The first settlement in what is now Harlem was by Dutch settlers and was formalized in 1658 as Nieuw Haarlem (or New Haarlem), after the Dutch city of Haarlem). The Indian trail to Harlem's lush bottomland meadows was rebuilt by the Dutch West India Company's black slaves and eventually developed into the Boston Post Road. In 1664, the English took control of the New Netherland colony and renamed the town Harlem. As New York City grew, it eventually incorporated Harlem.
In the 19th century, Harlem was a place of farms, such as James Roosevelt's, east of Fifth Avenue between 110th and 125th Streets, now the heart of Spanish (actually Latin-American) Harlem. Country estates were largely on the heights overlooking the Hudson to the west of Harlem. Service connecting the suburb of Harlem with New York was by steamboat on the East River, an hour and a half's passage, sometimes interrupted when the river froze in winter, or else by stagecoach along the Boston Post Road, which descended from McGown's Pass (now in Central Park) and skirted the saltmarshes around 110th Street, to pass through Harlem. The New York and Harlem Rail Road was incorporated in 1831, to better link the city with the suburb, starting at a depot at East 23rd Street. It was extended 127 miles north to a railroad junction in Columbia County at Chatham, New York by 1851. Harlem was developing into an extensive, somewhat ramshackle suburb.
Elevated railroads were extended to Harlem in 1880. With the construction of the els, urbanized development occurred very rapidly, with townhouses, apartments, and tenements springing up practically overnight. Early entrepreneurs had grandiose schemes for Harlem: Polo was actually played at the Polo Grounds (later more famous as a baseball stadium) and Oscar Hammerstein opened the Harlem Opera House on East 125th Street in 1889. Fine townhouses by first-rank architects survive in the Sugar Hill section, west of 8th Avenue between 137th and 155th Streets. But by the early 1900s, Harlem's population was German, German Jewish, and Eastern European Jewish. In common with many other Jewish neighborhoods, Jewish Harlem was an ephemeral entity. By 1930, only 5,000 Jews remained, down from a 1917 peak population of 150,000. The area of Harlem by the East River, now known as Spanish Harlem, became occupied by Italians. Italian Harlem is gone as well, though it lasted longer than Jewish Harlem.
The first blacks to come to Harlem came in the early 1900s, the first ones affiliated with St. Philip's Episcopal church. Before living in Harlem, most of Manhattan's blacks had lived in the neighborhoods called the Tenderloin, San Juan Hill (west of Columbus Circle) and Hell's Kitchen in the west 40s. By 1919 the black population of Harlem had quadrupled.
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, many blacks were excluded from what they were creating. Many jazz venues, like Small's and the Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington played, were restricted to whites only.
In the post-World War II era, Harlem ceased to be home to a majority of NYC's blacks, but it remained the cultural and political capital of black New York, and possibly black America. Harlem was spared the riots that ruined other black neighborhoods in the 1960s, maintained its housing stock, and began to see gentrification in the 1990s, much of it by black professionals.