Facts on the Ground: Mapping Harlem’s History

Dr A. Fearnley, American Studies

Students on my upper-level module ‘Harlem and the State of Urban America’ develop independent portfolios, including digital mapping projects, to examine aspects of the material and cultural development of Harlem, New York, in the first half of the twentieth century. Such projects aim to put historical thought into a spatial context.

The research that underpins all of this work rests on several sources, but primarily the New York Amsterdam News—the city’s largest circulating black newspaper in these years, which is accessible through the University of Manchester’s electronic database subscriptions.

By tracing Harlem’s development across time and space, these projects aim to provide invigorating research tools, allowing us to ask “questions about how to understand the patterns that are revealed.”[i] A sample of the projects can be accessed below, and they demonstrate the high quality of work produced, as well as the diversity of subjects students addressed.

View Dr Andrew M Fearnley's research profile to find out more about the research lead.

Politics and culture

While much has been written about Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, remarkably little has considered its physical presence in Harlem, its main “base of organization.”[ii] Yet, in many ways, Garvey was synonymous with this neighbourhood in these years. And through his savvy alliance with local photographer James Van Der Zee, he also contributed to Harlem’s ascendant global profile. Laura Meredith’s map offers us—for the first time—a sense of how Garvey’s partnership with Van Der Zee worked. It calls our attention to the proximity between the UNIA’s main office and Van Der Zee’s studio, 150 meters apart on 135th Street. The map carries us beyond earlier scholarly explanations that stressed this ‘inevitable union’ only in terms of a shared ‘conservative aesthetic’.[iii]

If the 1920s are popularly held to be a high point in Harlem’s literary profile, recent scholarship has pushed back on the idea of the neighbourhood as the only, or preeminent site of black literary production, and moved instead to outline the significant ‘imaginative pull’ Harlem exerted on black writers.[iv]  Ella Harrison’s map offers an alternative framework for thinking about the connections between literary production and the neighbourhood. It does so by taking seriously Alain Locke’s designation of these writers as “the younger generation,” and traces the overlapping lives and shared social footprints of three literary artists and friends: Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Wallace Thurman. If some scholars have “trouble with locating the Harlem Renaissance in both time and space,” Harrison’s framework offers them a way out of this intellectual cul-de-sac.[v]

Some students’ projects turned to less well-known aspects of Harlem’s economic and intellectual landscape. No serious prior attempt has been made to record and identify the locations of Harlem’s bookstores in the early twentieth century. And as Harry Peate shows with his map of such stores, while several of them have been remembered for, and associated with their male proprietors, it was often black women who staffed and ran them.

Business and housing

While Peate’s map captures the role such businesses played in sustaining Harlem’s vernacular intellectual, and political radical, traditions, other students probed Harlem’s economic character, especially given the limited employment and entrepreneurial opportunities people of colour enjoyed in this setting. Sean Welsh’s study of Harlem’s pushcart traders—whose barrows dotted sidewalks, selling foodstuffs, flowers, and household items—captures the trade’s geography, and glimmers of its social history, helping, as some recent scholarship has done, to  “foreground ‘local people.’”[vi]

The persistent, and deepening economic discrimination faced by black people in Harlem in the 1930s is a salient theme also in Christian Mcloughlin’s map, which locates the grassroots picketing of Harlem’s large department stores amid their racial discrimination.

This map uncovers the location of these pickets across six months in 1934, as well as the churches, newspapers, and community groups, all based in and associated with the historic centre of Harlem’s black community, that organized such campaigns.

As much as these projects provide granular detail about particular institutions, they also illuminate some of the macro-factors, and broader changes, that operated throughout these decades. Fred Welsman’s map, for example, gestures at the growing place of the federal government in urban affairs, particularly in the construction of public housing, which happened in many US cities between the late 1930s and 1960s. And by the early 1960s Harlem contained the largest concentration of public housing anywhere in the US, with an estimated population of 60,000 residents across thirteen projects.[vii]

Welsman’s map conveys the geography of several such housing projects in Harlem between 1937 and 1955. It allows us to see that many of these sites were located around the neighbourhood’s borders. And, as such projects were used increasingly to house African Americans displaced from other parts of New York, they gave what historian N. D. B. Connolly calls a “bricks-and-mortar quality” to New York’s racial geography.[viii]

Community in transition

Alongside these transformations in New York’s built environment, cultural studies scholars have been attentive to what Paula Massood calls the “transition” in how urban communities, especially Harlem, were visually depicted, not least through “a more dynamic form of urban photojournalism” and mass circulation magazines.[ix] Jasmine Bennett’s map captures the transformation of Harlem as both “setting and symbol”, skilfully comparing the work of Van Der Zee, in the 1920s, and African American photograph Gordon Parks’s early assignments for Life magazine, in 1948 and 1952.

Collectively these maps—displayed here so readers can interact with them—tell us much we did not know, or know well about Harlem. They plug us in to the layered frequencies of community formation, and offer us a sense of the role of physical and social topography in shaping Harlem’s political, intellectual, cultural, and economic character.


[i] Stephen Robertson, Shane White, and Stephen Garton, “Harlem in Black and White: Mapping Race and Place in the 1920s,” Journal of Urban History 39 5 (2013), 864-80, at 866.

[ii] This term was coined and popularized by the Black Panther Party about Oakland, California, but has, I think, application to Garvey’s vision of Harlem. On the Panthers see Robert O. Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton, 2003).

[iii] Rodger Birt, ‘For the Record: James Van Der Zee, Marcus Garvey, and the UNIA Photographs,’ International Review of African American Art (Summer, 1989), 39-48, at 42 and 43.

[iv] On the former see Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance Beyond Harlem, ed. Davarian Baldwin and Minkah Makalani (Minneapolis, 2013); on the latter, see Cheryl Wall, ‘Harlem as Culture Capital in 1920s African American Fiction,’ in Race Capital? Harlem as Setting and Symbol, ed. Andrew M. Fearnley and Daniel Matlin (New York, 2018),165.

[v] Adam McKible and Suzanne Churchill, ‘Introduction: In Conversation: The Harlem Renaissance and the New Modernist Studies,’ Modernism/ Modernity 20 (Sept. 2013): 427-31, at 427.

[vi] Shannon King, Whose Harlem is this, Anyway? Community Politics and Grassroots Activism during the New Negro Era (New York, 2015), 4.

[vii] John Metzger, ‘Rebuilding Harlem: Public Housing and Urban Renewal, 1920-1960,’ Planning Perspectives 9 3 (1994): 255-96, at at 278.

[viii] N. D. B. Connolly, A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crown South Florida (Chicago, 2014), 4. On the place of public housing in New York City’s black communities, see Martha Biondi, To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City (Cambridge, MA, 2003).

[ix] Paula Massood, Making a Promised Land: Harlem in Twentieth-Century Photography and Film (New Brunswick, NJ, 2013),87.