Harlem, New York, and America a better place. At that time, Harlem was predominately Jewish, and East Harlem had the largest Jewish section overall. As the population broadened, as African Americans and eventually Hispanics began moving into East Harlem, the borough’s Jewish population began to dwindle.
With their small thriving, businesses, the remaining Jewish merchants maintained strong connections with the inhabitants of East Harlem, further strengthening the diverse character of East Harlem
Between 1915 to 1920, hundreds of thousands of African Americans began to migrate to Harlem from the “economically depressed” rural South, still recovering from the Civil War 50 years earlier, to the thriving industrial cities of the North. Like all Americans, they wanted to benefit from the urban, economic opportunities in steel mills, auto factories and packing houses. They wanted to succeed and improve their lives. They wanted that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” that they were promised. Thousands of African-Americans would fan throughout the black ghettos of New York City, seeking work wherever and however, they could get it. Since Harlem could not accommodate all of the numerous new arrivals, the overflowing migration of African Americans moved into East Harlem, right about the same time that the Puerto Ricans began establishing themselves in the borough. The roaring 20’s was a boom period for the U.S., and East Harlem was literally bursting at the seams.
A large number of southern Italians that arrived in NYC during the last quarter of the 19th century from the regions of Basilicata, Calabria and Sicily, also established their communities in East Harlem. By the 1930s, it was the largest Italian settlement in the city. The Italian community lived mostly around 106th street, in the area east of Third Avenue all the way to the East River, often housed in a single story lean-to shanties that were built along the water because there simply was not enough housing to shelter everybody. They also endured.
Then it happened, it all started to fall apart. The Great Depression set in, and America and its inhabitants were actually broke. The years of the Great Depression took a heavy toll on the Italian Americans, especially the men that worked in the construction industry, as new construction ground to a halt Nationwide. Regular employment was difficult to come by, and it was nearly impossible to maintain and feed large families. Often, the wives then had to take on menial housekeeping work just to keep their families afloat. Even the children were forced to work. Nonetheless in Harlem, there was such a diverse culture that already had to endure so many hardships, The Great Depression was just another day hustling to make ends meet. It was that grit, determination and sacrifice that helped save the fledgling Nation.
By the 1940’s there were still a large amount of unemployed Italians in Harlem, but the economy started to improve by the 1950’s, thanks in part to World War II. The nation began to recover, and better housing and sanitary living conditions improved for many in East Harlem as well.
Since the early 1990’s, the face of East Harlem continues to change, as it always has, broadening its ethnic scope. With new arrivals from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Central and South America, Harlem is again forging a new, diverse personality. As America has grown, and Hollywood has come of age, the Nation has occasionally needed a facelift to keep its allure and beauty. In East Harlem, with a constant influx of new cultures, this always seems to be the case. Today you will find many immigrants from West Africa, the Caribbean, China and even Turkey, all working and living together, seeking to find that elusive American Dream. As long as America is viewed as the land of opportunity, the constant ebb and flow of East Harlem’s endless ethnic succession will never cease to paint the pages of New York City’s rich and turbulent history with stories of sacrifice, effort and hope. Likewise, these are the things that real dreams are made of.