From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Harlem is a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Manhattan, long known as a major black cultural and business center. After being associated for much of the twentieth century with black culture, but also crime and poverty, it is now experiencing a social and economic renaissance.
As a center of black life
In the 1920s, Harlem was the center of a flowering of black culture that became known as the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was a time of amazing artistic production, but ironically, blacks were sometimes excluded from viewing what their peers were creating. Some jazz venues, including most famously the Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington played, were restricted to whites only. Others, including the Renaissance Ballroom and the Savoy Ballroom, were integrated.
This period of Harlem's history has been highly romanticized since the 1920s, though it was the time when the neighborhood began to become a slum, and some of the storied traditions of the Harlem Renaissance were driven by poverty, crime, or other social ills. For example, in this period, Harlem became known for "rent parties," informal gatherings in which bootleg alcohol was served, and music played. Neighbors paid to attend, and thus enabled the host to make his or her monthly rent. Though picturesque, these parties were thrown out of necessity. Further, over a quarter of black households in Harlem made their monthly rent by taking in lodgers, who sometimes brought bad habits or even crime that disrupted the lives of respectable families. Urban reformers campaigned to eliminate the "lodger evil" but the problem got worse before it got better; in 1940, 40% of black families in Harlem were taking in lodgers.