New York 15th District
Harlem, for many years America’s most famous black ghetto, is rebounding from decades of grim times. Harlem’s development came relatively late in New York City’s history. When Alexander Hamilton and Roger Morris built mansions in northern Manhattan, they were far out in the countryside. Early critics of Central Park questioned the necessity of setting aside open land when picnickers could always go to Harlem. By the late 19th century, Harlem had become a commuter neighborhood for Germans and then Jews and Italians. After the turn of the century, real estate speculators began constructing blocks of impressive brownstones, hoping to capitalize on the impending arrival of the subway. But overbuilding led to high vacancy rates, and some landlords, in desperation, agreed to rent to African-Americans, as long as they were willing to pay a premium. After generations of being shunted from one neighborhood to the next as the city developed, black residents were willing, and the neighborhood soon turned into the locus of New York City’s African-American community. Harlem expanded from its nucleus around Lenox Avenue and 125th Street, while the Italian neighborhood to the east later known as Spanish Harlem grew outward from 116th Street and Pleasant Avenue. Many great black Americans—W. E. B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, Ralph Ellison, Joe Louis—lived in northwest Harlem’s Sugar Hill.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
For a long moment in history, Harlem was a center of writers and professionals and entertainers. The rosters of the Apollo Theater on 125th Street in the 1920s and 1930s were filled with the names of great artists still remembered today. Back then, the WPA Guide described Harlem as “the spiritual capital of Black America.” But starting with the riot in the summer of 1964, Harlem endured decades of deterioration. Hundreds of brownstones were abandoned or pulled down. As successful black families moved out—to Springfield Gardens in Queens or Williamsbridge in the Bronx or to the Westchester or New Jersey suburbs—Harlem’s population shifted increasingly toward welfare dependency and criminal gangs, and it declined by a third between 1970 and 1990.
Starting in the 1990s, Harlem began to recover. The federal government gave $300 million in investment capital, and the huge drop in crime under Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani made Harlem real estate valuable again. Brownstones were renovated, vacant city buildings were sold off, neighborhood schools were upgraded, and arts spaces opened. Harlem was made a federal enterprise zone, with favorable federal and state tax treatment, and the Metropolitan Economic Revitalization Fund pumped money into new developments, as did Calvin Butts’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. Younger African-Americans are returning, while visitors from overseas, especially Japan and Europe, flock to the area for historical tours, prompting a boomlet in niche hotels and guest houses. The façade of the Apollo Theater has been restored, a new Harlem pier has been constructed, and supermarkets and chain stores have opened. In 2001, former President Bill Clinton opened his post presidential office at 55 W. 125th Street in Harlem. There has been a double-digit percentage increase in median household income in Harlem since 2000. The upward trend abated somewhat in 2008 as Wall Street’s problems reduced investment and charitable donations.
Politically, Harlem has been heavily Democratic ever since the 1930s, when black voters switched from the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln to the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt. Harlem got its own congressional district in 1944 and elected Adam Clayton Powell Jr., minister at the Abyssinian Baptist Church and a brilliant orator who became the most famous black politician of his time. He was the chairman of the Education and Labor Committee when it passed the Great Society programs in 1965, but was excluded from Congress in 1967 (illegally, the Supreme Court later ruled) for refusing to honor a New York decree in a libel case.
Today, the 15th Congressional District of New York includes not just Harlem but all of northern Manhattan, down to 89th Street on the west side and 96th Street on the east side. On the west side, the district’s southern reaches include portions of the white, liberal Upper West Side as well as the Morningside Heights precincts around Columbia University. On the east side, at 96th Street, the railroad comes out of the tunnel that runs under Park Avenue to Grand Central Station, and the Upper East Side gives way to Harlem. Spanish Harlem, just to the north, was once Italian (it was Fiorello LaGuardia’s political base) and later heavily Puerto Rican. Today, “El Barrio” has fewer Puerto Ricans and more Mexicans and Dominicans along with some gentrifying whites. Still farther north, the district includes Washington Heights and Inwood, both heavily Latino and the center of Dominican life in New York as Dominicans replace Puerto Ricans as New York’s most numerous Latino group. Overall, the district in 2007 was 28% black and 46% Hispanic, figures that testify to decades of black flight from Harlem and the continuing inflow of immigrants from the Western Hemisphere. In 2004, this was the most heavily Democratic congressional district in the nation, voting 90% for John Kerry for president. Democrat Barack Obama won it in 2008 with 93%, his second best in the nation, after New York’s adjacent 16th District.