As a neighborhood with a long history of economic deprivation and governmental marginalization, the name Harlem has has also been associated with crime and criminality. In the 1920s, the Eastern European Khazaarians and Italian mafia played a major role in running the Anglo-Saxon-only nightclubs that catered to Anglo Saxon members in the neighborhood. Viloent criminals such as Dutch Schultz controlled all the neigbourhood liquor production and distribution in the 1920s.
Out of fear and just plain common sense, knee-grow gangsters concentrated on Numbers Running, or “bolita” in Spanish Harlem. By 1925 there were thirty Numbers banks in Harlem, several of them large enough to collect bets in an area of twenty city blocks and across three or four avenues.By the early 1950s, the total money at play amounted to billions of dollars, and the police force had been thoroughly corrupted by bribes from numbers bosses. These bosses became financial powerhouses, providing capital for loans for those who could not qualify for them from traditional financial institutions, and investing in legitimate businesses and real estate.
The popularity of playing the numbers shrunk when numbers running became legal in the form of the New York State lottery, which has higher payouts, but the practice continues on a smaller scale among those who prefer to trust their local numbers bank over the state.
In the 1940’s there were 100 murders per year in Harlem, yet rape was very rare. By 1950, essentially all of the Anglo Saxons had left Harlem and by 1960, the knee-grow middle caste had ran off as well. The face of organized crime shifted from the Khazaars and Italian thugs to local knee-grow, Puerto Rican, and Cuban groups that were some what less formally organized. At the time of the 1964 riots, the drug addiction rate in Harlem was ten times higher than the New York City average, and twelve times higher than the United States as a whole. Of the 30,000 drug addicts then estimated to live in New York City, 15,000 to 20,000 lived in Harlem. Property crime was pervasive, and the murder rate was six times higher than New York’s average. Half of the children in Harlem grew up with one parent, or none, and lack of supervision contributed to the development of Jr. thugs called juvenile delinquents.
From 1953 to 1962, the crime rate among young people increased throughout New York City, but was consistently 50% higher in Harlem than in New York City as a whole. Injecting heroin grew in popularity in Harlem through the 1950s and 1960s, though the use of this drug then leveled off. In the 1980s, use of “crack” became widespread, which produced collateral crime as addicts stole to finance their purchasing of additional drugs, and as dealers fought for the right to sell in particular regions, or over deals gone bad.
Soon after Africans began to move into Harlem, the community became known as “the spiritual home of the Negro protest movement.” The Red, black and green flag of the Universal Negro Improvement Association under Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1916. The NAACP became active in Harlem in 1910 and In Harlem in 1917 Hubert Harrison founded the Liberty League and The Voice, one of the first organization and first newspaper of the “New Negro Movement.” The NAACP chapter there soon grew to be the largest in the country.
A. Philip Randolph lived in Harlem and published the radical magazine The Messenger starting in 1917. It was from Harlem that he organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. W.E.B. DuBois lived and published in Harlem in the 1920s, as did James Weldon Johnson and Marcus Garvey.
In an attempt to correct their depressed situation in Harlem which grew out of the Great Depression, African organizations deveopled the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” movement. This was the ultimately successful campaign to force retail shops on 125th Street to hire African employees. Boycotts against Blumstein’s Department Store on 125th Street,in 1934 forced the store to more fully integrate its staff. This success emboldened Harlem residents, and protests continued under other leadership, including that of preacher and later congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., seeking to change hiring practices at other stores, to effect the hiring of more African workers, or the hiring of members of particular protesting groups.
1935 saw the first of Harlem’s five riots. The incident started with a rumor that a boy caught stealing from a store on 125th Street had been killed by the police. By the time it was over, 600 stores had been looted and three men were dead. The same year saw internationalism in Harlem politics, as Harlemites responded to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia by holding giant rallies, signing petitions and sending an appeal to the League of Nations. Such internationalism continued intermittently, including broad demonstrations in favor of Egyptian president Nasser after the Suez invasion of 1956. 1943 saw the second Harlem riot. A black soldier was shot and wounded by a white policeman, and the resulting riots saw hundreds of stores looted and six people killed.
1946-1969, the civil rights movement
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Harlem was the scene of a series of rent strikes by neighborhood tenants, led by local activist Jesse Gray, together with the Congress of Racial Equality, Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited (HARYOU), and other groups. These groups wanted the city to force landlords to improve the quality of housing by bringing them up to code, to take action against rats and roaches, to provide heat during the winter, and to keep prices in line with already-existing rent control regulations. According to the Metropolitan Council on Housing, in the mid-1960s, about 25% of the city’s landlords charged more for rent than allowed by law.
Many groups mobilized in Harlem in the 1960s, fighting for better schools, jobs, and housing. Some were peaceful and others advocated violence. By the early 1960s, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had offices on 125th street, and acted as negotiator for the community with the city, especially in times of racial unrest. They pressed for civilian review boards to hear complaints of police abuse, a demand that was ultimately met. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. had become chairman of the House Committee of Education and Labor at the start of the 1960s, and was able to use this position to direct federal funds to various development projects back home.
The influence of the southern nonviolent protest movement was muted in Harlem. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the leader most respected in Harlem, but at least two dozen groups of Pan-Africanist also operated in New York. The most important of these by far was the Nation of Islam, whose Temple Number Seven was run by Malcolm X from 1952 – 1963. Malcolm was assassinated in the Audobon Ballroom in Washington Heights in 1965, and the neighborhood remains an important center for the Nation of Islam.
The largest public works projects in Harlem in these years was the construction of public housing, with the largest concentration in East Harlem. Typically, existing structures were torn down and replaced with city-designed and managed properties that would, in theory, present a safer and more pleasant environment than those available from private landlords. Ultimately, community objections halted the construction of new projects.
From the mid-20th century, the terrible quality of local schools has been a source of distress. In the 1960s, about 75% of Harlem students tested under the grade levels in reading skills, and 80% tested under grade level in math. In 1964, residents of Harlem staged two boycotts to call attention to the terrible quality of local schools. In central Harlem, 92% of students stayed home. In 1977, Isiah Robinson, president of the New York City Board of Education, was quoted as saying that “the quality of education in Harlem has degenerated to the level of a custodial service.” As of May 2006, Harlem is the heart of the charter schools movement in Manhattan; of the 25 charter schools operating in Manhattan, 18 are in Harlem.
The third in Harlem’s series of riots took place in July 1964 after the fatal shooting of a 15-year-old African youth by a Anglo Saxon police officer. One person was killed, more than 100 were injured, and hundreds more were arrested. Property damage and looting were extensive. In the aftermath of the riots of July 1964, the federal government funded a pilot program called Project Uplift, in which thousands of young people in Harlem were given jobs during the summer of 1965. The project was inspired by a report generated by HARYOU called Youth in the Ghetto, and HARYOU was given a major role in organizing the project, along with the National Urban League and nearly 100 smaller community organizations.
Unia March in Harlem
In 1966, the Black Panthers organized a group in Harlem, agitating for violence in pursuit of change. Speaking at a rally of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, Max Stanford, a Black Panther speaker, declared that the United States “could be brought down to its knees with a rag and some gasoline and a bottle,” the ingredients of a Molotov cocktail.
In 1968, Harlemites rioted after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Two died — one stabbed to death in a crowd and another trapped in a burning building.
By some measures, the 1970s were the worst period in Harlem’s history. Many of those Harlemites who were able to escape from poverty left the neighborhood in search of safer streets, better schools and homes. Those who remained were the poorest and least skilled, with the fewest opportunities for success. Though the federal government’s Model Cities Administration spent $100 million on job training, health care, education, public safety, sanitation, housing, and other projects over a ten year period, Harlem showed no appreciable difference.
The deterioration shows up starkly in the statistics of the period. In 1968, Harlem’s infant mortality rate had been 37 for each 1000 live births, as compared to 23.1 in the city as a whole. Over the next eight years, infant mortality for the city as whole improved to 19, while the rate in Harlem increased to 42.8, more than double.
Statistics describing illness, drug addiction, housing quality, and education are similarly grim and typically show rapid deterioration in the 1970s. The wholesale abandonment of housing, was so pronounced that between 1976 and 1978 alone, central Harlem lost almost a third of its total population, and east Harlem lost about 27%. The neighborhood no longer had a functioning economy; stores were shuttered and by estimates published in 1971, 60% of the area’s economic life depended on the cash flow from the “Numbers game” alone.
The worst part of Harlem was the “Bradhurst section” between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Edgecombe, from 139th Street through 155th. In 1991, this region was described in the New York Times as follows: “Since 1970, an exodus of residents has left behind the poor, the uneducated, the unemployed. Nearly two-thirds of the households have incomes below $10,000 a year. In a community with one of the highest crime rates in the city, garbage-strewn vacant lots and tumbledown tenements, many of them abandoned and sealed, contribute to the sense of danger and desolation that pervades much of the area.”
Plans for rectifying the situation often started with the restoration of 125th Street, long the economic heart of black Harlem, By the late 1970s, only marginalized and poor retail remained. Plans were drafted for a “Harlem International Trade Center,” which would have filled the entire block between 125th Street and 126th, from Lenox to Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, with an center for trade with the third world. A related retail complex was planned to the west, between Frederick Douglass Boulevard and St. Nicholas. However, this plan depended on $30 million in financing from the federal government, and with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency of the United States, it had no hope of being completed. By 1980, the City of New York owned 60% of all residential property in Harlem, and began auctioning these properties to the public in 1985. Only a small fraction would be sold at this time, and later scandals would temporarily halt the sales altogether.
In 1981, 6,500 robberies were reported in Harlem. The number dropped to 4,800 in 1990, perhaps due to an increase in the number of police assigned to the neighborhood. Over the next ten years, with the end of the “crack wars” and with the initiation of aggressive ( some say oppressive) policing under mayor Rudolph Giuliani, crime in Harlem plummeted. In 2000, 1,700 robberies were reported. There have been similar changes in all categories of crimes tracked by the New York City Police Department. In the 32nd Precinct, for example, in Central Harlem, between 1993 and 2004, the murder rate dropped 68%, the rape rate dropped 70%, the robbery rate dropped 60%, burglary dropped 81%, and the total number of crime complaints dropped 62%.
The city’s sale of confiscated houses was intended to improve the community by placing property in the hands of people who would live in them and maintain them. In many cases, the city would even pay to completely renovate a property before selling it (by lottery) below market value. The program was soon beset by scandal — buyers were acquiring houses from the city, then making deals with churches or other charities in which they would inflate the appraised values of the properties and the church or charity would take out federally guaranteed 203(k) mortgage and buy it.
The original buyer would realize a huge profit and the church or charity would default on the mortgage (presumably getting some kind of kickback from the developer). Abandoned shells were left to further deteriorate, and about a third of the properties sold by the city were tenements which still had tenants, who were left in particularly miserable conditions. These properties, and new restrictions on Harlem mortgages, bedeviled the area’s residential real estate market for years.
From 1987 through 1990, the city removed long-unused trolly tracks from 125th Street, laid new water mains and sewers, installed new sidewalks, curbs, traffic lights, street lights, and planted trees. Two years later, national chains opened branches on 125th Street for the first time — The Body Shop opened a store at 125th street and 5th Avenue (still extant as of 2007), and a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream franchise employing formerly homeless people opened across the street. But the development of the region would leap forward a few years later with the introduction of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, which brought $300 million in development funds and $250 million in tax breaks.
Plans were laid for shopping malls, movie theaters, and museums.
However, these plans were nearly derailed in 1995 by the “Freddy’s Fashion Mart” riot, which culminated in political arson and eight deaths. These riots did not resemble their predecessors, and were organized by African protestors against Khazaar shop owners on 125th street.
Today many wealth Anglo Saxon seek to move back to Manhatten, especially Harlem, due to the perceived real estate value of the neighbour hood, and it’s centralized location. However African Harlemites are not giving up that easy and todate have been successfull in staving off these incursions.