Harlem is a legendary corner of the earth, in a legendary city. New York City. Some of the most important movements of the 20th century were centered in Harlem. Civil Rights. Jazz music. The Harlem Renaissance.
Harlem is vibrant with life at every crosswalk. But is Harlem a safe place? Sometimes reputations and stereotypes can exaggerate the situation. This article will dig for the truth about how safe South Harlem actually is.
To get to the bottom of the question, first you must be aware that Harlem is a big area that spans both the Upper West and Upper East sides. It is actually split into zones: West Harlem, East Harlem – also known as Spanish Harlem – and Central Harlem, which encompasses South Harlem. This article will focus on safety factors in South and Central Harlem.
What Is Considered South Harlem
South Harlem is located on the main artery of New York City, the borough called Manhattan. There are five boroughs in New York City. Manhattan is one of two islands that make up New York City.
Harlem is considered uptown Manhattan. Central and South Harlem are on the upper west side. The borders are Harlem River on the North. Central Park to the South, Fifth Avenue to the East and Morningside Park to the West. We’ll explore the many parks in the neighborhood a little later.
Within these borders lies what is considered Harlem proper. Fun Fact! When developers were attempting to accelerate the gentrification of the neighborhood, they attempted to coin the term ‘SoHa’, but activists and residents rejected it. The term referred to the areas between 110th and 125th Street.
History of Harlem
Did you know? Harlem actually started as a Dutch village. Well, actually, before that, the land served as hunting and fishing spots for Native American tribes. Fun Fact! A Harlem exists in Holland too, but it’s spelled with two ‘A’s. This was also how the American version was spelled at first, before evolving into the modern spelling.
The British turned Harlem into a scorched wasteland during the American Revolution and it took some time to rebuild. Economic growth didn’t rebound until the mid-1800s. The boom was aided by rail transit lines, which brought poor immigrants to the area for work.
But it was during the Great Migration of the 1920s that Harlem became the symbol it is today. The Great Migration was when many southern Blacks transplanted east to escape the Jim Crow laws in the deep south. This brought about the artistic period known as the ‘Harlem Renaissance’.
These days, South Harlem, like many areas of Manhattan and the other four boroughs, is increasingly becoming gentrified. This is a positive development for safety concerns.
South Harlem Demographics
The population of Central Harlem, including South Harlem, hovers between 128,000 and 140,000. The three biggest ethnic groups are African-American, White and Hispanic.
African Americans make up a whopping forty-four percent of the population. Seventeen and a half percent of the population is white and another twenty seven percent is hispanic. Asians make up close to another four percent. The rest of the population are of mixed or other ethnicities.
The demographics of the area have been changing, with an increase in non-Hispanic white residents and a decrease in non-Hispanic Black residents between 2010 and 2020. However, the area still retains a significant Black population. Akia Mitchell, a senior director at a British advertising company, chose to start her family in South Harlem to maintain a connection to her Harlem roots.
The average household income is between forty five and fifty thousand dollars a year. The average age is mid to upper thirties. Almost a quarter of households are in the 100,000 to 250,000 USD a year income bracket.
Women make up fifty-three percent of the population. About a quarter of residents are foreign-born. The poverty rate is a little higher than the rest of the city as a whole. The city rate is eighteen percent, while in Harlem it is around twenty-eight percent.
South Harlem Real Estate
The majority of residents rent versus owning. Eighty-four percent, in fact, rent their homes, with only sixteen percent owning their homes.
Despite ongoing issues with drugs and homelessness, the neighborhood’s transformation has been remarkable. Lane Rettig, a manager at a blockchain start-up company, views the neighborhood’s transition as a positive development. He and his wife, Lily Rettig, a designer who works for Amazon, purchased their first home in South Harlem, attracted by the neighborhood’s diversity and proximity to Central Park.
The median rent in 2021 increased almost forty-four percent from 2006, to an average of thirteen hundred a month. You can find a one-bedroom for about 1,900 USD if you don’t mind climbing some stairs. But snap it up quick, it won’t be around long!
A quarter of residents are considered rent-burdened, which means they are spending more than half of their income on rent. Forty-two percent of housing units are considered affordable. South Harlem added the most number of housing units in the city in 2022.
Homeownership is another matter. The median sale price of homes in the neighborhood has increased over the past three years, reflecting the area’s growing appeal. However, prices can vary significantly, with affordable options available in Housing Development Fund Corporation (H.D.F.C.) buildings, which impose income restrictions on buyers. The average cost of owning a home is close to and often over one million dollars. It is increasing every year and will most likely reach 1.1 million soon.
Central and South Harlem are served by public transit, both by subway and bus. The average travel time for residents to work is thirty-eight minutes, a little higher than the citywide average of thirty-one percent. Half of all residents use public transit to get to work. Less than ten percent drive, carpool or cycle to work. Thirty-one percent of residents solve the problem by working at home. Another eight percent walk to work.
The primary subway lines serving the area are the 2 and 3 local lines. The A,B,C, and D trains also make some stops, while a little farther east you can catch the 4 or 5 local lines along Lexington Avenue. They are all operated by New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
There is also a Metro-North commuter rail station nearby.
A Healthy Harlem
Close to eighty percent of residents describe their health as ‘good’, very good’ or ‘excellent’, a smidgen higher than the citywide average. While, on the other hand, closer to seventy percent claim to eat fruits and vegetables everyday, a smidgen less than the citywide average.
Air pollution is slightly higher than the citywide average, though the percentage of residents who are smokers is less than the citywide average. Health rates in Harlem are disproportionately affected by social factors, most of which are classified as ‘avoidable causes’.
Forty-five percent of residents have health coverage through their employers. Thirty-four percent are covered by Medicaid. Only between six and seven percent of residents are uninsured.
If you are in need of care at a hospital, the nearest hospital is Harlem Hospital Center, a member of the NYC Health+Hospitals Network. This two hundred seventy two bed facility is affiliated with Columbia University and in the past was used for holding patients on the way to Bellevue psychiatric hospital.
Is South Harlem Safe?
South Harlem is significantly safer than other areas of Harlem. The twenty-eighth precinct of the New York City Police Department patrols it. In the latest statistics, robberies are up a bit but felony assaults and grand larcenies are declining.
Overall, crime has decreased by more than seventy percent in the area in the past thirty years. Property Crime is lower than in Manhattan as a whole, but a bit higher than the average including all five boroughs. However, the violent crime rate is significantly higher in both Manhattan and when all of the five boroughs included.
Eighty percent of residents report feeling pretty or very safe. Almost half say that police are pretty visible, but sometimes slow to respond. Only a quarter say police are very responsive.
The neighborhood is also served by police-appointed Neighborhood Coordination officers, who can be identified from the web page of the precinct.
Local residents offer two main pieces of advice for avoiding crime and staying safe, which double as words of wisdom for new residents: Go about your business and get to know your neighbors. They also say be prepared to pay high rents.
Now you should be all ready and set to go and decide if South Harlem is the place for you!
*PLEASE NOTE: Some statistics are taken from sources covering both Central and South Harlem or Greater Harlem.
Is South Harlem Safe For Children?
Thirty-one percent of residents are married and twenty-two percent are families with children. About one-fifth of the population are children under 18.
Eighty-four percent of residents graduated high school and close to half possess some kind of bachelor’s degree or higher, ten percent more than the citywide average.
There are thirteen public schools operated by the New York City Department of Education, including P.S. 154 Harriet Tubman and P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth. Absenteeism rates are a little higher than the rest of the city. An unusually high number of students are enrolled in charter schools – more than one-third.
The best reason to consider raising a family in South Central is the proximity to all the parks. As noted in the boundaries section, South Harlem is bordered by two parks.
The first is Morningside Park, which encompasses thirteen city blocks. It blends the vibe of a community park with dramatic views. The park hosts an outdoor farmers market on Saturdays and baseball fields for local teams.
Even more impressive is Marcus Garvey Park, named after Black businessman and activist Marcus Garvey. You may recognize the park from the Oscar-winning Roots documentary ‘Summer Of Soul’. The park has a swimming pool, two playgrounds, and an amphitheater. Aerobics and meditation classes are offered throughout the summer. It is surrounded by breathtaking brownstones.
Finally, the historical landmark Central Park is just a stone’s throw away. It is an easy enough walk into the park to find an oasis in the middle of the big city – waterfalls.
You can also teach the kids to eat healthy. Besides the farmers market in Morningside Park, there is a Whole Foods and a Trader Joes at the main intersection of 125th street and Lenox, which is a busy commercial and artistic district. There’s a Target, too!
The neighborhood also hosts the Eat Up! Festival annually, among other cultural events. Finally, there is the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market. It’s a little slice of West Africa in this urban capital.
There is a lot of culture to which you can expose your children in South Harlem. Attractions include The Apollo Theatre, where some of the most celebrated artists, performers and entertainers of the last century played or even got their start. There is also the Studio Museum, a haven for African art and culture.
There are also four library branches operated by the New York Public Library system, one named after Harry Belafonte. Rest in Peace, Mr. Belafonte!
The Politics Of Harlem
Central and South Harlem is managed by Manhattan Community Board 10. Central and South Harlem are covered nationally by the 13th Congressional District and are represented by Senators Charles Schumer and Kristen Gillebrand, both democrats. Schumer is the majority leader of the U.S. Senate.
Closing out political representation is the New York City Council 9th District and Kristin Richardson Jordan, a third generation Harlemite.
Born and raised amidst the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple, I’ve witnessed the city’s many exciting phases. When I’m not exploring the city or penning down my thoughts, you can find me sipping on a cup of coffee at my favorite local café, playing chess or planning my next trip. For the last twelve years, I’ve been living in South Williamsburg with my partner Berenike.