They were called “human hives.” Cramped and overcrowded, the dilapidated tenements lacked basics like heat and hot running water. There were no private bathrooms. The ceilings leaked. Rooms were infested with pests.

Yet, nearly 5,000 mostly Black residents were crammed into the tight quarters — a neighborhood known as the Tenderloin District of New York City.

Enter Philip A. Payton. Often considered the “Father of Harlem,” Payton is credited with transforming living conditions for African Americans in the early 1900s.

The son of a barber, Payton was a self-taught businessman on a mission to break into the real estate market and fight against the trend of relegating Black renters to slums. At the time, certain New York landlords were beginning to offer better apartments to a few “respectable Colored families,” who were able and willing to pay higher rents than Whites paid for the same units.  Meanwhile, bigoted Whites began moving out.  

But where some saw discrimination, Payton saw opportunity. He secured a job managing a rundown rental property for Coloreds, then convinced one of the landlords to award him the contract to lease some of the nicer flats to Colored tenants.  Soon, Payton had enough revenue to acquire his own buildings at a discount.  

Then along came a twist in fate. In 1904, the first subway line in New York City opened, turning the blocks between lower Manhattan and 145th street into prime real estate. Declaring that the vicinity had become upscale and off-limits to non-Whites, the company that owned buildings in that area evicted its four Black occupants.  

Immediately, Payton sprang into action. He acquired two nearby buildings and ordered the White tenants to vacate by the end of the month. He then offered those units to the displaced Black tenants. The rival company responded by offering to buy Payton’s Company. He refused, and the company sold off its holdings.

A triumphant Payton purchased the property they had attempted to gentrify. As a result, their disgruntled tenants moved out in droves, making room for Black families migrating from The South and the Caribbean. Instead of squalor, the newcomers ended up with comfortable housing, improved lives and a culturally vibrant community. Because of his vision and tenacity, Payton had single-handedly created a Black mecca — the Roaring 20s’ grandeur of Harlem. In the process, he sparked the greatest explosion of African American art, music, theater and literature in history – the infamous Harlem Renaissance.   

Let us honor his name and his legacy. Ase!

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