Harlem Slums as a Result of the Urbanization of America


Slums as a Result of the Urbanization of America

In comparison with the European urban heritage,
which stretches back roughly 5500 years, the American transformation from
village to city was achieved in an amazingly short space of time.

From the eighteenth century on, Americans experienced the painful yet rewarding
metamorphosis of an agrarian nation becoming an urban industrial giant
that left few of her political, economic, and social institutions untouched,
be they the farm, the factory, or the family. In 1790, for example,
only a little over 4 percent of the American population lived in cities;
today 70 percent of Americans live in urban areas. Richard Hofstadter
summed it up well: "The United States was born in the country and
has moved to the city (Handlin 3)."

The rough, harsh and crowded lives of the

Harlem slums and discrimination against Negroes are just a few of the many
results of the urbanization of America. Negroes moved to the city, away
from their farm lives, to work in factories as America industrialized.

With all the Negroes and other immigrants coming to Industrialized parts
of America Negro communities, such as Harlem, were formed. With the
slums came discrimination for the Negro migrants. The white people,
who had occupied industrial cities first, saw Negroes as lesser beings.

They believed that it was okay for them to be treated unfairly due to the
color of their skin. This was the belief that parents of white children
wanted them to have. It was documented that children who intermingled
with Negroes at some public schools saw them to be okay and decent, but
the parents of these children discouraged this kind of thinking and told
their children that they had had the wrong attitude towards Negroes.

As a result of blacks in some public schools, many white children were
sent to private schools. This was just the beginning of discrimination
towards black people during the Urbanization of America.

The following quotation suggests the whites
superiority over the inferior Negroes:

I have no prejudice against the colored
people. I have always had colored servants and nurse girls for my
children and I like them. I have never known them to be dishonest.

My husband employs seven colored men and his experience has been the same
as mine. I don't care to live next door to a colored family or across
the street and if they do come to this side of Raymond, I certainly will
move out.

The Negroes were further discriminated
due to the fact that the white people said that the value of their property
would decrease if they had Negro neighbors. Neighbors in a white
community would stand together in the sense that they all agreed that they
would not sell their homes to a Negro for their own selfish sakes.

This is another reason why Harlem slums grew and yet another example of
discrimination towards the Negroes.

The creation of a Negro community within
one large and solid geographic area was unique in city history. New

York had never been what realtors call an "open city", a city in which

Negroes lived wherever they chose, but the former Negro sections were traditionally
only a few blocks in length, often spread across the island and generally
interspersed with residences of white working-class families. Harlem,
however, was a Negro world unto itself. A scattered handful of "marooned
white families...stubbornly remained" in the Negro section, a Unites States
census-taker recorded, but the mid-belly of Harlem was predominantly Negro
by 1920 (Frazier 53).

And the ghetto rapidly expanded.

Between the First World War and the Great Depression, Harlem underwent
radical changes. Practically all the older white residents had moved
away; the Russian Jewish and Italian sections of Harlem, founded a short
generation earlier, were rapidly being depopulated; and Negro Harlem, within
the space of ten years, became the most "incredible slum" in the entire
city. In 1920 James Weldon Johnson was able to predict a glowing
future for this Negro community: "have you ever stopped to think
what the future Harlem will be?" he wrote. "It will be the greatest

Negro City in the world. And what fine part of New York City has
come into possession of" (Johnson 345)! By the late 1920's,
however, Harlem's former "high-class" homes offered, in the words of a
housing expert, "the best laboratory for slum clearance...in the entire city."

"Harlem conditions," a New York Times reporter concluded, are "simply deplorable"(Nail


The Harlem slum was the product of a few
major urban developments. One of the most important was the deluge
of Negro migration to New York City then. The Negro press,