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West Harlem extends from 110th to 157th Street, bounded by Saint Nicholas Avenue to the east and the wide Hudson River to the west, and includes the smaller neighborhoods of Morningside Heights, Manhattanville, and Hamilton Heights-Sugar Hill. Contrary to Harlem’s outdated reputation, West Harlem is one of the most picturesque and diverse neighborhoods in New York City. 

This iconic area has experienced many changes due to recent community development initiatives in recent years, which has helped retain the neighborhood’s varied ethnic population, character with quiet, tree lined streets, historic buildings & museums, cultural institutions, and magnificent turn-of-the-century row houses.

About and Why West Harlem 

West of Central & East Harlem are the distinct and discrete neighborhoods of Morningside Heights, Manhattanville, and Hamilton Heights, which have had bestowed on them, by affinity and geography, the all-encompassing moniker of West Harlem.  

Onto its steep slopes and rolling hills as one heads northwest from Central Park, West Harlem would seem to begin at 110th Street, but many believe its most southern border to be West 96th Street.  Its natural northern border reaches the bottom incline or valley where Hamilton Heights meets Washington Heights at 157th Street, even though the “district” border places it at 155th Street.

Its longitudinal boundaries are also a matter of topography, with the rising flat lands of Central Harlem to its East and the tidal estuary of the Hudson River to its West.  The various north-to-south avenues and parkways act like the base of pedestal hills, shouldering West Harlem like a modern-day acropolis.  Except for the valley and ancient fault line that is Manhattanville, which bisects and separates the two plateaus, providing a sea-level corridor to Central Harlem from the Hudson River at 125th Street, West Harlem can generally be said to be “in the Heights.”

Each of these neighborhoods, though, has contributed uniquely to the economic and cultural history of greater Harlem and have developed a strong identity of their own.  Links below provide a glimpse into their fascinating and complex history and present-day vibe.

West Harlem – Arts

While its hilly landscape makes it physically distinct from the lowlands of Central & East Harlem, West Harlem shares a keen propinquity with its more storied siblings, especially in the Arts.  

Indeed, throughout all its varied history – from its bucolic, rural beginnings to its classical development of elegantly lined brownstones, townhouses, & cityscapes, and through City cycles of economic booms and busts – one of West Harlem’s most enduring characteristic has always been as an affordable haven and home for the arts and artist.

At the turn of the last century, early residents were middle-class, professional people and their families, either native-born or immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and Italy.  Even then, West Harlem was home to some notable artists and impresarios. James A. Bailey of the famed Barnum & Bailey Circus built a large freestanding limestone mansion on 10 St. Nicholas Place.  

Norman Rockwell, America’s great illustrator, lived with his parents, from age three to seven at 789 St. Nicholas Avenue. The impresario Oscar Hammerstein I lived at 333 Edgecombe Avenue. George Gershwin wrote his first hit song “Swanee” at his residence at 520 West 144 street in 1919.

In the 1920s and 1930s, as Harlem became the Black cultural Mecca of the nation, with Central Harlem the crucible of the Harlem Renaissance, West Harlem became the residence of many of its elite cultural figures.  Most exclusive was the address 409 and 555 Edgecombe Avenue which housed important residents such as singer Julius Bledsoe, the original Joe in Showboat; William Braithwaite, poet and novelist; Eunice Carter, one New York State’s first African-American judges; May Chinn, a pioneering physician; Aaron Douglas, the great muralist; W.E.B. DuBois, founder of the NAACP and editor of Crisis; and Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. Number 555 boasted actor and political activist Paul Robeson, and legendary jazz pianist Count Basie.

Here are some of the most notable artists and cultural leaders that grew up, lived and worked in West Harlem…some may come as a surprise…  

A$AP Ferg, rapper •  Abraham E. Lefcourt, clothing manufacturer/developer •  Alexander Hamilton, US Secretary of the Treasury •  Allen Ginsberg, poet •  Álvaro Enrigue, writer •  Benito Emmanuel Garcia “Messiah”, rapper •  Beverly Peer, double bassist •  Carrie Chapman Catt,  suffragist •  Cecil B. DeMille, film director •  Coleman Hawkins, tenor saxophonist •  Count Basie, musician •  David Torrence, actor •  Diahann Carroll, singer, actress •  Duke Ellington,  composer/musician •  Elliott Carter, composer •  Ely Jacques Kahn, architect •  Federico García Lorca, poet/dramatist •  F. Scott Fitzgerald, novelist •  Fiona Apple,  singer/songwriter •  Francis X. Bushman, film director •  George Carlin, comedian •  George Gershwin, composer/pianist •  Grantland Rice, sportswriter •  Harry Belafonte, singer/activist •  Jack Kerouac, novelist •  John Dewey, academic •  Juelz Santana, rapper & musician •  Lena Horne, singer •  Malcolm X, civil rights activist •  Marcus Loew,  film director •  Nicholas Teliatnikow, photojournalist •  Norman Rockwell, artist •  Oscar Hammerstein I, composer/empresario •  Oscar Hijuelos, novelist •  Owen Davis, dramatist •  Ralph Ellison, novelist/critic •  Theodore E. Ferris, architect/engineer •  Theodore Roberts, actor •  Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice •  Valeria Luiselli, author •  Walter S. Trumbull, sportswriter.

The Post War II era, during the late 1940s, 50s and 60s, West Harlem saw a gradual decline, suffering a fate like the rest of the City, with flight to the suburbs, poor building maintenance, and abandonment of property.  Probably West Harlem’s most notable resident at the time was American writer, literary critic and scholar Ralph Ellison, best known for his groundbreaking novel, Invisible Man, who lived on 150th Street and Riverside Drive.  A park and monument near his home is dedicated to Ellison which stands today as a large bronze slab with a cut-out man figure inspired by his first novel.

Despite this decline, West Harlem retained its remarkable beauty and started its own rise in the fervent 60s to house not only artists, but also arts organizations. As many local residents and institutions sought to continue and build upon the legacy of Harlem’s rich cultural heritage, West Harlem found itself amid what some might describe as a second Renaissance. 

Centro Civico Cultural Dominicano was founded in 1962 with a mission to celebrate our arts and culture and for the empowerment of the Dominican, Latinx, and African-American community politically, professionally, educationally, culturally, and artistically.  The CCCD has and still is a gathering space for community artists, photographers, sculptors, and offers literary and performing arts programs in creative writing, cinema and theater.  CCCD is a testament to the potential and tenacity of the Dominican people in West Harlem. Within the last fifty plus years, CCCD has had a deep commitment to demand active integration into the establishment, without disengaging from their culture and heritage.

In 1968, Arthur Mitchell established the Dance Theatre of Harlem, finding a permanent home at 466 West 152nd Street in 1971.  As a “neo-classical ballet company,” Dance Theatre of Harlem broke racial and political boundaries, to worldwide acclaim. They were the first American ballet company to perform in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Dance Theatre of Harlem is not just a ballet company or trailblazing cultural institution, but an elegant example of what is possible when an inclusive approach to art is allowed to evolve and thrive.

Other arts organizations that have impacted upon the revitalization of West Harlem include the Harlem School of the Arts (HSA) established at 645 St. Nicholas Avenue in 1977.  Originally founded in 1964 by internationally acclaimed concert soprano Dorothy Maynor, inspired by her fervent belief that world-class training in the arts stimulates the child, strengthens the family and gives pride of ownership to the community. She opened HSA in the basement of the St. James Presbyterian Church, not far from its present location, at a time when the community suffered severe physical blight, high levels of poverty, and offered few cultural resources for its young people. From toddlers to adults, the students who came through its doors developed an invaluable sense of purpose and focus, whether or not they pursued professional careers in the arts.

Originally founded in 1969 by renowned artist, the late Betty Blayton Taylor, as a community outreach program of the Museum of Modern Art, the Children’s Art Carnival (CAC) has served Harlem and the New York Community from its brownstone on Hamilton Terrace since 1972.  Although CAC’s original mission was tightly focused on the education of young people in the arts, since Blayton-Taylor’s passing the CAC broadened its scope to address the creative and professional development needs of the community’s emerging artists.  CAC now places the artist at the center of its efforts, offering space to pursue their work while shaping the design of participatory programs for community members. CAC provides a range of activities within the visual arts including participatory arts workshops and classes; visual arts exhibitions, the Hamilton Heights Darkroom initiative for aspiring photographers, professional development opportunities for emerging artists, community engagement programs, partnerships with area arts/cultural and community groups; and and a pilot artist workspace program serving West Harlem artists.

Along with West Harlem educational institutions like City College and Columbia University and their increasing expansion and development, a whole new slew of art activities, traditional and nontraditional venues have dotted the whole of West Harlem.  And while West Harlem has seen great changes in its ethnic and racial makeup over the years, these large cultural shifts not only serve as a catalyst for social and political change, but have sparked new forms of creative and artistic expression. 

Now, as one of the most culturally, ethnically, and economically varied in all of New York City, West Harlem still serves as an incubator where musicians and dancers, scholars and writers, painters, and sculptors, ply their craft within its many theaters, dance halls, social clubs, studios, churches, newspapers, and publishers – venues that continue to ferment and distill the intellectual and cultural revival of the visual arts, music, dance, fashion, literature, theater, politics and scholarship. 

Here,  an unofficial list of arts organizations and venues that conduct activities to the public and which are making West Harlem the home of the Arts.

Aaron Davis Hall Gallery and Studio Theatres • Alfred Lerner Hall • The American Academy of Arts • Aronow Theater • Broadway Presbyterian Church • Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine • Caribbean Fine Art • Centro Civico Cultural Dominicano • Children’s Art Carnival • Church of the Intercession Arts Space • Compton-Goethals Hall Art Gallery • Crafts Online Gallery • CUNY Dominican Studies Institute • Dance Theatre of Harlem • Diaspora Now Gallery • Earl Hall Gordon K. and Harriet Greenfield Hall • Francisco Chapman-Veloz Gallery • The Forum • Grand Slam Ballroom • Gordon K. and Harriet Greenfield Hall • The Hamilton Dark Room • Hamilton Landmark Gallery • Hamilton Theatre • The Hispanic Society Museum & Library • The Gateway 151 • General Grant National Memorial • Harlem Arts Project Harlem • Harlem One Stop • School of the Arts • Harlem Stage • Horace Mann Theater •  Jackie Robinson Recreation Center • Kids Make a Difference •  KOTA Alliance Gallery • LeRoy Neiman Gallery • Macy Art Gallery • Manhattanville Community Center • Marian Anderson Theatre at Aaron Davis Hall • Martinez Gallery • Miller Theatre • The Mink Building • Minor Latham Playhouse • Montefiore Park Plaza • Morris A Schapiro Hall • Nash Columbia Theatre Studio Space • Neidorff-Karpati Hall • Old Croton Gatehouse • Rio Gallery I Ft Washington • Rio Gallery II Dorothy Day • Rio Gallery III Sugar Hill • Riverside Church Theater •  Shepard Hall • Smith Learning Theater • Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art • Storytelling • Sugar Hill Works • Letters • Museum of Art and Origins • The Wallach Art Gallery • Union Theological Seminary • 

It cannot be overemphasized or underscored enough that West Harlem owes much of its current revival to the greater history and impact of the Harlem Renaissance, which has made countless contributions to the cultural, artistic, musical, and literary landscape of not only New York, but to the United States and abroad.  

Much of West Harlem’s success and current trajectory in the Arts is only possible by the path that was laid by the giants of the Harlem Renaissance, as it continues to be home to a vibrant and robust community of artists and arts organizations.

Be a part of it

List your services to the West Harlem Artist Directory

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