Ah, Harlem, New York. Our community has been through a great deal of flux over the years. As a new Harlemite, I am always thrilled and delighted to watch the growth and expansion of my neighborhood.
There's a brand new organic supermarket on the corner, a Starbucks a few blocks away, and a hot new restaurant opening on Frederick Douglass Boulevard every other day. But what exactly does Harlem mean? Where did arguably the most well-known village in the world get its name? I guess I'd better figure that out, as Harlem is the name that I want to give my future son.
Harlem today is known as the most famous community of people of African descent on the planet. This is despite the fact that the black population is currently no longer the majority in Harlem. The past decade has seen a blend of revitalization and gentrification. Harlem is still emerging.
Harlem was originally named New Haarlem after a Dutch village. It was named after the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands and became a part of New York City in 1873. The original New Haarlem was historically seen as the most powerful of the Dutch Provinces. The original inhabitants of New York City's Harlem were Native Americans called the Manhattans. After the native peoples were pushed out, early Harlem then became a rural farming community.
Harlem in the 1800s was a very different city. Actually, it was more of a suburb that finally found connection with the outside world when the New York and Harlem Railroad incorporated in 1831. That little train system is now known as the juggernaut we call the Metro North. The village of Harlem had become a country retreat with mayors, politicians, and many wealthy families as its posh residents.
By the 1920s, the first Great Migration brought a large population of African Americans to Harlem. These were hard-working people seeking economic and social freedoms. Many of them were trying to escape the dangerous racism of the Deep South. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s was a cultural revolution that birthed significant African American literature, poetry, music, theater, and art. Prominent Harlem writers of this period include Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Jean Toomer.
There is a feeling Uptown today that there is a new Harlem Renaissance underway. The community was ravaged by the recession of the 1970s and the drug-related crime of the 1980s. It's a new day in Harlem, though. There is an African American educated and artistic class that is helping to move the community forward. There is also an influx of immigrants from West Africa that paved the way for the big box retailers that now dot 125th Street. When Bill Clinton opened his post-presidency office in the Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building, we knew that the community would be forever altered.
What's next for Harlem? Who can say? That's like trying to predict the next note in a good jazz tune. Whatever it is, we Harlemites know that it will be legendary for this magical community in Northern Manhattan that is always evolving.
Abiola Abrams is an author, media personality, and lifestyle guru obsessed with empowerment. With her award-winning web TV series and blogs, she brings a fresh and thoughtful perspective to living our best lives with fun, exuberance, and passion.
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