Tracing 350 Years of Harlem’s Ever-Shifting Boundaries | Curbed NY

by Keith Williams

Some neighborhood names appear to be jokes. Some have stuck around for centuries, despite changing connotations. Some shift with the winds of gentrification. Welcome to Blurred Lines, in which writer Keith Williams studies New York City’s changing neighborhood boundaries.

1868 map illustrating the 1776 Battle of Harlem Heights

[1868 map illustrating the 1776 Battle of Harlem Heights via Wikimedia Commons.]

Ask a handful New Yorkers to define the southern boundary of Harlem and you’ll likely get a few different responses. The most popular, in my unscientific experience, is 96th Street east of Central Park and 110th Street elsewhere. A few old-timers will claim it used to dive down to 96th Street on the West Side, and other people contend that the presence of Columbia University disqualifies Morningside Heights from consideration. In recent years, development east of Central Park and north of 96th Street has caused some to question whether that area should now be considered part of the Upper East Side. I’ve never heard anyone, however, claim that the Harlem of today matches its original boundaries; when it was officially chartered in 1660, its southern border stretched from today’s 129th Street on the Hudson to 74th Street on the East River.

The first homestead in the area we know as Harlem was established in 1639. Called Zedendaal, “Blessed Valley,” it was staked by settler Jochem Pietersen Kuyter, and ran along the Harlem River from present day 127th Street to 140th Street. The native Manhattan and Lenape tribes that lived in the area would attack from time to time, and the settlers would retreat back to the safety of walled-off New Amsterdam in lower Manhattan. For a couple decades, it was rough going, with multiple wars being waged between settlers and natives, and the land was largely abandoned for a period, but by the late 1650s, the Dutch were once again keen to expand Nieuw Netherland. Peter Stuyvesant was now leading the colony, and he formally established Nieuw Haarlem, the miniature empire’s second settlement in 1658.

Read more: Tracing 350 Years of Harlem’s Ever-Shifting Boundaries | Curbed NY


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