The man who became the “father of Harlem”

Founded by Dutch settlers in 1658, the little community of Nieuw Haarlem consisted mostly of farmland estates for the next two centuries.

Then the elevated railroads arrived in the latter half of the 19th century, and speculators got greedy.

They urbanized Harlem, putting up blocks of apartments and townhouses in anticipation of a horde of white middle- and upper-class residents.

But white Harlem didn’t last. A real-estate crash in 1904 meant that developers could not find enough white tenants.

That’s when Philip A. Payton, Jr., stepped in. From New York: An Illustrated History, by Ric Burns and James Sanders:

“That year, as the boom went bust, Payton approached Harlem’s landlords with a daring proposition. His firm, the Afro-American Realty Company, would rent empty apartments to select black tenants—above market value and with a monthly guarantee.

“Though Payton’s clients paid a premium—at least $5 more per month than white families paid for equivalent dwellings—after nearly three centuries on Manhattan Island, African Americans could finally enjoy well-built, well-maintained homes in a stable, established community.”

By 1930, 70 percent of Central Harlem’s residents were African American. And Payton’s own townhouse (in the photo above) at 13 West 131st Street still stands.

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7 Responses to “The man who became the “father of Harlem””

  1. Jonathan Gill Says:

    It’s good to see the pre-history of black Harlem getting some attention, and it’s obviously difficult to to summarize so many centuries in so few words, but one could challenge almost every element of this narrative!

    The first settlers came uptown in the late 1630s, and they weren’t actually Dutch but Walloon–natives of France who had recently fled religious conflict there and settled in the Netherlands. The 1658 date only refers to the formal founding of the community by the West India Company’s Director General of New Netherlands, Pieter Stuyvesant.

    As for the notion of a pastoral Harlem, even before the Civil War there were no fewer than three fully-industrialized (though relatively small) villages uptown. And full-bore real estate speculation began in the 1860s and early 1870s, not in the late-nineteenth century.

    Finally, blacks lived uptown since at least the 1640s, and by the 1880s there was already a real estate agent specializing in apartments for blacks in East Harlem–Jacob Riis wrote about this community in his How The Other Half Lives (1890)–shortly thereafter there were so many blacks on West 130th Street that it was called “Darktown,” while West 146th Street was known as “Nigger Row.”

    Philip Payton tried and failed at least twice to build a “for blacks, by blacks” real estate venture uptown before 1904, and even the business he founded in 1904 was gone by 1908–investors said he had cheated them, and many people worried that he was profiting off a situation in which blacks increasingly had no other choice but to live uptown. Payton himself said it was a matter of converting “race prejudice into dollars and cents.”

    In other words, too many historians are recycling myths!

    I hope that my book Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History, From Indian Village to Capital of Black America, just out from Grove/Atlantic Press, can move the conversation further!

    • wildnewyork Says:

      Thanks for your historical insight. I changed late 19th century to the latter half of the 19th century, but everything else still stands. These posts are short, and as you note, sometimes that means cutting corners on details. Your book sounds like it can fill in the gaps and flesh out Harlem’s story.

  2. Ilunga Bediako-Kisangane Says:

    Wow Jonathan, you really are “THE MAN” I’m almost finished your book and its wonderful. See you at the talk at the Tenement Museum

  3. June Says:

    The book “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson talks about not just Harlem, but the color lines in New York and other large cities. How people of color were regularly bilked, lived in sub-standard, crowded housing and paid way more per square foot than their white counterparts. It was really an eye-opener for me.

  4. Melody Carroll Says:

    very good story

  5. Tobin Says:

    What about the story of a murder in a boarding house or apartment house on 135thst? The building went empty and that gave Payton his first in. Any truth to it?
    Thanks for all the info.


  6. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I’ll look into it, thanks!

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