Postcard Views of 125th Street – The Heart of Harlem 1905-1910
What was 125th Street like at the turn of the 20th century? It was the commercial center of a genteel neighborhood, the heart of Harlem. Restaurants, hotels, businesses and entertainment venues lined the prosperous street. 1900 census data shows the area was white with almost no blacks living around the surrounding streets. Residents around the area were primarily Jewish, Italian, German or WASP.
By 1910, things were changing and blacks now made up around 10 percent of Harlem’s population. That gradual change occurred after real estate speculators built apartments when the subway was being constructed between 1900 and 1904. The anticipated housing boom was a bust and these buildings were slow to fill with white tenants. A shrewd black real estate manager and developer Philip Payton Jr. was instrumental in changing the demographics of Harlem starting at 133rd Street and Lenox Avenue around 1905. Payton seized the opportunity in filling new and vacant buildings with black families. Soon other surrounding blocks were attracting black families.
Blacks came to Harlem from other parts of Manhattan and from the south for better jobs, better living conditions and a better education for their children. Harlem became established as a “Negro Mecca.” By 1930 Harlem was 70 percent black and flourishing with the Harlem Renaissance, an outstanding period of creativity in the arts.
But blacks were not allowed to patronize many of the entertainment establishments along 125th Street and in some stores blacks were not given the opportunity to work except as porters or other menial jobs. A “buy where you can work campaign” was eventually successful in bringing about changes in hiring practices.
The Great Depression had hit Harlem hard and soon many parts of the area became dangerous. Riots occurred in Harlem in 1935, 1943 and 1964 illuminating the racial tensions of the area. After World War II housing projects were built in Harlem. By the late 1950s most of the white population was gone as were many middle class black families. Harlem descended into poverty and high crime rates. 125th Street was no longer glamorous but a seedy street with many vacant stores and abandoned buildings.
By the 1990s things started to pick-up for Harlem’s fortunes and an influx of real estate development have made Harlem a much better neighborhood than it was 30 years ago. This upswing has also displaced many long-time residents who can no longer afford to live in the area.
Today there remains the hum of commercial activity around 125th Street, but chain stores and restaurants have encroached on the area. Red Lobster, Subway, Popeye’s and Duane Reade drug stores are situated there along with a smattering of locally owned merchant establishments Unfortunately there are still many vacant shops and areas waiting for redevelopment.
125th Street is still the heart of Harlem and remains the main thoroughfare but has been renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.. Few New Yorkers refer to 125th Street by its alternate name. Parts of 125th Street are a bit sketchy and 24 hour police cranes keep a vigilant lookout for illegal activity. As comedian Chris Rock pointed out, “You know what’s sad? Martin Luther King stood for non violence. And I don’t care where you are in America, if you’re on Martin Luther King Boulevard, there’s some violence going down.”
We close as we began with the same view of 125th Street in the first postcard, but not with a dreamy colored sky, but a more realistic view of what the street looked like 110 years ago.