Amazing Vintage Photographs Capture Harlem Street Life in the Late 1930s

Harlem is a neighborhood in Upper Manhattan, New York City. It is bounded roughly by the Hudson River on the west; the Harlem River and 155th Street on the north; Fifth Avenue on the east; and Central Park North on the south. The greater Harlem area encompasses several other neighborhoods and extends west to the Hudson River, north to 155th Street, east to the East River, and south to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Central Park, and East 96th Street.

Originally a Dutch village, formally organized in 1658, it is named after the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands. Harlem’s history has been defined by a series of economic boom-and-bust cycles, with significant population shifts accompanying each cycle. Harlem was predominantly occupied by Jewish and Italian Americans in the 19th century, but African-American residents began to arrive in large numbers during the Great Migration in the 20th century. In the 1920s and 1930s, Central and West Harlem were the center of the Harlem Renaissance, a major African-American cultural movement. With job losses during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the deindustrialization of New York City after World War II, rates of crime and poverty increased significantly. In the 21st century, crime rates decreased significantly, and Harlem started to gentrify.

By the late 1930s, Harlem was a bustling cultural center, home to two thirds of New York City’s African-American population. The Harlem Renaissance, a robust period of literary and artistic expression, had helped put the neighborhood on the map, and a walk through its streets revealed stately houses of worship like the Abyssinian Baptist Church, a thriving music scene centered around the newly-minted Apollo Theater and esteemed institutions like the Amsterdam News.

But as much as energy poured from behind those establishments’ doors, life was just as vibrant, if not more so, on the streets directly outside them—and that is exactly where photographer Hansel Mieth took her camera while on assignment for LIFE magazine in 1938.

Two boys play-fight while other children look on, Harlem, 1938.
A young girl walks down the street in Harlem, 1938.
Young boys talk over the day’s news, Harlem, 1938.
Boys play a makeshift game of pool on a Harlem street, 1938.
A citrus stand is set up on a Harlem street, 1938.
A musician takes a break between songs, Harlem, 1938.
Men face off in stiff competition as boys look on, Harlem, 1938.
Harlem residents look on at an event taking place just outside the frame, 1938.
Children on a Harlem street, 1938.
Children march in a local parade in Harlem, 1938.
Three young boys hold hands, Harlem, 1938.

(Photos: Hansel Mieth—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

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