Flanked by the high crest of Morningside Heights on the west and the Harlem River on the east, is the Manhattan valley known as Harlem. Founded by the Dutch in 1658, the rich soil once supported many prosperous farms. During this period, Nieuw Haarlem (New Harlem) existed on the fringe of the Manhattan settlement, connected tenuously by a ten mile Indian trail that later became Broadway Avenue.
In the 1920’s, the abundant farmland has transformed into a tawdry mass of tenements, aged apartments, small, nondescript shops and lively nightclubs. In the years after the American Revolution, Harlem became an affluent residential neighborhood, filled with mansions and smaller single-family homes. During the late years of the 1800’s when the United States was at the high water mark of immigration, many immigrants found homes on the less established outskirts of the community. By 1900, when New York experienced a slump in real estate sales, numerous black Americans and immigrants took up residence within the quarter.
The Harlem of the 1920’s is primarily a neighborhood burdened with waterfront factories, rail yards, overflowing tenements, and squalid alleys replete with hoodlums. Yet, sections of the district, such as Sugar Hill, display beautiful houses belonging to working professionals.
Like Greenwich, Harlem is a city within a city, and is as diverse as the Big Apple itself. Historically, Harlem was divided into Italian Harlem (Little Italy), Black Harlem (Little Africa) and Spanish Harlem. While each of these sections had their own characteristics, the prevailing interest in Harlem during the 1920’s was focused in Black Harlem, the part of the district where the cultivation of art and culture known as the Harlem Renaissance began.
Black Harlem, or “Negro Harlem” as it was sometimes termed in the 1920’s, is perhaps the portion of the Harlem most commonly seen by the world. It is where jazz, blues, and dance clubs thrived, where dingy pool rooms and dilapidated tenements shared the street with shops and churches. During the 1920’s, this area is home to the largest population of black Americans in the United States. Unlike in many other sections of the city, black Americans can rent apartments or buy houses in Harlem, through the prices are inflated greatly for this privilege. While the threat of the Jim Crow laws are always looming, the menace is decreased in Harlem. For many blacks in the twenties, Harlem presented an opportunity to produce art and identify culture, opportunities absent elsewhere in American.
Harlem wasn’t exclusive to blacks, however. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, many white Americans visit Harlem for entertainment. Most of the popular clubs have white owners, and many of them, though employing blacks, refused admittance to black customers. Harlem has an exotic and dangerous mystique about it, at least to the whites visiting the district.