Updated: Jun 30, 2021
Being a third-generation Harlemite has given me the opportunity to experience decades of Harlem’s history firsthand. The town’s name came about during the immigration of the Dutch from the Netherlands. As they settled in Harlem, they took the initiative to incorporate the town sometime between 1658 and 1660 (historical information exists using both dates, so I’ll use that range). As the Dutch settled, most of Manhattan existed as farmland. Looking at Central Park, it’s not hard to imagine the rest of Manhattan island as farmland.
Since I wasn’t there in the 1600’s, I can only tell you about my historical remembrances starting from the sixties. As a kid here in Harlem I remember the City building the park I played in regularly – 139th Street Park (locally known as ‘39th Street Park). My most vivid memory is of one of the construction workers building the park, one of them was named Willie. He stands out in my mind because while most of the construction workers shooed us, curious kids, away, Willie took a little time to tell us about what he was doing. I realize now as an adult that he was putting his job at risk to do this, but at the end of his day around 3 pm, he would allow one or two of us to climb into the driver’s seat of his backhoe and act like we were on the job working. Fun times!
The historical significance of 139th Street Park is its place in the start of hip-hop—what we called it before it was called rap. The park was used for impromptu hip-hop concerts if you will. Many, many local DJs and hip-hop artists “came through” to pump up the crowds and handle their business in hip-hop battles. The Sugar Hill Gang, LL Cool J, Kool Mo Dee, Eric B & Rahkim and many others just showed up.
‘39th Street Park was also significant in getting kids off the street through participation in basketball programs like Each-One-Teach-One and City leagues associated with other neighborhoods like Rucker Park on 155th Street at the Polo Grounds (despite the name, the Polo Grounds have no horses, no polo clubs, and no riders—it’s the low-income housing development on 155th Street & 8th Avenue).
Hang around because there is so much more to come: discussing my experiences with Muhamad Ali, Sammy Davis Jr., Malcolm X, and many others... because Harlem was then and is today – the place to be.
-Dwight Richards, Founder