News | West Harlem

After 200 years, 125th still Harlem’s ‘main street’

This article is the first in a two-part series exploring the past, present, and future of 125th Street, Harlem's main street. Read part two here.

When 125th Street was signed into existence 200 years ago by surveyor John Randel Jr., Harlem was a nondescript village in the countryside, a day’s trip north of New York City. The street was intended to be the village’s major thoroughfare.

Now, with its bodegas and churches, Gap and Old Navy outlets, iconic theaters and street hawkers, 125th Street represents the conflicts and changes that have come to define Harlem’s history.

2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the street, and the 20th anniversary of the 125th Street Business Improvement District, the main organization responsible for its business and community prominence in recent decades. Festivities are planned to commemorate the event later this year, BID President Barbara Askins said, but historians are unsure of the exact date the street was established.

What they agree on is that the story of the street is the story of Harlem: its shifting economic fortunes, demographics, and popular image.

Development and diversity

Despite its initial isolation, geography dictated that 125th Street would become a major travel route. Running through a valley, it was an obvious choice for connecting the East River to the Hudson River. Quick growth along the street sparked the construction of the Harlem Railroad to downtown New York in 1836, as well as a New Jersey ferry connection in 1863.

“It was always a major stop for all the trains, and that was very significant for the development of the area,” Columbia history professor Kenneth Jackson, a renowned expert in New York history, said.

But Harlem really only started to grow in the late 19th century with the arrival of thousands of European immigrants, coinciding with the expansion of Manhattan’s street grid. Manhattanville, on the west end of 125th Street, became predominantly German, while East Harlem was mostly Irish and Italian. After the completion of a subway stop at 125th Street and Broadway in 1904, an influx of Jews moved to the area.

“It became the second Jewish neighborhood after the Lower East Side,” Jackson said.

This fostered a level of social diversity that is only being seen again now in the pedestrians on 125th.

“There was a working class as well as an upper middle class,” Kevin McGruder, a scholar-in-residence at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, said. “It had the reputation to be a bedroom suburb. The brownstones were owned by lawyers or physicians who would have a servant living on the upper floor.”

‘The black capital of the world’

Early in the 20th century, African Americans started to move into Harlem, and the demographics of the area changed rapidly. By the time of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, Harlem was known as “the black capital of the world.”

“Harlem became an attractive, spicy place for nightlife,” Jackson said, as establishments like Lenox Lounge, on Lenox Avenue just south of 125th Street, became well-known even outside of Harlem.

Despite diversity, racial tensions were high. Most of the 125th Street bars and nightclubs were owned by white managers, and did not accept African Americans as customers. The famed Apollo Theater on 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, as well as other iconic venues, were “white only,” even during the Harlem Renaissance.

As the Great Depression took hold, 125th Street was hit by several riots. In 1935, a massive riot—Harlem’s first—was sparked by a false rumor that a black Puerto Rican had been beaten to death by a shopkeeper. Three people died and hundreds more were wounded.

These struggles set the precedent for the civil rights movement in the neighborhood, and Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. gave speeches and led rallies down 125th Street.

At the same time, brownstones were emptying and crime and poverty were both rising, which led to negative stereotypes of the area.

“In the 1960s and the 1970s, Harlem was not a place where you felt particularly welcomed,” said Father David Nolan, a pastor at St. Joseph of the Holy Family Catholic Church on 125th Street and Morningside Avenue. “Even in this church there was a man shelter. You had to deal with poverty everywhere.”


It is the changes over the past two decades, however, that have caused most of the current tension between residents and newcomers. Gentrification has made 125th Street safer and cleaner, but has pushed its real estate prices sky-high.

“Retailers now see 125th as a vibrant shopping mecca with a potential for future growth,” Jackson said.

Meanwhile, police have cracked down on the unlicensed vendors that hawk their wares on the street’s sidewalks every day.

“There is a greater divide between those who have and those who don’t have,” Nolan said. There used to be “jobs that would normally go to people because nobody wants them,” he said, but “now everybody wants a job, so it becomes more difficult.”

“I’m not sure it’s all positive,” lifetime Harlemite Barbara Thompson, 74, said. “You see a store and suddenly the store goes out of business.”

Thompson, who was born on 118th Street, recalled when elevated trains still ran up Eighth Avenue and trolleys carried shoppers up and down the street.

Up until about 30 years ago, “125th Street was still 125th Street,” she said. “There was still the stores I had as a child”—stores that are now gone.

Others, however, say that the changes to the street are more positive than negative.

“At one time it was torn up because of riots and what not,” Brenda Hudson, who has lived in Harlem for 45 years, said. “But as time went on, they fixed it up, and now its revitalized.”

“We have basically the same thing: a lot of new stores, a lot of food stores,” she said. “The Apollo’s been there forever, that I can remember.” When she was young, she said, she would go to the Apollo “every week.”

The word gentrification is still loaded, though.

“To some people it is an inflammatory term,” McGruder said. “Harlem was improved by its people, and outsiders sometimes don’t understand the process.”

Askins said that current and future developers should be thinking about how the community benefits “from the growth everybody is pushing for.” The constant news coverage of a gentrifying Harlem only covers one side of the issue, she said.

“It discourages people. It makes people feel like they don’t have a chance,” she said.

But Askins said that after 200 years, 125th Street would remain the heart of Harlem culture, even as new development creates economic opportunities for locals.

“We have to be getting that interesting mix, making sure we don’t just become anywhere else,” Askins said. “We have to bring property developers together and get them to buy into the vision.”

Christian Zhang and Avantika Kumar contributed reporting.

This article is the first in a two-part series exploring the past, present, and future of 125th Street, Harlem's main street. Read part two here. | @ColumbiaSpec


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