NYC Streets


The village of New Harlem was established in 1658 in an area that had previously been abandoned during the Dutch wars with the Indians. To lure new settlers, Peter Stuyvesant offered them generous grants of land, tax abatements, and a degree of self-government--including the election of their own magistrates. The village center was around the present First Avenue and 125th Street.. After the British takeover, Governor Nicolls confirmed the property grants to the Harlem patentees and granted them the privileges of a town “but immediately depending on this city, as being within the liberties thereof..” This language put Harlem in the peculiar position of being a town within a city. It also set the stage for litigation over the respective rights of the city, the town, and the Harlem patentees (or their heirs) that would go on for generations.

During the colonial period Harlem’s jurisdiction covered the entire upper part of the island, north of a line running from about 74th Street on the East River to 125th Street on the Hudson River. The town’s limited autonomy withered away after American Independence. In 1820 the Legislature authorized the City to sell off the 200-acre Harlem Commons to pay for streets and other public improvements.

The New York and Harlem Rail Road reached Harlem in 1837, but it remained essentially a village until the building of the elevated railways about 1880. The new row houses and tenements that followed the “els” were occupied almost entirely by whites. The subway boom of the early 1900s created a glut of new—and rather high quality--apartments in the blocks north of Central Park. A black realtor, Philip A. Payton, persuaded some white owners to let him rent their nearly empty buildings to “colored” tenants. By the 1920s Harlem—especially from Fifth Avenue west to Morningside and St. Nicholas Avenues—was the most famous black community in America. The area east of Fifth Avenue, which was then predominantly Italian, took on a separate identity as East Harlem. See also Bloomingdale and Common Lands.

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