At the turn of the last century, West 125th Street was bustling, urbane—and all-white, according to this penny postcard.
Developed in the 1880s as the next big middle-class neighborhood, Harlem became the victim of a real-estate market crash in 1904 that left hundreds of apartment buildings desperate for tenants.
A black real estate entrepreneur named Philip Payton helped rent those apartments to African-American residents escaping poorer neighborhoods in Manhattan as well as the Jim Crow South.
That’s Keith & Proctor’s Theater in the center of the postcard, part of a chain of opera houses/vaudville theaters around the city. Entertainment was serious business back then. A 1906 New York Times article entitled “Keith & Proctor’s 125th Street Manager Held for Assault” reports:
“Shortell said he went to the theatre on Thursday night, accompanied by his wife, and paid $2 for two box seats. He says he was unable to find a seat and demanded of Brunelle either seats or tickets for another night. Brunelle, he said, called him a rowdy and had him arrested after pushing him up against the wall.”