Posts Tagged ‘San Juan Hill’

The man who became the “father of Harlem”

February 9, 2011

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.

Manhattan’s long-gone San Juan Hill

October 15, 2008

Before Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant became the largest African-American communities in the city, there was San Juan Hill. Centered around Amsterdam Avenue and 62nd Street, it was home to thousands of working-class and poor black New Yorkers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The neighborhood’s name supposedly came from an all-black cavalry unit that fought at the battle of San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War. These photos were taken in the 1940s:

Like most parts of the city then, San Juan Hill’s streets were lined with tenements. There was a vibrant jazz scene, but also racial tension at the turn of the century with whites on the east side of Amsterdam.

As a June 1905 New York Times headline put it: “Black and White War in Crowded District: West Side Blocks Under Nightstick Law for Hours.” The article implies that this happened frequently back then.

San Juan Hill met its demise after World War II. First, several blocks were demolished to make way for the Amsterdam Houses, a pretty typical red-brick, high-rise public housing complex.

Then, in the 1950s, much of the neighborhood was deemed a slum, and it was torn down to make way for Lincoln Center.