Strolling along genteel 125th Street

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.

125thstreetpostcard

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.”

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9 Responses to “Strolling along genteel 125th Street”

  1. Lidian Says:

    That is an amazing postcard, where did you find it?

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    I thought it was a neat find too. I picked it up at a flea market, one of many random postcards a vendor was selling.

  3. Jeremy Says:

    It leads one to wonder whether the latest real estate crash may lead to an altogether different sort of transformation this time around (in Harlem and elsewhere).

  4. blackbohemian Says:

    Wow! Look at Harlem. I was born and raised in Harlem. 125th Street remains a place to stroll, though less gentile and white than it used to be. I loved going to the African vendors on the street as a kid. It was so vibrant and fun.

  5. John Scott Lucas Says:

    Jeffry S. Gurock’s book, “When Harlem was Jewish: 1870 -1930″ explains that Harlem used to be a completely separate village from New York City, back when Central Park was on the northern hinterlands of the Metropolis. From the start, Harlem’s growth and shifts in population followed the fortunes of the real estate market. Prior to 1898, travel between Harlem and Downtown was possible, but not reliable. Then New York City proposed to build elevated train lines along 7th and 8th Avenue, which lead to intense real estate speculation north of Central Park. Unfortunately, construction of the new IRT lines was delayed, (surprise!), which created a housing surplus. At the same time, affordable housing on the Lower East Side was becoming scarce at the very moment that demand was rising, because they city was busy tearing down a lot of the old tenements, first to make way for parks, and then later to create approaches for the new Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges. So, immigrants could suddenly find better housing in Harlem for less money than what they were paying for tenements on the Lower East Side. Italians congregated along the East side of Harlem, Germans and Irish shared the west side, and Jewish enclaves were sprinkled across the area, although there were large populations around Central Park North, the Mount Morris neighborhood (now Marcus Garvey Park), and on the side streets along Broadway. Who can say how the current housing crisis will change the face of Harlem? On the one hand, Columbia University has bought all the property on three sides of Morningside Park, but on the other hand, middle-class people have been moving out of New York City in droves to seek cheaper housing in the burbs or out of state.

  6. CHARLES SCHMITZ Says:

    I TOO WAS BORN IN HARLEM (130TH &PARK AVE.) THEN MOVED TO 113ST.BETWEEN 3RD &LEX. I CONTRACTED POLIO IN 1922.LEFT ME WITH A BAD LEFT LEG.DOCTORS RECOMENDED A LOT OF WALKING.MY MOM WOULD TAKE ME MANY TIMES TO WALK ALMOST FROM EAST TO WEST ON 125TH ST .THE STORES ALONG THERE WERE FANTASTIC FROM BLUMSTEINS DEPT. STORE TO THE FIVE &TEN CENT STORES WHERE YOU COULD GET A HOT DOG AND A HIRES ROOT BEER FOR A DIME.ALSO IN THE STORE WAS A SINGER AND A PIANO AND HE WOULD SING THE HIT SONG OF THE WEEK.
    SOMETIMES THE WALK BACK WAS A LITTLE TO MUCH AND MY MOM AND ME WOULD TAKE THE TROLLEY BACK TO LEX. AND GET A TRANSFER .

  7. Bookpod Says:

    Here’s a very good short film by David Freeland about a bygone jazz club on 133rd Street in Harlem: http://www.thirteen.org/thecityconcealed/2010/11/09/swing-street/

  8. BobMarshall Says:

    The RKO Proctor’s was located on 125th Street between Lexington & Park Avenues. Around 1960, it was converted to a church, called “Lawson’s Auditorium.” Had two balconies. It later burned down. Directly across the street was the (Harlem) Grand, a single level auditorium. Further East was the Triboro, which had been a vaudeville house (Sophie Tucker, et al), then ended up as grind house & closed.

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