West 125th Street is now perceived to be the heart of black Harlem, but in the 1920s there were more whites than blacks on that thoroughfare. You had to travel 10 blocks, or one subway stop, further north to find the unbroken sea of black faces that signified Harlem. The first building given over to black tenants, in 1903, stood on West 134th Street, and it was from that hub that subsequent waves of migrants from the South and immigrants from the West Indies pushed out the boundaries of black settlement.
In 1920, the area occupied entirely by blacks stretched from 130th Street to 144th Street and Fifth Avenue to Eighth Avenue, an area of forty-eight blocks that was home to 73, 000 people. Five years later, black Harlem reached south to 128th Street, and, below 135th Street, east to Park Avenue. By 1930, blacks, now numbering over 200,000, almost one fifth of whom hailed from the West Indies, had spilled over Eighth Avenue to Amsterdam Avenue and the heights overlooking central Harlem as far south as 130th Street, moved north to 160th Street, and had begun to settle as far south as 110th Street, where their neighbours were not white, but Spanish-speakers from Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.
If the influx of southerners and West Indians made this district black, they did not render it a homogenous place. In addition to the areas in which better-off blacks made their homes, Strivers Row on West 139th Street and, late in the 1920s, Sugar Hill on Edgecombe Avenue, there were other distinctive neighbourhoods in Harlem.
Climbing the stairs from the 135th Street subway station brought you to Lenox Avenue. Crowded, dirty and noisy, the avenue was the site of the Savoy Ballroom and Harlem Hospital, but otherwise its businesses were small and less reputable. To the east, the blocks between Lenox and Fifth Avenues were among the most densely packed residential streets in the entire city. All Harlem’s cross streets other than 135th Street shared this solidly residential character, if not the population density. That did not mean they were indistinguishable. It was on these streets that black churches and fraternal organizations made their homes. Migrants and immigrants also clustered together; the tenants in particular buildings came predominantly from the West Indies, or from Georgia or North Carolina or Virginia.
If you exited the subway to the west, and walked past the businesses located below the apartments on 135th Street, and the landmark YMCA building, you came to Seventh Avenue. Christened the ‘Black Broadway’ by writer Wallace Thurman, the wide avenue was Harlem’s main street, along which could be found its best stores, theatres and churches, past which flowed a constant stream of black New Yorkers frequenting those sites or simply promenading along the broad pavements. If you stepped off the street, however, the sea of black faces broke on the store counters; whites owned and staffed almost all of Harlem’s businesses. Most black enterprises were not to be found in the district’s storefronts, but in its apartments, where women operated beauty salons.
Continuing west brought you to Eighth Avenue, shrouded in dirt, noise and shadow by the elevated train line that ran its length, a street, as Thurman put it, “to cross hurriedly in order to reach places located east of it.”