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ZipUSA: Harlem, New York

By Charles E. Cobb, Jr. Photographs by David Alan Harvey

Long a mecca for African Americans and foreign tourists, Harlem hits a high note as yuppies and developers sing its praises. Residents are a bit worried.

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Hardworking Southern newcomers formed the bulk of the community back in the 1920s and ’30s, when Harlem Renaissance artists, writers, and intellectuals gave it a glitter and renown that made it the capital of black America. From Harlem, W. E. B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Zora Neal Hurston, and others helped power America’s cultural influence around the world. Style counted too.

“You put on your good clothes and strolled up Seventh Avenue,” says Lorraine Hale, recalling her mother’s words. “Overalls and jeans,” sniffs Bobby Robinson, “those were work clothes.” He owns a record shop called Bobby’s Happy House that pumps oldies but goodies like Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia” and Frankie Lymon’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” out to the sidewalk.

By the 1970s and ’80s drugs and crime had ravaged parts of the community. In 1990 a surgeon at Harlem Hospital and a professor at Columbia University wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine that the life expectancy for men in Harlem was less than that of men in Bangladesh. Harlem had become a symbol of the dangers of inner-city life.

Now, you want to shout “Lookin’ good!” at this place that has been neglected for so long. Crowds push into Harlem USA, a new shopping center on 125th, where a Disney store shares space with HMV Records, the New York Sports Club, and a nine-screen Magic Johnson theater complex. Nearby, a Rite Aid drugstore and Blockbuster also opened. Maybe part of the reason Harlem seems to be undergoing a rebirth is that it is finally getting what most people take for granted.

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How can culture-infused communities hold onto ethnic tradition in the midst of gentrification? What places do you know that have changed gracefully? Tell us about them.

NOMINATE your own wonderful, weird, or wacky choice for coverage in this new magazine series.

E-greet a friend with a postcard from Harlem.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

When Fidel Castro visited New York City in 1960, he chose to stay at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem and met with prominent black leaders including Malcolm X and Langston Hughes. To this day Castro holds Harlem in high regard. When a trip brought him to the United Nations last year, he took time out to speak at a church in Harlem because he knew it was where he would find his “best friends.”

—Christine Ullrich

Home to Harlem
Experience the pulse of Harlem, from popular churches to hip jazz clubs, at this comprehensive website.

Schomburg Center for Research into Black Culture
Known to many as the black capital of America, Harlem has been home to important African-American writers, philosophers, and politicians. The Schomburg Center, part of the New York Public Library, focuses on the history of Harlem from 1900 through 1940. Its website includes photographs, literature, and archival material.

Hale House
Hale House was founded by Lorraine Hale, then a school psychologist, and her mother, Clara Hale, in 1969. For more than 30 years Hale House has continued to care for babies and toddlers whose parents are addicted to drugs.

Census Info Online
Do you want to find out facts about your zip code? Click on STF3B-zip codes and view the Decennial Census online. Enter your zip code and find featured statistics about where you live.


Bailey, A. Peter. Harlem Today: A Cultural and Visitors’ Guide. Gumbs and Thomas Publishers, Inc., 1994.

Dolkart, Andrew S. and Gretchen S. Sorin. Touring Historic Harlem: Four Walks in Northern Manhattan. New York Landmarks Conservancy, 1997.

Hughes, Dorothy Pitman. Wake Up and Smell the Dollars: Whose Inner City Is This Anyway? Amber Books, 2000.

Strickland, William. Malcolm X: Make It Plain. Viking, 1994.


Swerdlow, Joel L. “Tale of Three Cities,” National Geographic (August 1999), 34-61.

Durham, Michael S. The National Geographic Traveler: New York. National Geographic Books, 1999.

Yeadon, David. “East Side, West Side, All Around the Town: New York Neighborhoods,” National Geographic Traveler (January/February 1997), 84-101.

Van Dyk, Jere. “Growing Up in East Harlem,” National Geographic (May 1990), 52-75.

Gore, Rick. “Broadway, Street of Dreams,” National Geographic (September 1990), 57-87.

Hall, Alice J. “Brooklyn: The Other Side of the Bridge,” National Geographic (May 1983), 580-613.

Hercules, Frank. “To Live in Harlem...,” National Geographic (February 1977), 178-207.


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