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East Harlem History

The following information was taken from Community Board # 11’s 197A Plan.  Our thanks to Community Board # 11.

East Harlem History*
All the area north of what is now 59th Street was called “Muscoota” by the Manhattan Indians. Muscoota means “flat place”. This flat place was good for growing food and this is why many of the Manhattan Indians lived in this part of Manhattan. When the Dutch arrived and took over the lower, southern part of the island - “Nieuw Amsterdam”, they left the native Indians pretty much to themselves in the northern part.

First European in Muscoota
One trader, Mynheer Hendrick de Forest became the first European to set foot in Muscoota. He liked it immediately. After a while, he built a house, planted some crops and began living in Muscoota, all without asking the Native American if he could. Later on, other Dutchmen and women followed suite and began to move into Muscoota too.

War broke out with the Native Americans after the Governor Kieft indiscriminately and arbitrarily sentenced some to death. The Manhattan Indians managed to kill all of the settlers. The arrival of Governor Peter Stuyvesant changed Muscoota forever. Governor Stuyvesant built a town in Muscoota and named it “Nieuw Haarlem”. With the arrival of the English in 1664 Nieuw Haarlem’s name was changed to “Harlem”.

The history of Harlem follows the progression from an Indian fishing ground to farmland to suburb, then exploding to a welcoming neighborhood for migrants and immigrants and finally a residential inner City area - all united by the thread of a hope for the future, the goal to find jobs, to make it in America. Frequently the theme was to move in and when the job was big enough, to move out. The groups who have called Harlem home have changed over time but have one characteristic in common - the energy and desire to create a better and more promising future for themselves and their families.

Long before Europeans arrived in the region now called East Harlem, the Wecksquaesgek Indians settled there, drawn by its trees and meadows, its fish and game and an excellent supply of fresh water.

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 Road.

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 in 1853.

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.

In 1880, the New York Elevated Railroad extended its Second Avenue Elevated (“the El”) north to the Harlem River and had similar plans for Third Avenue. With these changes, East Harlem was better served by cheap transportation than any other section of Manhattan.

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 the supply..

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 succeeded it.

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.

With the arrival of these newcomers, stores and markets arose changed to meet their needs. As early as the 1930s, East 116th Street was crowded with stores with restaurants and music shops reflecting the thriving Puerto Rican culture. A pushcart market under the Park Avenue viaduct between III th and II6th Streets goes back to the twenties. In the thirties, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia enclosed and equipped it with sheds. It has since evolved into La Marqueta.

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.

In 1967 Mayor John Lindsay formalized the need for community input by dividing the City into the community planning boards, a planning process that started earlier under then Manhattan Borough President Robert F. Wanner, Jr. Mayor Lindsay’s intent was to have all community districts represent approximately the same population and East Harlem met this requirement and the name East Harlem” became official. El Barrio/Spanish Harlem, to the south, along with the predominantly African American northern section East of Fifth Avenue and later called the East Harlem Triangle, were merged to form East Harlem. The merger of these two areas was due more to expediency than to any shared culture or outlook.

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.

Also included in East Harlem are Randall’s and Ward’s Island in the East River, opposite the stretch from 103rd to 125th Streets. During the 19th century, these islands were used mainly for garbage dumps, cemeteries and poorhouses. Ward’s Island was also used to process immigrants until the operation was transferred to Ellis Island at the end of the century.

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.

The pattern of successive in-migration also continues. In recent years, the 1990 U.S. Census population data suggests that Puerto Ricans are following the traditional migratory pattern of leaving East Harlem. New arrivals are Latinos from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Central and South America and Africans from the Caribbean and West Africa, Turkish for Eastern Europe and Chinese.

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.

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