East Harlem's History
In the first hundred years after 1629 the area attracted early Dutch settlers
and French Huguenots. In Dutch days the community was named Nieuw Haarlem
by Peter Stuyvesant and became a simple farming community with the Dutch
Reformed Church at the town center and an inn at the ferry to the Boston
After the English invasion in 1664, British settlers arrived. "New Amsterdam" was renamed "New York", but Harlem kept its Dutch name. Harlem's village square was what is now East 121st St. between Lexington and Third Avenue, in front of the "Old Dutch Reformed Church". (click here for more history)
In the early 1800s, Harlem's population expanded as immigrants swept into New York and as investors began buying and building. The community became more of a suburban village, although still on a very modest scale. Third Avenue was one of the first to come up straight from New York. The stage coach took 30 minutes. During the same period, black farmers settled along the Harlem River around what is now East 130th Street.
Developers anticipated further growth in the 1830s with the construction
of the New York and Harlem Railroad along what was then Fourth Avenue
(it did not become Park Avenue for another half-century). After the Civil
War speculators began buying East Harlem lots but the hoped-for development
did not take place. A horse-drawn railroad along Third Avenue was chartered
East Harlem did attract some Irish and German immigrants escaping the Lower East Side. Some of their homes were the merest shacks, built of old crates from, factories along the East River. Others build the vast rows of eight-unit tenements, later called "old-law tenements". As late as 1870, much of the area was farmland.
At the same time, a wave of Italian immigrants spilled over from the already
overpopulated Lower East Side, followed a decade later by other Eastern
Europeans. Mount Carmel and Saint Cecilia, Italian language Roman Catholic
Churches, began in the 1870's. The Irish and Germans who had previously
settled there began to move up and out, but left traces through the 1960s
of their community. Yeshivas flourished on many blocks, some until the
1950's. Flurries of land speculation finally led to furious construction,
block after block, of the tenements which would shelter working-class
families for years to come. In the forty years between 1870 and 1910 approximately
65,000 apartments were built in East Harlem, a testimony to the tremendous
demand for new housing and the ability of the private economy to provide
With the large supply of cheap housing began a pattern of in-migration
and dispersal of ethnic groups that would characterize the history of
East Harlem from beginning to the present. As new immigrant groups moved
uptown, seeing East Harlem as an improvement over the Lower East Side,
previous settlers went elsewhere. Each new group was met with hostility
and each in turn exhibited hostility toward the new ethnic group that
From the 1880s through the 1910s, Italians settled in the area east of Third Avenue to the River, closely followed by Eastern Europeans. The newcomers settled down and flourished. In the 1930s, the Italian community in "Harlem" was the largest in the country.
At the same time, Puerto Ricans began to arrive with some African Americans and West Indians. "Spanish Harlem" 'had a name by the 1940s. It was the natural destination for the migration from those sources to meet the economic boom of World War II and the dress and textile industry postwar.. These populations replaced the Italians and Eastern Europeans who were moving out to the Levittowns, etc. By 1950, East Harlem was predominantly African-American and Puerto Rican.
The mix of population and economic dis-investment, called "red-lining", had a devastating effect on the housing stock. Even as the old tenement buildings deteriorated, more and more newcomers crammed into them. The population grew after World War II to a maximum of 210,000 in 1950s, a density of 142,000 people per square mile, one of the highest population densities in the world at that time.
The density, and the deteriorating condition of the tenements focused civic attention on East Harlem It became the prime target for federal slum clearance as outlined in the Federal Housing Act of 1937. Starting In 1938, the New York City Housing Authority ("NYCHA") began razing the dilapidated, East Harlem slums, block by block, replacing 171 acres or 18% with modem high-rise housing projects over 20 years that complied with federal housing standards.
After World War II, the push for slum clearance accelerated and public
housing projects began replacing the old and lively tenement buildings.
These housing projects required large tracts of vacant land resulting
in the destruction of tenements, brownstones, clubs and meeting places,
small businesses and neighborhood ties. Low-rise buildings were replaced
by massive high-rise developments, by 1967, 15, 657 units were built created
which brought in working people from other NYCHA sites and all over the
City. The housing projects cut across old neighborhoods and communities
and created physical barriers to travel even as they created "green belts"
of air, space and playgrounds within East Harlem.
But the wholesale demolition of people's homes and neighborhoods brought
a new and unexpected reaction. At first slowly but with accelerating force,
the community began to fight back. Many residents felt that whatever the
inadequacy of their housing, they could not stand by and watch their vibrant
friendly neighborhoods and communities be destroyed.
They were joined by others who, ineligible' for public housing, were faced
with the threat of homelessness. These tenants and neighbors organized
protests and blocked additional destruction of property. The last large-scale
NYCHA project in East Harlem was completed In 1965.
Latinos and African-Americans had not always identified with one another, but in the 1950s they teamed with energetic clergy and settlement-house leadership to improve the quality of their schools and to pressure for new ones. Eight were built in this period. The unity continued into the sixties, with its strong emphasis on shared decisions and a respect for the voice of the community. Even the destruction of the East Harlem riots of 1967 led to reaching out by the community to bind up the torn fabric of residents and their retail stores.
Also Central Park which clings to the west border of CB# 11 is also a shared development responsibility that requires the involvement of all planning boards that are located immediate to the east, west, south and north borders of Central Park.
The islands also became known for their hospitals. The earliest was built
in 1843, followed by the Manhattan State Hospital in 1890 and by two ten-story
buildings in 1918 which served as a military hospital. During the 1930s,
the islands became accessible via the Triborough Bridge. Shortly after,
Parks Commissioner Robert Moses set about converting them into parks.
Commissioner Moses joined the islands by means of landfill, thereby adding 46 acres. Facilities include the 22,000-seat Downing Stadium, athletic fields and a parking lot for 4,000 vehicles. Many of the low hospital bungalows were demolished replaced by a the new high-rise Manhattan State Hospital built after World War 111. In 1951 the area became further accessible from East Harlem via a footbridge at 103rd Street to Ward's Island, where a park and ball fields were developed.
Between 1950 and 1999 the population dropped from 210,000 to 110,500,
according to US Census figures, although residents believe the population
is at least 10% higher, with many unreported residents. Housing stock
decreased from 72,000 units to 42,000 units, largely through the Federal
slum clearance program and public housing construction. In 1982, international
competition forced the closing of East Harlem's Washburn Wire Company--
one of Manhattan's largest industrial plant and one of the boroughs largest
single industrial employer (800 workers).
Their are two Community School Districts located in East Harlem - Community School Boards 4 and 5. The public school system in Community School Board 4 is nationally known for its mini-schools, and many of their educational programs have been replicated elsewhere.
Throughout East Harlem the varied communities have asserted cultural identifies through the arts, dance, and drama, The, art and architecture of the "casitas" (informal buildings on vacant lots) have been featured in several museum exhibits.
Many efforts have been made by the private and public sector to improve
the socioeconomic conditions in East Harlem. The investment in East Harlem
by the Housing Authority ($318 million) and the not-for-profits ($661
million, mostly using City/Federal housing money), and private developers
($73 million, much of that also with public incentive money) means that
recovery of housing quality is on the way. The residential rehabilitation
continues as this report is written.
Today East Harlem residents understand the importance of economic development, mixed income housing, health services and programs for their youth. Residents today are more knowledgeable, skilled and involved with planning for their neighborhoods. In recent East Harlem history, community groups have held conferences and conventions, formed alliances and prepared strategic plans, participated in and helped create the East Harlem Neighborhood Based Alliance and the federal empowerment zone.
The effect of the Community Board has been to encourage planning and development even as the members fully acknowledge their differences, strengths, assets and potential.
The East Harlem of today is alert, poised and determined to improve their community. Many residents and community groups are ready to form new partnerships and reconcile old relationships that will help their plans, visions and dreams come to pass. East Harlem is ready to pull together it's talent and energy and plan for its future.
The CB# 1 I 's 197-A Plan seeks to point out possible New Directions for the future of El Barrio/East Harlem.
Other Sections of the 197-A Plan
Maps (all pertain
to Community Board # 11)
Board District # 11 (162K)