10 Incredible Then-And-Now Photos of Harlem

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Harlem will celebrate this year the 100th anniversary of its golden era: the Harlem Renaissance. Let us go back in time to look at the storied past and transformation of our most beloved NYC neighborhood! Before it became a Manhattan neighborhood, Harlem was actually a village named Nieuw Haarlem, named by the Dutch. It has ever since kept its independent spirit and its own culture, feeling like an entire new world from the rest of Manhattan. Read on to explore the riveting evolution of the neighborhood through a collection of then-and-now photos of Harlem.

Harlem’s golden age started in the 1920’s: an extraordinary era for arts, music, and literature called the Harlem Renaissance. Back then, the neighborhood was mostly inhabited by African-Americans, as it had become home to renowned Black writers, intellectuals, and progressive thinkers. It was also the time of iconic jazz artists such as Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and famous Harlem Jazz clubs like the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater.

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Left: Night view of the Apollo Theatre marquee, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948 – Photo: William P. Gottlieb (public domain)
Right: the Apollo Marquee today, Wikimedia
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The Famous Cotton Club presents Dan Healy’s Cotton Club on Parade
with Cab Calloway and his famous Cotton Club Orchestra, New York Public Library (public domain)

In the 50’s and 60’s, the neighborhood slowly started to become dominated by poverty, delinquency and increased crime. It was also the time of the rise of charismatic Black leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, who fought for equal rights for Black people. The Civil Rights movement also took form in local churches. This movement  slowly multiplied throughout the neighborhood. Gospel music then came into its own, while people gathered in churches to find peace and comfort. Today, we can still count over 400 churches in Harlem!

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1936, Church of God 25 East 132nd Street, Harlem – Photo : New York Public Library (public domain)
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Left: Exterior of the Abyssinian Church, 1936, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints division (public domain) / Right: The Abyssinian Church today, Fotolia

Harlem began to rise in the 90’s. Ambitious projects were launched to rehabilitate urban spaces, renovate streets and take down insalubrious buildings. More stores began opening and an increased police presence began to curb drug crime in the neighborhood.

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Left: 1939, View of Harlem storefronts, Photo: Sig Grossman, NY Public Library (public domain) / Right: Harlem streets today, Photo: Roberto Faccenda, FlickrCC
Harlem housefronts then and now
Left: 1935-1939, Harlem Tenement in Summer, Photo: NY Public Library Public domain
Right: Harlem housefront in Summer 2020, Photo: Harlem Spirituals

Today, thanks to the general renovation of the neighborhood and its “new face,” Harlem has become more and more attractive, seducing investors and visitors alike. With the security issue gone, people can now wander the streets of Harlem in peace, to discover its unique atmosphere, attend a Gospel service in one the local churches, have lunch or a drink in a trendy bar or restaurant (and have a taste of its delicious Soul Food!), or admire the neighborhood architectural treasures.


There is so much more to do and see in New York! We hope you enjoyed watching these photos of Harlem. If you are interested in Harlem history and want to learn more about this fascinating neighborhood, join us on our Harlem Gospel Tours or Harlem Jazz Tours.  Also, if you are interested in finding more to do in New York City, search through our complete range of tours, attractions and activities. We can also tailor-make programs specifically to match your desires and budgets. Harlem Spirituals is the ideal one-stop-shop to simplify your planning! Find more information on www.harlemspirituals.com.


During the whole month of February to celebrate Black History, we will publish a series of articles honoring African American culture and history. Stay tuned for more!

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