Dominion of New York


August 14, 2012

What Was Harlem Like Before Blacks Arrived?

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Written by: Kelly Virella

This 1934 painting “Festival” is by Italian-American artist Daniel Celentano. It depicts a Catholic street festival in Italian Harlem. Photo courtesy of Flickr/AmericanArtMuseum


he book Harlem by historian Jonathan Gill provides surprising answers to the question what was Harlem like before blacks arrived and much more, according to black conservative Thomas Sowell.

Harlem had the highest crime rate in New York City before blacks moved there, and a photograph in this book, taken a hundred years ago, showed the worst housing conditions I have ever seen in Harlem. In some of the poorer Italian neighborhoods in East Harlem, people went barefoot in the summer and lived on one meal a day — thin soup.

The subtitle of Harlem is: “The Four Hundred Year History from Dutch Village to Capital of Black America.” The story of the Italian-Americans who once lived here is pretty well-known. But the book covers much more, including the history of blacks in Harlem prior to the Harlem Renaissance, according to a Washington Post review of it. It sounds like a great read.

With the arrival of a large black settlement around the turn of the 20th century, Harlem found the identity it has had ever since. It is useful to be reminded, however, that “there had been a significant and continuous uptown black presence, free and enslaved, since the 1630s. Some owned property, practicing their trades in peace and profit, and by 1703 a census of northern Manhattan counted thirty-three black men, thirteen black women, and twenty-six black children.” By the 1880s “there was a real estate agent who specialized in houses and apartments for Negroes along Second and Third Avenues below East 125th Street, then Manhattan’s second biggest Negro neighborhood.”

Italian-Americans dine at one of the many Italian restaurants that use to dominate East Harlem, when it was mostly Italian. Photo Courtesy of Flickr/roots66ny

About the Author

Kelly Virella
Kelly Virella lives in an East Harlem walk-up with her husband, her bicycle and her books. She's worked as a journalist for 11 years and started this website during the summer of 2011. She fell in love with New York City during her first visit here as a 16-year-old and finally made good on her promise to move here in April 2010.


New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, left to right. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Azipaybarah